In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on August 18, along the Egyptian-Israeli border, that left eight Israelis dead, there were multiple reasons for the Israeli government to choose a policy of restraint instead of launching a major retaliatory operation into the Gaza Strip. The internal political situation in Egypt, since the fall of President Mubarak, has been fragile, while the Egyptian government is headed by a Supreme Military Council headed by General Tantawi.
An Israeli operation, no matter how legitimate, could have been used by the Muslim Brotherhood to undermine the current government, and even threaten its collapse. Alternatively, pressure might have grown on the Egyptian government to respond to calls from the Egyptian street to cancel the peace treaty between the two countries. In any case, Israel did act. It eliminated the leadership of the organization that launched the attack, the Popular Resistance Committees, though it did not address the rocket arsenal in Gaza that was used against southern Israel.
The Israeli response served as yet another reminder of the constraints on any Israeli government that has to respond to terrorism being directed from the Gaza Strip. When former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon conceived of his Disengagement Plan in 2005, there were undoubtedly military advisors who told him that if the Palestinian organizations launch terrorist attacks from territory from which Israel withdraws, it would be fully justified in responding with the full power of the IDF, with which they [the Palestinians] were fully acquainted.
Indeed, in recent years, there have been a number of former Israeli officers whose public flexibility on the territorial issue was underpinned by their understanding of the enormous firepower and mobility of the IDF’s armored formations and their ability to move deeply into an opponent’s territory, if it was necessary, to eliminate a threat against Israel. Israel’s readiness to act, it must have been reasoned, would provide it with deterrence, even if it withdrew to problematic borders, like the 1967 lines.
But reality turned out to be more complicated. The IDF had every reason to conduct a major operation in the Gaza Strip within a year of the Disengagement, given the fact that rocket attacks against Israel did not decline after the last Israeli soldier left. In fact, rocket attacks on Israel increased by an astounding 500 percent between 2005, the year when Israel withdrew when 179 rockets hit Israel, and 2006, when the number of rocket attacks shot up to 946. But yet Israel did not take any decisive action at the time.
Three factors have served to constrain Israeli responses since 2005. Today, as noted earlier, Israel’s relations with Egypt must have become a factor in Israel’s calculus. Certainly, there is an ongoing interest in not shifting the attention of the Arab world away from its current preoccupation with ridding Syria from the brutality of the Assad regime and back to the Palestinian issue (this change would be in the interest of Iran which wants to save its ally, Bashar al-Assad). The point is that there will always be a set of regional considerations affecting Israel’s military response when its civilians come under attack.
The second consideration is the international reaction to an Israeli response: the international community tends to reverse the causality of Israel’s conflicts, blaming Israel’s response without condemning the terrorism that brought it about. Under President Bush, whose worldview was molded by 9/11, this was less of a problem. But under President Obama, it is a far more complicated matter. He has even intensified the war on terrorism in places like Pakistan, but he has given greater weight to forming an international consensus before the U.S. formulates its position on the Middle East, which makes European reactions far more important for Washington, if Israel is forced to act.
Finally, there is the lesson of the U.N.’s Goldstone Report, in which Israel was falsely accused of committing war crimes, like intentionally killing Palestinian civilians. Goldstone already renunciated this principle conclusion of his report. Nevertheless, the whole ordeal that Israel underwent with the repeated resolutions of the U.N. Human Rights Council and then the U.N. General Assembly illustrated how politically complicated the re-entry into populated territory can become, even in a legitimate war against terrorist organizations who have killed Israeli civilians.
The lesson of these experiences is that Israel should never put itself in a position in which its security is based on the assumption that it will re-enter territories from which it withdrew in order to deal with threats to its civilians. Even today, there are those who suggest that Israel can re-enter the Jordan Valley, after it withdraws, if a new threat emerges from the eastern front. Given the total uncertainty about the future stability of many parts of the area to Israel’s east, it would be a cardinal error for it to base its security on such an assumption. In any future peace arrangements, Israel must retain vital parts of the West Bank that it needs for its security and not just assume that it can just re-capture them if a security need arises.
In the year ahead, should the Palestinians obtain an independent state that is recognized by the international community, despite the fact that it hosts international terrorist organizations who still launch attacks against Israel, then the operations of the IDF could involve crossing an international border, which can trigger the intervention of the U.N. Security Council. On the legal plane, Israel will be justified in invoking Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and its right to self-defense, but on the basis of experience, the political interests of those who will judge its actions will prevail over all the legal arguments that Israel’s representatives will be able to marshal. This is a political corner that Israel must avoid being put into.