This week Israel marks two anniversaries. It is one year on from the end of the Second Lebanon War and two years on from the beginning of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank. Whilst current peace initiatives are generating positive momentum, from the Israeli perspective, these two anniversaries highlight strategic vulnerabilities which may delay progress towards a peace deal.
Israel’s disengagement in 2005 was based on the belief of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, and the majority of Israelis, that Israel’s best interests, both in terms of security and democratic legitimacy, were best served by achieving a separation between Israel and the large majority of Palestinians living in the territories. This withdrawal – as with the withdrawal from southern Lebanon during the premiership of Ehud Barak in 2000 – was a departure from the formula of land for peace. In both cases, the damage done to Israel by sustaining the occupation was considered so great that giving up the land even without a peace agreement was considered preferable to the status quo. By the end of last summer, that case was severely undermined. A survey conducted in 2005, on the eve of the disengagement, showed that 65% of Israelis supported territorial concessions to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, either on the basis of unilateral disengagement, or a Barak-Clinton style agreement. In 2007, following the election of Hamas and the war with Hezbollah in 2006, that support had fallen to 52%.1
In 2006 Israel was drawn into protracted and costly conflicts in both Gaza and southern Lebanon, in response to two forms of attack – cross border raids leading to the capture of Israeli soldiers, and sustained, indiscriminate, short-range rocket attacks on civilian populations. For all the IDF’s extensive capabilities, they were unable to free the soldiers or stop the rockets. To this day, life in Sderot, close to the Gaza Strip, is being made untenable by the constant threat of Qassam rocket attacks. The militants firing these rockets, and their backers in Syria and Iran, oppose the peace process and stand in the way of progress. Before Israel commits to any future withdrawals, even with an agreement from the other side, Israel’s political leadership, and the general public, will need to be confident that Israel can protect itself from these kinds of threats. Whilst preventing kidnappings must rely on traditional skills of high vigilance and good intelligence, stopping rockets will require more innovative solutions.
Hopes and fears in the revival of the peace process
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s meeting with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Jericho last Monday was another positive step in a gradual warming of relations and the rebuilding of trust between Israel and the Palestinians.2 The ongoing bilateral process is being supplemented by the efforts from Washington to engage western orientated Arab states in promoting the process. The split within the Palestinian camp between Fatah and Hamas has created a clear common interest between Israel, the international community and Abbas. Israel’s policy is to offer everything possible to Abbas in order to bolster him against the Islamic extremists. But for Israel, concessions to Chairman Abbas, such as dismantling roadblocks and evacuating territory, constitute a degree of security risk. And despite the genuine mutual interest in seeing progress on the ground, no-one is convinced that Abbas can deliver tangible security guarantees in response to Israeli concessions at the present time. For Israel therefore, making progress possible on the ground means taking steps which enable it to secure itself without a military presence in the territories. This was the logic behind the building of the security fence, which drastically reduced the threat of suicide bombers. Now Israel seeks an equally effective response to rocket fire.
The same day Olmert was meeting with Abbas, his defence minister and Israeli Labour party leader Ehud Barak was visiting Israeli arms manufacturer Rafael, who are developing Israel’s primary defence against short-range rockets. Israeli media reported his view that establishing an effective defence against rocket fire, a process expected to take three to five years, is a precondition for any withdrawal from the West Bank.3 Although Barak subsequently distanced himself from the reported remarks, given the proven damage that short-range rockets can do to the fabric of ordinary life in Israel, it seems reasonable to assume that Israel be reluctant to make further territorial concessions without being confident that it has an adequate defence against them.
Israel already has in operation a small number of newly developed and highly advanced ‘Arrow’ missile interceptor batteries, working in concert with American ‘Patriot’ missiles, designed to stop long-range missiles before they enter Israeli airspace.4 But this system is not capable of hitting short-range rockets, such as the Katyusha type rockets used by Hezbollah last summer, or the more primitive Qassams fired by militant groups in Gaza.
The short-range rocket dilemma
These types of rockets pose particular challenges for a number of reasons. Firstly they are difficult to stop from a technical point of view. Qassams and Katyushas are small and mobile. They are easily concealed within civilian areas and can be fired by small cells from a simple pipe or the back of an ordinary looking truck. Once launched, they are in the air only for a short period of time, giving little opportunity to target and destroy them in flight.
The rockets are also difficult to counter from a strategic point of view, posing challenges typical to forms of asymmetric warfare. Those who have been responsible for firing the rockets, be it Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas or Islamic Jihad in Gaza, are non-state actors, deliberately targeting Israeli civilians, and acting from within civilian areas with little regard for the danger posed to populations on their own side. Israel has tried various responses to suppress the rockets, including use of airpower to target rocket launchers, artillery shelling against the sources of rocket attack and ground incursions to root out the militants and their arms supplies.5 But these responses have either proved ineffective at preventing the launch of more rockets or have proved too costly to civilian life. Israel’s decision to target Lebanese infrastructure in response to the Katyusha assault last summer proved effective in paralysing normal life in Lebanon, but did not stop the rockets, and ultimately drew widespread international condemnation.
In short, a small number of militant cells armed with rockets can make normal life impossible in large Israeli population centres, with Israel lacking a consistently effective and morally acceptable response. The constant state of threat in Sderot, for example, a town next to the Gaza Strip against which Qassams are targeted almost daily, is unbearable for its 20,000 residents. In the past 12 months, identified rocket hits have averaged over 80 a month, causing 18 deaths and wounding close to 400.6 The early warning siren typically gives residents barely 15 seconds to run for cover before the rocket strikes.
Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 people, is just a few kilometres further away. Only a small increase in Qassam rocket range, or the successful smuggling of Katyusha rockets into the Gaza Strip, would put the entire city, and the city of Ashdod further north, under direct threat. If Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank, even holding onto the major settlement blocs west of the security fence, most of Israel’s population would be within very close range of similar attacks.
Technological solutions which might square the circle are currently under development. After Barak’s visit, Israeli arms producer Rafael claimed this week that its ‘Iron dome’ missile intercept system, which is designed to combat short-range rockets, could be operational within 18 months.7 A separate weapon to counter medium-range missiles is also under development and another, laser based system, ‘Skyguard’, developed with US technology, could potentially add a further layer of defence. Barak is said to favour a multi-layered approach. It is the effective deployment of these defences against militants opposed to the peace process which may delay the timetable for future withdrawals.
The concept of ‘land for peace’ is based on the assurance that if Israel returns the land, the other side will ensure the peace. In the current context, it is difficult to envisage a situation whereby Israel will be able to withdraw from parts of the West Bank, solely on the basis of assurances that the Palestinian Authority will be able to prevent militant attacks. As a result, for Israel to be able to countenance major West Bank withdrawals, however much it considers such a withdrawal to be in its own best long-term interest, it will look to have in place an independent defensive option to supplement security guarantees offered by the Palestinians.
1 Yehuda Ben Meir and Dafna Shaked, “The People Speak: Israeli Public Opinion on National Security 2005-2007,” The Institute for National Security Studies
2 “Abbas, Olmert in ‘positive’ talks”, BBC News, 6/8/2007
3 Gil Hoffman and Josh Brannon, “Barak backs delaying W. Bank pullout,” Jerusalem Post, 12/8/2007
4 Jonathan Marcus, “Analysis: Israel’s new missile defence,” BBC News, 7/1/2003
5 Gabriel Siboni , “The Operational Aspects to Fighting the Qassam,” Strategic Assessment Volume 9, No. 3, Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies, November 2006
6 News of the Israeli-Palestinian Confrontation, July 16-31, 2007, Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre at the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Centre (IICC)
7 Yuval Azoulay, “Missile interception system to be operational in 18 months,” Haaretz, 9/8/2007