Sudden Israeli withdrawals are a recipe for disaster

Within the last 72 hours, Israel has again witnessed the Palestinian version of ‘land for peace’. Palestinian terror groups have fired over 150 rockets, many of which are believed to have been imported from Libya, at a number of towns and cities across southern Israel. Thankfully, Israel’s Iron Dome system has intercepted the vast majority of the rockets heading for major population centres, helping to keep casualty rates mercifully low.

But does this renewed violence offer any lessons in strategic thinking? Does it also offer a riposte to the widely held view that it is in Israel’s short term interests to engage in land for peace with the Palestinians?

There are indeed some crucial strategic lessons here. The first is to acknowledge the high price that Israel pays when making withdrawals from disputed territory, particularly when those withdrawals are made unilaterally. In 2000, Ehud Barak oversaw an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon after many years of heavy fighting.

Five years later, Ariel Sharon vacated Gaza in what proved to be a domestically divisive and painful move in unilateralism. Both withdrawals were described at the time as groundbreaking opportunities for peace and the actions were given support from much of the Israeli media.

The reality has not matched the hopes. The withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon created a vacuum that was duly filled by terrorist groups. Hezbullah’s political weight in Lebanon has grown since 2000 to the point where it now has a controlling stake in the Lebanese parliament and enjoys widespread political legitimacy in much of the Arab world. For its part, Hamas easily defeated Fatah in the 2006 legislative elections and then launched a coup to seize control of the Gaza Strip a year later.

Both Hezbullah and Hamas have built up an extensive military infrastructure that is capable of bringing serious harm to Israeli civilians. Hezbullah’s arsenal of some 40,000 rockets, mainly supplied by Iran and Syria, can reach every major city in Israel. Hamas and other affiliated Palestinian terror groups have a smaller rocket arsenal, still in the thousands, that is being used to terrorise civilians in southern Israel.

The second lesson, in light of these points, is that Israel’s enemies will inevitably interpret her tactical withdrawals as a symptom of weakness, as well as a vindication of their own terrorist activity. Proof that terrorism was given a lightning boost by the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon came within months when 3 IDF soldiers were abducted at Mt. Dov in October 2000. Similarly, within months of the disengagement from Gaza, rocket attacks from Gaza intensified as Hamas punished communities across southern Israel. Then came the abduction of Gilad Schalit.

But in each case, it took several years before the combined effect of border raids, rocket attacks and terror attacks led to a crushing Israeli response. It was not until 2006, six years

after the disengagement from Lebanon, that Israel launched a war to silence the terrorists of Hezbullah. And thousands of rockets had to be fired before the initiation of Operation Cast Lead in December 2009. The delay between the start of the terrorist upsurge and the Israeli response was seen as further evidence (for the terrorists) of Israeli weakening, procrastination and lack of resolve.

Thus it is crucial that the third lesson is learnt. Having vacated territory unilaterally or otherwise, Israel has to maintain a meaningful relationship of deterrence with terrorist organisations by making them realise that there is a punishing price to be paid for attacking Israelis. The vital question is whether such a relationship exists today.

There is some evidence that Israel’s enemies have been deterred after their bruising encounters with the Israeli armed forces. For one thing, the war of 2006 has led to six years of relative quiet along the Israel-Lebanon border with only one minor incident affecting an otherwise peaceful period in relations.

Both sides are acutely aware that a renewed war would bring far more destruction than the last. For Israel, there is the palpable fear of mass civilian casualties arising from Hezbullah’s arsenal of ballistic missiles, and for the Lebanese group, the justified belief that they will suffer heavy losses greater than those in 2006.

It could also be argued that the last thing Hamas’ leaders want is a dramatic escalation with the Jewish state. They fear that an Israeli counter-offensive along the lines of Cast Lead will lead to the decimation of their terrorist infrastructure and the destruction of their leadership.

But one could equally argue that the Israeli-Hamas and Israeli-Hezbullah relationships have been transformed by events. Hezbullah knows it has a powerful and stubborn Iranian proxy with seemingly insatiable nuclear ambitions. In the event that Tehran crosses the nuclear finishing line, Hezbullah will feel emboldened, knowing that Israel has to live under the umbrella of a Shi’ite atomic arsenal.

Hamas too has been transformed by the Arab spring, and in a similar way. The fall of the Mubarak regime in Cairo has created a clear political beneficiary – the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian branch. With the MB poised to play a significant role in any new Egyptian government, Hamas is bound to feel like it has a valuable patron backing its every move.

The changes in Egypt have also intensified the use of Sinai as a major hub of jihadist activity. Even before Mubarak’s ouster, weapons were flowing freely from Gaza into Sinai and back again. Today, many Hamas operatives are based in the peninsula, recruiting for the terror group and storing much of their weaponry beyond Israel’s reach.

There are now serious concerns that a destabilised and increasingly radicalised Sinai could disrupt the already fragile Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. The worry is that these circumstances could start to erode the deterrence relationship that has been built up in recent years.

Finally, there appear to be clear implications for the land for peace agenda. Israel continues to come under international pressure to vacate the West Bank in a peace deal with the Palestinians. But the effect of any such disengagement could be to bolster Hamas’ position in the territory.

In recent months, the group has pragmatically signed an accord with Fatah, perhaps in the hope that in the forthcoming PNC elections, it will make considerable gains at the expense of its former rival.

Ultimately Hamas sees itself as the long term victor in Palestinian politics, hoping that when it attains an overall majority, it can replace Fatah altogether. An Israeli pullback from the West Bank might add rocket fuel to the group’s sense of inevitable victory.

Worse, a Hamas takeover would destabilise neighbouring Jordan with its majority Palestinian population and strong Islamist sympathies. While it seems hard to conceive of a Hamas takeover in the West Bank, it was equally hard to foresee their legislative win in 2006 or their subsequent military coup. An alternative to the two state paradigm which does not empower Hamas, perhaps a Jordanian/Palestinian confederation on the West Bank, may soon be seen as the preferred political option.

While world leaders and Israeli leftists implore the Israeli government to offer land for peace, the lessons of history should not be ignored. It is the well organised extremists, not the moderates, who fill the vacuum.

About the Author
Jeremy is an author and the Director of B'nai Brith UK's Bureau of International Affairs