Thursday, December 09, 2021

Recalling Israel's Initial Response To Hamas Rocket Attacks

Of the attitudes of the international community towards Israel, one of the most maddening is criticism of Israeli reaction to the terrorist rocket attacks launched by Hamas -- and the lack of international condemnation of those rocket attacks themselves, deliberately launched against civilian targets.

We criticize the West for its lack of sustained outrage against Hamas targeting civilians.
We note that no country would tolerate such attacks without taking strong measures to stop such attacks.

But does Israel itself bear any of the responsibility for the failure of the international community to condemn these deliberate terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians?

In a 2012 article, Where 8,000 Rocket Launches Are Not a Casus Belli, Evelyn Gordon blames this on the indecisiveness of the IDF in retaliating against Gaza rockets as:
the rotten fruit of a government policy that for years dismissed the rockets as a minor nuisance for reasons of petty politics: For the Kadima party, in power from 2005-2009, admitting the rockets were a problem meant admitting that its flagship policy, the Gaza pullout, was a disaster.
A 2011 report for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, The Missile Threat from Gaza:From Nuisance to Strategic Threat, by Israeli missile defense expert Uzi Rubin notes how Israeli leaders at the time played down and even dismissed outright the Hamas rocket threat:
  • Dov Weisglass, senior advisor to Ariel Sharon, in June 2005 referred to the rockets as "flying terms of national risk management, they do not constitute a significant factor."

  • Koby Toren, then Director General of the Ministry of Defense, dismissed the the rockets in 2006 as nothing more than a "psychological threat" because of their low level of lethality.

  • Shimon Peres, then Deputy Prime Minister, complained in 2006, "Everyone is stoking the hysteria. What is the big deal? Kiryat Shmona was bombed for years."

  • Ehud Olmert was still downplaying the need for bomb shelters in 2007, announcing that "we will not shelter ourselves to death."

  • Deputy Minister of Defense, Maj. Gen. (res.) Matan Vilnai made a speech at the Knesset in 2008 comparing the complaints of Israeli communities near Gaza with the resilience of Jerusalem’s residents in the face of suicide attacks: "We in Jerusalem…suffered hundreds of dead...did we complain that we could not sleep at night?...Did we claim to have been forsaken?"
 In fairness to Peres, he did not totally ignore the Qassam threat. The same article  that quotes him minimizing the Qassams, also reports:


According to Peres, "Palestinians need to be told: Qassams Shmassams, we will persevere. We will not move from here." The deputy prime minister also accused that "our response stimulates the other side to strike. A series of measures must be taken to eliminate the Qassam." Peres declined to elaborate on what means he meant.

According to Rubin, Olmert qualified his comment about shelters with "...though there may be extreme situations in which we will have a limited response capability."

Also according to Rubin, Vilnai visited the Jewish areas near Gaza the very next day in order to correct the negative impression his comments made.

But the fact remains that Israeli leaders initially played down the threat of Qassam rockets coming out of Gaza.

For years.

The lack of a strong Israeli response to the Hamas rocket attacks took the US by surprise.

In a 2011 interview, former US envoy to Israel Dan Kurtzer said that PM Sharon's failure to respond to Hamas rocket attacks following the 2005 Disengagement was a major mistake:
Kurtzer, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, said that immediately after Israel left the Gaza Strip he told Washington “to expect a very serious Israeli response to the first act of violence coming out of Gaza.”

...Kurtzer said his message to the Bush Administration was to be ready for a sharp Israeli military response to rocket fire, “and be ready to support it.”

“The success of disengagement rested on the aftermath of its implementation, so I was very surprised there was no reaction to the first rocket, second rocket and 15th rocket,” Kurtzer said.

Instead, according to Kurtzer, "Sharon argued that the rockets were landing in fields, 'not really that bad,' or were being fired by dissident elements, and not the Gaza leadership" -- setting the tone for excuses of Israeli leaders who followed.

As Gordon points out, one of the motives of the Israeli government in initially downplaying the rocket attacks was to defend the Disengagement itself.

But the Begin-Sadat Center report gives other reasons as well. After all, it was not just the leadership that showed disinterest:

the same Israeli public that withstood so determinately the suicide attacks from the West Bank, demonstrated a lack of unity and determination in contending with the Gaza rocket campaign.

The initial rocket attacks started in 2001 and need to be understood in the context of the Second Intifada that was creating a crisis at the time. Life in Sderot was "was calmer and more secure at the time than metropolitan areas like Netanya, Hadera or Jerusalem":

In hindsight, the scant attention paid to the campaign at its onset in 2001 is easy to justify against the backdrop of violence of the Second Intifada and the suicide terror offensive raging at the time through the heart of Israel's major cities, an offensive which reached its peak in April-May 2002. This absorbed all the attention of the general public as well as Israel's political and military leadership. The few hits, the negligible damage and the insignificant casualties inflicted by the primitive rockets launched at the time from Gaza were justifiably regarded as a minor nuisance compared to the ongoing terror campaign against Israel's traffic, public transportation, shopping malls and civic centers. [emphasis added]

But that does not explain the continued lackadaisical response the following year when Operation Defensive Shield was succeeding in combating the Second Intifada.

According to Rubin, both local as well as national leaders played down the threat during the first 3 years. Even when Israel took steps to invade nearby launching areas in Gaza and fired on rocket production areas that were further away,

At the same time, active defense – that is, anti-rocket systems that could destroy Gaza rockets in flight – was shunned repeatedly until about five years into the campaign when the shock of the Second Lebanon War prompted Israel's incumbent minister of defense [Amir Peretz] to initiate the development of an active defense system against short-range rockets. The failure to do so earlier is another indication of the low significance attributed to the rocket campaign against the south of the country by the political leadership of the time. [emphasis added]

The Second Lebanon War came to an end in mid-August, 2006 and Israel was focusing on the failure to secure an undisputed victory. During this time of soul searching, the priority was on rebuilding the IDF, recovering from economic losses, and repairing damage in northern Israel. The needs of the Israeli communities near Gaza were put on the back burner.

The decision to start development on Iron Dome was not taken until February, 2007 and Israeli bureaucracy delayed not only the development of Iron Dome but also the government-sponsored building of shelters.

The report gives several reasons for this:

  • The slow increase in the number of rockets and casualties after the first rocket hit Sderot in 2001 lulled residents as well as local and national leaders into inactivity. o A full-scale defense initiative against the rockets would have been an admission that the Disengagement was responsible for a deterioration in Israel's security.

  • There was disagreement over the correct strategy in response to the Qassams. Eli Moyal, the Mayor of Sderot was one of those who believed that civil protection was an admission that Israel was acceding to terrorist aggression -- "to accept civil protection is to accept terror as part of your life" and that instead of defensive measures, "the war should have been pursued aggressively."

  • There was a concern that as the terrorist rockets increased in range and efficiency, and more communities were put at risk, so too would there be an increased demand for costly population protection.

Today, we proudly point to Israel's system of shelters against terrorist attack from Gaza.

But according to Rubin:

In his 2005 report on the status of the school and kindergarten sheltering program in Sderot, the State Comptroller condemned the government's mishandling of the situation, calling it "a continuous debacle." This harsh term could well describe the government's handling of the entire sheltering program in southern Israel.

Israel has come a long way since that 2011 report, especially in terms of Iron Dome, which is now in demand by other countries facing similar threats.

But we tend to forget the initial slow response by Israel to the Qassam threat, and that may have served in part as an initial excuse by the international community to downplay the dangerous threat that Hamas rockets increasingly pose to Israeli civilians.


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