In the past year, until the escalation of recent days, more than 800 rockets fell on and around Israeli towns and villages in the area bordering Gaza. Few foreign journalists have paid attention, and it’s hard to blame them. After all, there were no fatalities from those rocket attacks and, of the 30 or so Israelis who were wounded, few were seriously hurt. Even in the Israeli media, the reports of non-lethal rocket attacks have tended to become routine, almost banal.
Yet, for hundreds of thousands of Israelis, daily life has become defined by sirens and explosions. Routines are determined by proximity to safety: When a siren sounds, residents of southern Israel have 15 seconds to find shelter. Dozens of homes, factories and schools have been hit by missiles in the past year. Thousands suffer from varying degrees of trauma.
The purpose of firing primitive rockets into civilian neighbourhoods is not necessarily to kill or injure but to terrorize. The relative ineffectiveness of the rockets is, in some sense, the point: By waging low-level terror, Hamas embitters the lives of Israelis while preventing a resolute Israeli response, exposing Israeli helplessness. At what point does the Israeli government decide to defend its terrorized citizens and risk war – when a rocket hits a school bus?
The rocket attacks erode the public’s faith in the government’s ability to defend it. They weaken Israeli deterrence in an increasingly dangerous region. And the lack of drama – and, with it, the lack of media attention – ensures that, when Israel finally loses patience and retaliates, as it did this week, much of the world blames Israel, not Hamas, for escalating tensions.
Israelis know there’s no definitive military solution to the Gaza problem. If Israel were to topple the Hamas regime – at enormous cost to both Israeli and Palestinian lives – its replacement would likely be another radical regime.
The problem is, at least for now, there’s no political solution, either. Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist; under Hamas rule, Gaza’s children are taught to see Jews as satanic and their state as illegitimate. Hamas’s goal isn’t a two-state solution but a one-state solution, over the ruins of Israel.
And so we come back, inevitably, to containment, which means periodic escalation, followed by uneasy truce. “It seems that we’re going to have to invade Gaza every four years,” a friend, an academic, a man of the left, said to me in a fatalistic tone. The modest goal of containment is to achieve some respite for Israelis in the south, by restoring Israeli deterrence. In today’s increasingly unstable Middle East, patches of normalcy may be as much victory as anyone can hope for.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
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