Israel: A Turning Point

16 November 2006

Israel: A Turning Point

By Gwynne Dyer

“An equation has to be created in which it is not worth it for the Palestinians to fire,” said Eli Moyal, mayor of Sderot, after rockets fired from the Gaza Strip killed a 57-year-old woman and severely injured two young men (one of whom lost both legs) last Wednesday in the southern Israeli town. The logic is impeccable: hurt the Palestinians enough, and they will have to stop launching those rockets.

But the Israeli Defence Force hurt the Palestinians very badly indeed at the beginning of November, in Beit Hanoun, the town nearest to the launch sites of last Wednesday’s rockets. The operation lasted for a week, and it killed sixty Palestinians and injured 250. One Israeli soldier was killed. If that kill ratio doesn’t stop the rockets, what will?

Most of the Palestinians killed in Beit Hanoun were “militants”. That is to say, they were young men who had grown up under the Israeli occupation, and who were finally given the opportunity to fight the Israeli army in their own home town. This was merely an opportunity to die bravely but uselessly, since Kalashnikovs are not much use against tanks, but it made them feel really important for the last ten minutes of their lives.

Most of them were not involved in the launching of the homemade Qassam rockets against Sderot, because that is a rather specialised activity, but they certainly supported it. Anything to hurts the Israelis a little, even if it hurts Palestinians much more, is all right with most Palestinians. But until recently, it wasn’t actually hurting Israelis much at all.

Since the hopelessly inaccurate, homemade Qassams first began to fall on the Israel towns and villages near the Gaza Strip in 2000, they have killed a total of only nine Israelis. In just the four-week period from 26 June — 24 July, Israeli Defence Force actions in the Gaza Strip to stop the Qassam rocket fire caused the death of 126 Palestinians. According to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, sixty-three of them were not fighters, and twenty-nine of them were minors. The IDF says it never deliberately targets civilians, but it cannot be unaware that a high Palestinian death toll is a necessary part of the equation “in which it is not worth it for the Palestinians to fire.”

So its operations are less careful than they would be if the civilians in question were Israelis. Consider, for example, the Israeli artillery fire that killed nineteen members of the Athamna family in Beit Hanoun a few days after the armoured operation. “A technical failure,” said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and he was no doubt technically correct. But over 350 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip since mid-summer, versus two Israelis: one soldier killed in Beit Hanoun early this month, and one civilian killed in Sderot last Wednesday. Yet no amount of pain seems to deter the Palestinians, and now the rockets are getting accurate enough to hurt Israelis.

They are not as accurate as the modified Katyushas that Hezbollah fired at northern Israel last summer, but the ranges are a great deal shorter. Moreover, this is not taking place in the context of a war of limited duration, like the one last summer that was triggered by Hezbollah’s seizure of two Israeli soldiers and then escalated by massive Israeli air raids on Lebanon. That lasted a month; this is an everyday affair of local people fabricating and launching short-range missiles at nearby Israeli targets, and it could go on for years.

No doubt Israel can also go on shelling and bombing the Gaza Strip and making occasional armoured incursions like that at Beit Hanoun for years, and no doubt it can still count on killing twenty or fifty Palestinian fighters and civilians for every Israeli soldier or civilian who dies. But the Palestinians just don’t care any more.

That is not literally true. Of course they care when their kids (or their parents or sisters or brothers) are killed. But in the larger sense, most Palestinians, at least in the Gaza Strip, no longer care how high the price is; they have lost their fear. This poses a deadly danger for Israel, because it means that the traditional strategy of terrorising the Palestinians into submission no longer works.

Turning points do not normally announce themselves with great fanfares; you only realise that you have passed them some time later. But this year, for the first time, Israel failed to win a war (in Lebanon). For the first time in 39 years, Israel has really lost control of the Palestinians. And now the United States, after thirty years of military involvement, is on its way out of the Middle East. The American withdrawal from Iraq is still a year or two away, but the retreat will not stop there.

We are probably still twenty or thirty or even fifty years away from the day when Israel faces a real war for survival. Avoiding that is a very high priority even for Israel’s enemies, for a defeated Israel would certainly destroy the Arab world with nuclear weapons before it went under, and (if you believe the threats of some Israeli leaders) much of Europe as well. That outcome is still far from inevitable, but this is the year when the clock started ticking.


To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Most of the Palestinians…at all”)