The Sderot Calculus

By Bret Stephens, WSJ

The Israeli town of Sderot lies less than a mile from the Gaza Strip. Since the beginning of the intifada seven years ago, it has borne the brunt of some 2,500 Kassam rockets fired from Gaza by Palestinian terrorists. Only about a dozen of these Kassams have proved lethal, though earlier this month brothers Osher and Rami Twito were seriously injured by one as they walked down a Sderot street on a Saturday evening. Eight-year-old Osher lost a leg.

It is no stretch to say that life in Sderot has become unendurable. Palestinians and their chorus of supporters — including the 118 countries of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement, much of Europe, and the panoply of international aid organizations from the World Bank to the United Nations — typically reply that life in the Gaza Strip is also unendurable, and that Palestinian casualties greatly exceed Israeli ones. But this argument is fatuous: Conditions in Gaza, in so far as they are shaped by Israel, are a function of conditions in Sderot. No Palestinian Kassams (or other forms of terrorism), no Israeli “siege.”

The more vexing question, both morally and strategically, is what Israel ought to do about Gaza. The standard answer is that Israel’s response to the Kassams ought to be “proportionate.” What does that mean? Does the “proportion” apply to the intention of those firing the Kassams — to wit, indiscriminate terror against civilian populations? In that case, a “proportionate” Israeli response would involve, perhaps, firing 2,500 artillery shells at random against civilian targets in Gaza. Or should proportion apply to the effects of the Kassams — an exquisitely calibrated, eye-for-eye operation involving the killing of a dozen Palestinians and the deliberate maiming or traumatizing of several hundred more?

Surely this isn’t what advocates of proportion have in mind. What they really mean is that Israel ought to respond with moderation. But the criteria for moderation are subjective. Should Israel pick off Hamas leaders who are ordering the rocket attacks? The European Parliament last week passed a resolution denouncing the practice of targeted assassinations. Should Israel adopt purely economic measures to punish Hamas for the Kassams? The same resolution denounced what it called Israel’s “collective punishment” of Palestinians. Should Israel seek to dismantle the Kassams through limited military incursions? This, too, has the unpardonable effect of resulting in too many Palestinian casualties, which are said to be “disproportionate” to the number of Israelis injured by the Kassams.

By these lights, Israel’s presumptive right to self-defense has no practical application as far as Gaza is concerned. Instead, Israel is counseled to allow goods to flow freely into the Strip, and to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas.

But here another set of considerations intrudes. Hamas was elected democratically and by overwhelming margins in Gaza. It has never once honored a cease-fire with Israel. Following Israel’s withdrawal of its soldiers and settlements from the Strip in 2005 there was a six-fold increase in the number of Kassam strikes on Israel.

Hamas has also made no effort to rewrite its 1988 charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction. The charter is explicitly anti-Semitic: “The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!” (Article Seven) “In order to face the usurpation of Palestine by the Jews, we have no escape from raising the banner of Jihad.” (Article 15) And so on.

It would seem perverse for Israeli taxpayers, including residents of Sderot, to feed the mouth that bites them. It would seem equally perverse for Israel merely to bide its time for an especially unlucky day — a Kassam hitting a busload of schoolchildren, for instance — before striking hard at Gaza. But unless Israel is willing to accept the military, political and diplomatic burdens of occupying all or parts of Gaza indefinitely, the effects of a major military incursion could be relatively short-lived. Israel suffered many more casualties before it withdrew from the Strip than it has since.

Perhaps the answer is to wait for a technological fix and, in the meantime, hope for the best. Israel is at work on a missile-defense program called “Iron Dome” that may be effective against Kassams, though the system won’t be in place for at least two years. It could also purchase land-based models of the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System, used by the U.S. to defend the Green Zone in Baghdad.

But technology addresses neither the Islamic fanaticism that animates Hamas nor the moral torpor of Western policy makers and commentators who, on balance, find more to blame in Israel’s behavior than in Hamas’s. Nor, too, would an Iron Dome or the Phalanx absolve the Israeli government from the necessity of punishing those who seek its destruction. Prudence is an important consideration of statesmanship, but self-respect is vital. And no self-respecting nation can allow the situation in Sderot to continue much longer, a point it is in every civilized country’s interest to understand.

On March 9, 1916, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa attacked the border town of Columbus, N.M., killing 18 Americans. President Woodrow Wilson ordered Gen. John J. Pershing and 10,000 soldiers into Mexico for nearly a year to hunt Villa down, in what was explicitly called a “punitive expedition.” Pershing never found Villa, making the effort something of a failure. Then again, Villa’s raid would be the last significant foreign attack on continental U.S. soil for 85 years, six months and two days.

February 26, 2008 | 12 Comments »

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  1. Ok I think Israel should seek to dismantle the Kassams through limited military incursions, EVEN if this has the effect of resulting in too many Palestinian casualties. If these are “disproportionate” to the number of Israelis injured by the kassams, then why do Palestitians keep on launching kassams?
    They truly deserve it.

  2. Todays Talley in Sderot 1 dead Student , married with children several wounded and a Russian Grad rocket landing just a few meters from Barzili Hosp in Ashkelon averting a much bigger human tragedy. Olmert partying in Japan as he was ordered to come urgently by the Black Plague Condi, even though she is scheduled to be here next week. So what possibly could be so Urgent to drag our PM around the world for a face to face? Telephones still work I believe!

    Kessler is so right, look no overly expensive hitech weapon is going to reduce the motivation of the Arabs, it is untested in real time terms and can be beaten. Lets say it stops 9 out of ten kassams or others before they hit its the one that gets through I care about. What happens if they learn to fire 50 at a time or a hundred at a time? Low tech will always find the weak vulnerabilities of any defense. Todays murder was the 11th from Kassams, i suicide bomber murdered more in one shot. We lose 40 to 50people a month here from traffic accidents which I keep telling people that it is not an act of God but can be prevented or at least reduced as it is in our control. No ralleys, no mobilization of world Jewry, no bleeding hearts but like Sderot no body really cares except those who suffer and the broken families as a result. Why not take the 1-3 billion dollars for cost of these Lazer Star wars Toys and save real lives with them like better universal health care here that only the rich have access. Give people who need life saving or prolonging drugs to those who can’t afford them and will die momentarily without them. live survivors of Shoa who are facing their last days in destitution and the shit heads we have for politicians keep delaying giving them a noble end by refusing to give them the means to exist with dignity like a human being should . We are all limited by the choices we face and the choices we make, thats why we pay our leaders the big bucks to make those hard decisions but in Gaza they can’t decide or they have and that is to maintain status quo, that is also a sort of choice.

    There is no military alternative for having boots on the ground and holding the ground forever. We cannot kill the Arabs motivation but we can curtail their ability to attack us. I can settle for that. Now if you have an Army and are afraid to use that same Army lest their be casualties (IDF ALWAYS OVERESTIMATES PROJECTED CASUALTIES IN ORDER TO PROTECT THEIR ASSES) but are willing to place civilian population in extreme risk situation? Hmmm I think something isn’t kosher here! I thought it was supposed to be the other way around? So the problem here is not whether we can or not but political and conceptual. Our leaders do not want to admit they were wrong in ethnic cleansing Gaza and pulling IDF out and then handing border exits over to Egypt. So they continue to continue. Now the problem for them is that they have waited so long without really acting against Gaza Arabs that one can make a case when we finally do go in that many or most of projected casualties are a consequence of Israel not acting sooner and allowing the Arabs to build up the strength where they can inflict more damage on us, than if we had responded with force from the first Kassam after leaving Gaza.. Sound like a political catch 22?

    To date, the debate over the Nautilus laser gun has revolved around the question of whether, if development were completed, it would be able to counter the Katyusha rocket threat. The defense establishment’s belief was that the system could not do the job, and therefore, it allowed the program to die for lack of funds. But after a month in which 15 percent of Israel’s territory was hit by nearly 4,000 Katyushas, the question has changed. Now, officials want to know how many laser guns will be necessary to protect Israel from Katyusha and Qassam rockets, and how much they will cost, once the prototype is ready.

    Dr. Oded Amichai considers himself the “father” of Israel’s laser. He believes that 20 laser gun systems will be able to provide hermetic protection to northern Israel and the Negev at a cost of $1.25 billion. The defense establishment estimates that such a hermetic defense would require at least 70 systems, at a cost of $3 billion. Uzi Rubin, who headed the Arrow anti-missile project until 1999, says that a relatively small number of laser guns, positioned to protect strategic sites (refineries, city centers, etc.) would be sufficient.

    The debate is fueled by issues of technology, military doctrine and scientific hypotheses. In order to examine them, it is important to study the history of the development of the laser gun in general, and specifically of the Nautilus system, which began a decade ago. To date, a total of $400 million has been invested in the project, $150 million by Israel and the rest by the United States.

    The laser is a very powerful ray of light, and is therefore much faster than missiles. One of its problems is that contact with moisture (i.e. clouds) or dust weakens it. Another problem is its power source, of which one form is chemical and the other electrical (also known as “solid state lasers”).

    Experts at Rafael and the Defense Ministry insist that there are many technological and operational difficulties in developing a laser gun. The cost of developing the large power source is very high. However, each “shot” is relatively inexpensive, an estimated $1,000 to $3,000. It costs $3,000 to $5,000 to produce a Katyusha.

    I am surprised that Katyushas cost that much. They are a pretty insignificant weapon for that price. The cost of the system, assuming it is effective, does not seem that bad when compared with the loss to the economy of the recent strikes. If it works, there is some potential profit in exporting the shield. The story has much more on the background and development of the system.

  3. You can’T tame a tiger into a kitten, so use the tiger stuff and get rid of it, and negociate, or the at random solution or the precise liftoff location, their choise is the amount of martyars, and take care of their Imams and sheik’s aswell.

  4. I am not moved to shout “Eureka,” that Stephens has now given us the solution to the attacks at Sderot. In fact, I read the last paragraph with another shout–“Good Grief!”.

    After all the enumeration of the each argument that compels Israel to hold her fire, even when she has seen the whites of her enemies eyes, the most that the author offers is to concluded with an analogy to Mexico’s Poncho Villa’s raid and the American Response. How timid!

    What is it that prevents an author who presents a clear and present danger to Israel to conclude with indirect allusion? I would have expected the author to recommend the immediate order to IDF with 10,000 strong to proceed to Gaza and have done with it, and let the “world community” be dammed. Israel would not run any major risk if Israel would have taken the action of Woodrow Wilson. The simple fact is that there would be no counter-military offensive launched against Israel by any Arab or non- Arab country as a consequence. Israel’s enemies would ululate and whimper and more condemnations issued from the United Nations, but there would be nothing new about that.

    Martin Kessler

  5. This is a good article by Bret Stephens but I think it only goes a part of the way and mises out on the whole.

    It is important to get this right because clearly the future of millions of Jews rest on it. It may not be totally easy for the Jews of Israel to see what is happening around them, it is a little like being in a cauldron. There is obviously a great need for open discussion and a clear perspective.

    I have considered the position of Stephens in this article and posted some ideas in an article called “Surviving as a People”.

    I have written

    “In relation to the situation facing the Jews of Israel there is also a stratagem or “feint” which is being enacted against them, and I think of this in relation to Gaza, Hizbullah and the Iran Bomb.

    It seems to me that many on the Jewish side have lost the plot. The major issue in all of the three above is of course the Iran Bomb. This is the major existential issue which is facing the Jews of Israel.

  6. Dershowitz’s speech at the Sderot rally the other night was brilliant. Among other things, he talked about Hamas’s cult of death and that when the enemy leaves you no choice but to kill them, then that is what you do. He also said that the Palestinian elections were free and that the Palestinians voluntarily voted for Hamas. His conclusion is that there are consequences to choosing a violent or bad government and the people of Gaza, whether civilians or militants, must now pay the price.

  7. I sent this email to a number of political insiders today.

    I thought this was a realistic article. Israel’s choice is to suffer a lot of trauma and some deaths or suffer hundreds of casualties by invading Gaza and then trying to be occupiers again.

    This article talks about a new weapon system that appears made to order for our rocket problem. I knew about it but don’t know why it isn’t the answer now.

    I asked a retired military judge who has an LLM in international law what international law has to say about Israel’s options. Specifically I wanted to know if Israel can bomb Gaza and use artillery before invading or not invading. His answer was an unqualified “yes”. I have the article but sent it to Bret Stephens giving the WSJ the first right to publish it. I want it to have wide distribution.

    Perhaps Jerusalem Post will publish it in their newspaper and internet site. Caroline? If anyone else can give the article exposure let me know.

    The problem is not what international law prohibits but what the US and EU prohibit. Israel must ignore them and do what the law allows. So Israel’s choice is to listen to the cries of the US or EU or listen to the cries of its children in Sderot. That should be a no-brainer.

  8. First I will advise not to look for technological solutions to low tech problems. It is stupid expensive and doesn’t work in the end. The primitive enemy will always find the soft vulnerable spots and exploit them. The problem with Gaza is conceptual and political. Political in that all who had a vested interest and active part in Gaza withdrawal are loath to have to admit that they were wrong. Retaking Gaza would mean exactly that,admission of failed past concepts and political failure compounded in waiting so long to act with decisivenesses. One will in the future blame current Government with justification that many casualties we will incur were the result of allowing Hamas (Arabs of Gaza) to arm, organize and pose a greater military threat than if Israel had acted properly in the months following disengagement. There is in the first instance no military choice but to reoccupy all of Gaza and all border entrances and exits.. Boots on the ground are needed. The longer Israel waits the higher will be the costs.

  9. I have come to the conclusion that Israel’s Judenratt doesn’t want to stop the kassams, based on the fact that the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL), has proven to be effective. I posted an analysis of the situation titled: Israeli Government’s senseless refusal to use Laser guns to protect Negev communities against kassams.

    A link to Dr. Aaron Lerner of IMRA’s discussion of the selfish reasons behind the development of the alternative costly, ineffective, Iron Dome system is also provided.