The current Israeli military approach to dealing with the steady stream of Qassam rocket fire and mortar rounds from the Gaza Strip is a kind of multiple military-political trade-off. It is not working. Hence the search for alternatives.
Currently, the IDF limits its response to pin-point attacks directed solely against perpetrators. It thereby maintains a relative balance of peace and quiet, though not in Sderot, which is effectively sacrificed to steady, low level attrition. This "tolerable" level of violence enables the government of Israel, in turn, to proceed with its negotiations with President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. Those negotiations, if successful, are intended to weaken Hamas politically.
Meanwhile, the United States is engaged in an attempt to build up Fateh’s military capabilities while Quartet envoy Tony Blair is charged with enhancing Palestinian Authority civilian institutions and Israel is asked to make security concessions on the West Bank, all with the objective of giving Abbas additional tools with which to strengthen his rule and weaken Hamas.
Thus far, there are three major problems with this strategy. For one, no one is particularly impressed with the effort being made by Abbas and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert to advance toward a genuine peace process. Then too, Hamas appears to be getting stronger, not weaker, in the Gaza Strip. And finally, Israeli casualties from the Qassams–a statistical inevitability even in this instance of an inaccurate terror weapon–are threatening the integrity of the entire complex process. This was evident last week in the heavy casualties at the Zikim military base; it is also reflected in the growing perception that successive governments of Israel, faced with the slow but steady decimation of an Israeli town, Sderot, whose only sin was to be built near the Gaza Strip, are incapable of fulfilling their basic obligation of protecting Israeli citizens.
This explains the growing pressures inside Israel to look at alternative military approaches to dealing with Gaza. At the same time, the generally acknowledged requirement that Qassam rocket fire be stopped at an acceptable price in terms of human lives and living conditions on both sides of the Gaza green line seriously constrains the options.
In the interest of clarity, we note that Hamas is a terrorist organization that preaches Israel’s destruction. Attacks against Israeli civilians from Hamas-governed Gaza are terrorism, pure and simple, and Hamas is responsible. Israel has the right to stop those attacks by any means. But those means should be proportional.
Cutting supplies of water, electricity and fuel to Gaza is extremely problematic from the humanitarian standpoint and in any case is unlikely to persuade Gazans to revolt against the Hamas leadership. By the same token, massive military retaliation in the form of heavy bombings and/or reoccupation would be extremely costly in human lives; reoccupation would be a giant step backward after the August 2005 withdrawal and would once again raise heavy moral issues, internationally and domestically, for Israelis.
This leaves Israel with one escalatory option that has proven successful in the past in radically reducing the motivation and capabilities of Gaza-based terrorist groups to attack Israeli civilians: decapitating the Hamas leadership, both military and "civilian". When Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abd al-Aziz Rantisi were assassinated in the spring of 2004, attacks stopped for about half a year.
Does this justify again considering the assassination option? On the downside, Israel would again undoubtedly pay a price in terms of international condemnation, particularly if innocent civilians were killed and injured in its attacks against Hamas leaders. There would at least temporarily be heightened levels of violence, including threats on the lives of Israeli leaders, as Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups in Gaza retaliated. Then too, this time Israel would presumably be targeting legally elected Hamas officials who won a fair election in January 2006; even during the previous round the moral legitimacy of assassinating non-elected Palestinian leaders was heavily debated. Finally, even past successes had no more than a temporary effect in terms of reducing Hamas’ ardor for attacking Israeli civilians.
On the other hand, this is a mode of retaliation and deterrence whose effectiveness has been proven: six months of peace and quiet should not be taken lightly. Compared to other tactics, it is relatively just and cost-free in terms of both Palestinian and Israeli lives and the basic Palestinian standard of living inside Gaza. International and Arab reaction is likely to be tempered by the perception that Hamas has since 2004 moved into the Iranian and Islamist radical orbit and that Israel is honoring its obligations toward the alternative and equally legitimate leadership of Mahmoud Abbas. In Israel, this approach would improve morale and stiffen the resistance of Sderot.
All in all, and given the limited and problematic alternatives, this is an option worth reconsidering, particularly if it were accompanied by an Israeli readiness to reopen the Gaza crossings and improve living conditions in the Strip, alongside substantive progress in Israel’s negotiations with Abbas.