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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

When patience is not a virtue

Gaza terrorists have been shooting rockets and mortars at Israel since 2001. Some months saw many attacks and some saw only a few, but the net effect is the same - because the rockets are instruments of terror, not of genocide.

Of course, the terrorists want to kill as many Israelis and Jews as possible. Even so, the main effectiveness of the Qassams is not the deaths that they cause, but the fear that they instill in residents who are in rocket range. This is the very definition of terrorism - to cause civilians to be terrorized. The fact that there were "only" three or ten rockets in a particular month does not lighten the psychological burden in Sderot, because the fear that a rocket is about to slam into your house is always there, constantly hanging over every aspect of the lives of residents of the Negev.

Many voices are being raised now that Israel has reacted disproportionately to the threat of Qassams. They don't kill that many people, goes this argument. They are an annoyance but not an existential threat.

But it is wrong to say that there were relatively few victims of Qassam rockets. The victims aren't only the people who were killed, injured or suffered damage - the victims are every resident of a community that is in rocket range. Their number is not in the dozens but in the tens of thousands - and now hundreds of thousands.

To give a more concrete example, if a terrorist group would explode a "dirty nuke" in a populated area, chances are that the number of casualties would be no higher than from a conventional explosive. The goal of a "dirty nuke," and indeed its very purpose, would be to cause panic out of proportion to its actual potential to damage. Qassam rockets are essentially the same as dirty nukes in their intent and effect. Asking people to live with this threat is not just inconsiderate; it borders on the malicious.

Israel's response has, for years, been to use patience. Israel has told the residents under threat to just wait - wait for the schools to be reinforced and for shelters to be built, wait for an anti-rocket system to be tested and deployed, wait to see what the results of a "cease fire" are, wait until after disengagement (and then we'll really let them have it!), wait to see how assassinating terrorist leaders will affect things, wait for the blockade to take effect and for the Gaza residents to kick Hamas out.

These half-measures have not worked.

More importantly, they might have in some ways backfired.

Counseling patience means that the status quo is, to some extent, acceptable (if not ideal.) Telling Sderot residents to live with their fear and to stop whining so much about it also means that you are telling the world that it is OK to live under the constant fear of your children dying in the school playground.

It is painful to say it, but Israel has been sacrificing Sderot and the other southern Negev communities for years to "patience."

Is it surprising that many otherwise well-meaning critics adopt the same mindset? If living with the rocket threat was considered acceptable to the government of Israel for years, then why should Israel suddenly decide that it is no longer acceptable?

What the critics understand is that even this Israeli government - one that has been trying like no other to make sacrifices for "peace," one that is risk-averse to the point of paralysis, one that will use any unethical and undemocratic methods it can to force Israel to give up strategic depth for an illusion of safety - even this government could no longer stand by and watch the rocket fire intensify yet again.

The price of this historical reticence is that, rather than "just" Qassams, the Israelis now have to deal with Katyushas and Grads; rather than "just" Sderot, there are now a million residents in rocket range.

It would have been painful to solve the problem years ago. Now it will be even worse.

Patience has a price.