Israel’s new strategic environment

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With Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip now a fait accompli, the question of whether the move was a mistake or not is no longer salient. The fact of the matter is that the withdrawal from Gaza created a new strategic environment for Israel and the central issue today is how Israel will contend with the strategic realities that are now taking form.

Ahead of the expulsion of Gazan Jews and the withdrawal of IDF forces from Gaza in August, the government pledged that it would respond dramatically and ferociously to any and all terror attacks emanating from post-withdrawal Gaza. When these warnings were challenged by the terrorist rocket barrage on the Western Negev that immediately followed the completion of the withdrawal, Israel failed to make good on its threats. Israel ignored the first salvo and then moved on to pound empty buildings and fields. No one can seriously claim that the sound-and-light show that the IDF produced constituted the kind of response to the massive rocket and mortar offensive against Sderot and the agricultural communities bordering Gaza that will deter future attacks. As was the case with Israel's tepid response to Hizbullah and Palestinian terror attacks on its territory from southern Lebanon after the precipitous IDF withdrawal from the security zone in May 2000, so today with Gaza, Israel's screeching speech and small stick have absolutely no credibility with either the Palestinian Authority or with Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad.

 

It is true that Hamas subsequently suspended its attacks on the Western Negev. But there is little indication that this short-term suspension of attacks has anything to do with IDF counter-attacks. Hamas has an organizational interest in keeping Gaza quiet in the run-up to the planned general elections for the PA's legislative council in January. Like Hizbullah ahead of the Lebanese elections last June, Hamas wants quiet ahead of the elections so it can claim to have been the power behind Israel's retreat. At the same time, Hamas has made it brutally clear to the PA that it will not accept any move to curb or constrain its military forces. The PA, for its part, has accepted Hamas's stance.

 

Israeli intelligence has no doubt that Hamas and Fatah will ratchet up their terror activity after January.

 

Aside from having lost all deterrent power against the various Palestinian terror factions and the PA's security forces in Gaza, Israel has also lost complete control over Gaza's border with the Sinai. It is true that there have been almost no press reports of weapons smuggling and terrorist infiltration from the Sinai into Gaza in recent days; however there are three clear indicators that the lack of reportage does not correspond to a lack of news. First of all, whereas in the weeks immediately following Israel's withdrawal there were journalists stationed all along the border zone, currently, there are no news teams there to speak of. And so, the lack of reportage about continued infiltrations of the breached border may very well be a function of the fact that no one is on the ground to report them.

 

ADDITIONALLY, the government's warnings last week for Israelis not to enter the Sinai and for all Israelis in the Sinai to immediately return home were the result of intelligence reports regarding a Hamas plot to kidnap Israeli tourists in the Sinai. The plot was to kidnap Israelis in Sinai and spirit them into Gaza where their captors would demand the release of jailed terrorists in exchange for their hostages. The fact that the plot involved cross-border traffic is a clear sign that the border remains open for terrorists.

 

Finally, as Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom noted in a radio interview over the weekend, Egypt has taken no effective steps to seal the border. Disputing earlier dismissals by the IDF, Shalom noted that the Palestinians have smuggled anti-tank and shoulder-launched missiles into Gaza from Egypt. Shalom's statements jibe well with earlier reports that Kais Obeid, the former Israeli Arab who now heads Lebanese Hizbullah's liaison with Fatah terror cells in Gaza, Judea and Samaria spent 36 hours in El-Arish meeting with Fatah terror commanders in the wake of Israel's withdrawal from the border zone. The fact that Egypt has allowed senior terror operatives to travel freely and openly in its territories is substantive proof that like Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, President-for-life Hosni Mubarak has absolutely no interest in sealing the border or in ending terror traffic and communications between Gaza and Sinai.

 

The open border with Egypt has significant strategic ramifications for Israel. Before the withdrawal, Israel could allow traffic between Gaza and Israel and Judea and Samaria because it controlled all the international passages. Today, in the absence of such control, the question of how persons and goods originating in Gaza can travel to Israel and Judea and Samaria takes on a completely different strategic significance. Today Israel has much less ability than it did five weeks ago to know where individuals crossing between Gaza and Judea and Samaria have been, whom they have met with and what weapons they have at their disposal.

 

And the security fence that Israel is building to prevent terrorist infiltration into its major cities is of no use against the emerging threat. It is no longer principally suicide bombers that we have to contend with — although they remain a significant threat. The security fence that Israel is now constructing will be useless against missiles, rockets and mortars.

 

It is not at all insignificant that a new al-Qaida cell in Gaza just distributed its first leaflet over the weekend. Al-Qaida, with its global reach, has the ability, once seeded in Gaza to bring enormous resources in weapons, technologies and financing that can easily alter the terror nexus that comprises Israel's strategic environment. In the absence of control over the international border, again, the risks that Israel incurs by allowing any entry of people and goods from Gaza into Israel or Judea and Samaria are of a completely different order than the ones it incurred by enabling such traffic before the withdrawal.

 

ALL OF this means that Israel must reexamine its entire strategic rationale for contending with Palestinian and international demands for enabling traffic from the Gaza Strip into Israel, Judea and Samaria. Today, free passage from Gaza to Judea and Samaria constitutes an open conduit for international terrorists into the Israeli heartland, with no Israeli supervision whatsoever.

 

Disturbingly, from the reports of the negotiations now being conducted between the government and the Palestinians, with the involvement of the US, the EU and the so-called Quartet's envoy James Wolfensohn, it appears that the government is completely ignoring the new strategic reality.

 

Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz are behaving as though Gaza's open border with Egypt is of no concern. In spite of the fact that the Palestinian Authority has smuggled more weapons and ammunition into Gaza from Sinai than Hamas since the IDF withdrawal from the border, at the IDF's urging, the government agreed Sunday to enable the PA to receive ammunition from Egypt. And rather than maintaining that given the open border with Egypt, Gazans cannot be allowed into Israel or Judea and Samaria, the government is bending over backwards to enable such traffic to be reinstated. "In honor of Ramadan," the government Sunday reopened the Karni cargo terminal in Gaza.

 

On a simplistic level, the strategic environment that has emerged since Israel's withdrawal exposes the lie behind the government's euphemism for the move. There is no such thing as "disengagement" from an enemy that remains at war with you. The question is, now that Israel has lost all deterrent power over Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, and the international border has tu
rned into a terrorist freeway to Israel's heartland, when will the government begin to reckon with the new threats to Israel's security that have emerged?

 

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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