Thursday, June 29, 2006

Taken hostage

By Yossi Klein Halevi

Why Israel's attack on Gaza isn't enough

JERUSALEM — What's the news?" we ask each other, and everyone understands that the question refers to Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas. Though the old socialist Israel is barely a memory, in times of crisis we again become collectivized.

Nothing unites Israelis in outrage more than the seizure of hostages. Next week, on July 4, Israel will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Entebbe operation that freed over a hundred Israeli hostages, and little has changed since then in the national ethos of rescue. The last Zionist ideal still shared by most Israelis is the determination to fight back. An Israeli soldier held hostage is a taunt against the Zionist promise of self-defense, an unbearable reminder of Jewish helplessness.

Our obsession with hostages is a tactical weakness but a strategic strength. It allows terrorists a stunning psychological advantage: With a single random kidnapping, they hold an entire society emotionally hostage. Strategically, though, hostage-taking only strengthens Israeli resolve.

And resolve is precisely what the public now expects of its government. So far, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has responded well. He began by issuing two policy guidelines in dealing with the hostage crisis. The first is that Israel won't negotiate over Gilad's release and won't exchange prisoners. The second is that Hamas leaders — "political" as well as "military" — will be held personally accountable for the fate of Gilad.

If Olmert's government hopes to retain its credibility among Israelis, it needs to maintain those two principles.

In recent months, the public has become increasingly disillusioned with the government's failure to adequately respond to the almost daily rocket attacks on Israeli towns and villages, especially Sderot. No Israeli town within the 1967 borders has experienced the kind of relentless attacks that Sderot has suffered. Even Hizbollah's Katyusha rocket attacks on the northern town of Kiryat Shmona in the early 1980s occurred in waves, with periods of reprieve between them. In the ten months since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, though, Sderot has barely known a day of peace.

After the withdrawal, Israelis expected the government to enforce a policy of zero-tolerance for Palestinian attacks emanating from Gaza, even for attacks that didn't cause fatalities. Instead, the government responded unevenly, often ignoring rocket attacks that caused no damage.

Many Israelis see Hamas's raid on an Israeli military post within the 1967 borders as a result of the weakness Israel has projected. In yesterday's letters column in the daily Maariv, for example, the hardline consensus was almost unanimous. "We told you so," wrote one reader who identified himself as "right wing." "Why doesn't Israel shut off electricity and water to Gaza?" demanded another reader. "Enough words, it's time to act," insisted a third.

That perception of weakness could have far-reaching domestic consequences. The premise of Olmert's centrist party, Kadima, is that only a hawkish approach on security will convince Israelis to implement a dovish policy on territory. Given the Sderot precedent, though, Olmert is failing to uphold that centrist doctrine. For Olmert to win the public's agreement for another unilateral withdrawal, he needs to begin proving that he is capable of defending Tel Aviv from Palestinian rockets. And the place to begin convincing Israelis is Gaza.

The military invasion of Gaza that began last night, and whose purpose is to surround the area where Gilad is presumably being held, must only be the first step. A brief invasion, a "show of force," is hardly adequate. Instead, Israel needs to resume its policy of systematically targeting Hamas leaders, just as it did several years ago, culminating in the assassination of Sheik Yassin. That policy drove most of Hamas deep underground and led to the cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Resuming assassinations against Hamas's political echelon is, of course, a declaration of war against the Hamas regime. But given its official sanctioning of kidnapping, Hamas has already declared war against Israel. Hamas's adoption of the tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq comes as no surprise. After the killing of Zarqawi, Hamas issued a statement mourning his death and urging continued "resistance," thereby making the Hamas regime the world's only openly pro-Al Qaeda government. Unfortunately, the international media missed the significance of that moment.

That lapse in media judgment is worth recalling in the coming days, when much of the media will be presenting the "prisoners' document" — a set of demands drawn up by Hamas and Fatah members imprisoned in Israel — as a historic Hamas concession, offering "tacit" recognition of Israel. In fact, the document does nothing of the sort. Nowhere does the document recognize the right of Israel to exist. Instead, it calls for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, followed by the "right" of Palestinian refugees to resettle in Israel and demographically overwhelm the Jewish state. The prisoners' document, in other words, is a plan for the phased destruction of Israel — precisely why Hamas can endorse it.

Driving on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, I saw this graffiti: "Olmert, gadol alecha" — which roughly translates as, "Olmert, the job is bigger than you are." For Olmert to disprove that growing suspicion among Israelis, he must commit himself to the destruction of the Hamas regime. Sooner or later, Israel will have no choice but to adopt that policy. The only question is whether Olmert will still be prime minister when that happens.

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