Sending a message of strength?

Some of Israel’s limited objectives regarding Rafah are problematic but nevertheless achievable, at least in the short term. But its broader objectives are not achievable.

Certainly the plan to prevent the export of terrorism from the Gaza Strip, once evacuated, can be enhanced by reducing Palestinian capabilities of importing weaponry by means of tunnels. The tunnels can be uncovered and destroyed, the tunnel diggers and tunneling entrepreneurs arrested. The Philadelphi road can be widened by destroying additional Palestinian houses, thereby ensuring that future tunnels will have to span a far greater distance. Just as Israel’s security fence works well against suicide bombers, so physical barriers like a wider no-man’s land and deep ditches can be made to work against tunneling.

Israel will continue to pay a heavy price for these preventive activities in terms of international opprobrium. This is particularly true insofar as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will have to revisit Rafah periodically in order to ensure that new tunnels are not being dug, while the Philadelphi road will remain a focus of conflict even after disengagement. Nor will Egypt be a willing collaborator here: the Egyptians do not intend to be drawn by Israel into armed confrontation with Palestinian arms smugglers on their side of the border; they prefer that Israel bear this burden.

Beyond the immediate issue of the tunnels–rendered genuinely urgent by intelligence that katyusha rockets capable of hitting Ashkelon were about to be brought into the Gaza Strip via the Rafah tunnels–a second objective of Israel’s current offensive is to restore its deterrent profile and project an image of strength in the aftermath of successful Palestinian attacks on Israeli army armored personnel carriers (APCs) in the Gaza Strip that left 11 IDF soldiers dead. The current Israeli-Palestinian exchange of blows is over strength, deterrence and disengagement, and can be traced to the Palestinian suicide bombing in Ashdod port a few months ago. The IDF concluded from that attack that Hamas aspired to present itself as having chased Israel out of Gaza. Accordingly it sought to ensure that Palestinians see Israel as departing from a position of strength. This led to the targeted killings of Hamas leaders Yassin and Rantisi. But it did not prevent the next round: Islamic Jih! ad’s successful attacks on the APCs.

Hence the perceived need, once again, to "send a message of strength". This is a problematic venture. At the end of the day, no matter how much damage we do in Gaza prior to our departure, Palestinian militants will indeed conclude that we dismantled settlements there because we only understand the language of force. That is the inevitable cost of the folly of building the settlements in the first place. But it pales alongside the strategic benefits of disengagement: reducing the occupation with all its ills, and beginning to roll back the settlements that so endanger Israel’s future as a Jewish and a democratic state. That is why disengagement remains worthwhile, whatever the military score inside the Gaza Strip.

Yet another, broader objective of the occupation of Rafah can be traced directly to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He believes that the use of massive Israeli force can compel the Palestinians to capitulate, and that leaders will then emerge who at least passively acquiesce in his territorial goals. It was clear from the moment Israel commenced its reoccupation of the West Bank two years ago that Gaza’s turn would come. Here, as always, Palestinian militants helpfully provided the provocation that justifies or at least rationalizes the Israeli operation. In this endeavor Sharon can draw encouragement from the radical reduction of terrorism in the West Bank brought abut by Israeli occupation and incursion policies. Nor does this reoccupation approach contradict Sharon’s concept of disengagement, insofar as it is intended to ensure that those areas of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank that Israel leaves will remain quiescent.

The Rafah operation might at least temporarily produce some positive results–for Israeli security and for the disengagement plan. But there remain two serious problems with the entire Israeli approach in Gaza.

One is imagery. There is simply no way to invade a teeming and hostile city of 150,000 residents in the global media age and make it look good. When an IDF Radio reporter, himself a soldier, broadcasts live from Rafah that the Palestinian families fleeing their destroyed homes with a few meager belongings on their backs "look like the Nakba" (the "disaster" of the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1948)–and this, two days after May 15 Nakba Day–then we can hardly complain when the rest of the world, the non-combatant world which insists that the traditional rules of war apply to the fight against terrorism, accuses us of breaking those rules.

The other problem is more substantive. Israel’s military operations in the Gaza Strip, as in the West Bank, continue to reflect a lack of any realistic strategy for peace on the part not only of Ariel Sharon, but of Yasser Arafat and George W. Bush as well. Without such a strategy, no genuine progress is likely in Rafah or elsewhere. Under these circumstances, reoccupation and destruction in Rafah do not produce an alternative, docile leadership; they just produce more Arab anger and resentment.