David Newman
Views on the Borderline

Ben-Gurion University at War

Rockets are launched from Gaza Strip to Israel, November 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Rockets are launched from Gaza Strip to Israel, November 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

I am sitting in my office in the Politics Department at Ben-Gurion University. It is like Yom Kippur on campus. The entire campus is empty, and the few people who did turn up in the morning – mostly deans, heads of department and other faculty members who live in the Beer Sheva region – for meetings, are now packing up and going home. Students, faculty and administrative staff have been told not to come to work because of the ongoing security situation, and the danger of rockets being fired at Beer Sheva following yesterdays events in the Gaza Strip.

It is by no means the first time that this has happened. Whenever there has been a major conflict between Israel and the Gaza Strip, the city of Beer Sheva has been one of the potential Hamas rocket targets and all public institutions, starting obviously with schools and kindergartens, have been shut down. This, in turn, means that many other workers, both in the public and private sectors, have had no choice but to stay at home to look after their young children and the city as a whole is working at less than full capacity.

This time the rockets have reached further afield and there have even been sirens heard in some towns in the centre of the country, as far north as Tel Aviv. In some of these places too, the schools and kindergartens, and even Tel Aviv University, have been closed for the day, with further guidance to be issued this evening or early tomorrow morning, concerning the rest of the week.

In truth, it has been totally quiet in Beer Sheva and given the fact that I have been trying hard in recent months to disconnect from constant news, I was not even initially aware that there was a “security situation” in the region. I no longer have cable TV, have given up on daily newspapers and only listen to the radio headlines once in the morning and once in the evening — although I do have internet running in the background all the time, if I feel the dire need to update on such soap opera topics in which I have an interest, such as the attempt to form a government here in Israel, or the ongoing Brexit and election debates in the British parliament. Had it not been for an email I received from the university informing me that the university would be shut today, I would not even have known that there was a security situation in the south of the country.

I would have soon been made aware however, given that the road to the university, which is normally full of traffic in the early hours of the morning, was completely empty and it took no more than fifteen minutes to reach Beer Sheva.

The cancellation of lectures, seminars, and many other meetings, means that it is an ideal time to sit down in my office, with my books and other research materials, and do some serious research and writing without being disturbed – albeit the closing of the campus means that there are no food or coffee outlets available for sustenance.

Typical Israeli black humor has also set in. One SMS which has been doing the rounds today is the announcement that all the miklatim (missile shelters) in Tel Aviv have been opened to the public — they only cost 15 shekel for the first hour and 7 shekel for every further 15 minutes (the normal parking charges in most of the city). Or the SMS which says that the country is shut down on Tuesday, so why don’t we go ahead and have our next election today — the third in little more than a year (elections are always held on Tuesdays) without the need to shut down the country yet again, given the inability of the national leaders to set up a new working coalition government.

One could argue that the chances of a rocket causing serious damage and loss of life Beer Sheva, if indeed Hamas decide to undertake a renewed series of attacks on Israel, are minimal. But even if it is a chance in a thousand, the university authorities cannot take the risk that one rocket will slip through the skydome anti-missile defense system and hit a classroom, or campus cafeteria, filled with students. It has happened in the past. If the actual campus has avoided any direct hits, a university lecturer was seriously injured when a rocket fell not too far from the university campus some years back, while a few houses in the vicinity have suffered damage from previous incidents. If the situation was to get worse and, like four years ago when thousands of rockets were being fired from Gaza throughout the southern region, there is always that possibility — however effective the amazing sky dome system may be in preventing the majority of the missiles from causing harm — that one or two of them will slip through the technological barrier.

The situation today is not yet like it was at the time of the last Gaza War, when the whole region was virtually shut down for days on end, and many families and their children evacuated to safer areas in the north of the country. The exact reverse could also happen with the stockpiling of sophisticated Iranian missiles by the Hezbolla in South Lebanon, while increasingly rockets are being fired further afield and can, if either Hamas or Hezbollah decided to do so, quite easily reach Tel Aviv and the metropolitan center of the country. It is clear to them what Israel’s retaliation, would be in such a situation and, so far, they have held back, but the capability exists. We, in Israel, are increasingly aware that the small, miniscule, size of the country, coupled with the increased sophistication and range of such missiles, means that there is nowhere in the country which is outside the firing range.

Until 15 years ago, Israel’s wars were always fought deep inside the neighbouring territories of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and (going back to the Six Day War) Jordan. But that reality has changed for the worse, and it is the Homeland Command (which didn’t even exist 25 years ago), which now bears the brunt of dealing with renewed warfare when missiles are fired into Israel itself.

Israel always ensured that during times of war, even the most of critical of wars, such as the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, life back home continued, as far as possible, in a normal way. We believed that to bring the country to a standstill was itself an indication of defeat, allowing our enemy — whoever it was at any particular time — to disrupt life from going on.

But in the era of missiles coming into Israel, this is exactly what happens — even if it be at a localized scale and for a relatively short period of time (or so we hope). The shops and restaurants are mostly open, but fewer people are visiting them. The schools and universities, along with other public institutions, as mentioned above, are closed, while more people opt to stay at home, rather than venture out, in places where they feel safest should a rocket attack take place.

So far it is quiet, but the disruption of public life, even on the off-chance that something may happen beyond the firing of missiles yesterday, is itself a form of warfare in which the other side has the upper hand. Life will get back to normal pretty quickly, but every day lost is a blow to the economy and to the morale — even if nothing dramatic is taking place outside our office or home window.

Warfare technology has changed and so too must Israel’s response. Whether or not there will be a hardline military response, as has taken place in the past, no doubt inflicting far greater damage on Gaza than the rockets could ever inflict on Israel, is nothing but short term. Both Hamas and Hezbollah will continually refuel their emptying arsenals (thanks to Iran) and prepare themselves for the next time, and, the time after that and so on. They know that they cannot inflict a military defeat on Israel, but they equally know that they can cause damage and even some deaths and, at the same time, bring normal life to a halt for a day, or even a week. Borders mean nothing in this sort of warfare as even the simplest of missiles will fly up and over the highest and strongest of walls.

The day after Israel appointed a new hard line defense minister, we wait with bated breath to see what sort of response the IDF will take. Will, in the long term, the killing of one Hamas leader, only to be replaced with another leader whose policies are exactly the same, if not more ferocious than his predecessor, prove to have been worthwhile? The answer is not clear and none of us are able to predict what will happen in the next few days.

Hopefully, by tomorrow life will return to normal and students will be back on this lively campus, sitting in the lecture halls, eating at the cafeterias, and generally sunbathing in the late autumn hot heatwave. Meanwhile, as the university empties of even the few people that did come into their offices, it is time to pack up, drive home on the semi-deserted roads, and hopefully to find somewhere to eat on the way — or to raid the fridge back home.

The empty parking lot at Ben-Gurion University, November 12, 2019. (courtesy)

We try hard to carry on with our normal lives. Anything else is a partial victory to those who would do us harm.

About the Author
David Newman is professor of Geopolitics in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Originally from the UK, he was awarded the OBE in 2013 for promoting scientific links between the UK and Israel. From 2010-2016, Newman was Dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at BGU. His three distinct, and vastly different, areas of expertise cover Border Studies, Israeli Politics and Society, and Anglo Jewish history of the 19th and 20th centuries.
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