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Civilians First

By Assaf Sagiv

Only in Israel does concern for the safety of soldiers override the state’s obligation to defend its civilians.

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In 1847, disaster befell a Portuguese Jew by the name of David Pacifico, a trader living in Athens. An anti-Semitic mob stormed his house, looted its contents, and left it wrecked and vandalized. The beleaguered merchant appealed to the Greek authorities, demanding compensation for the considerable financial losses caused by the attack. He was turned down. A British subject by birth, he then turned to Her Majesty’s government, which responded with decisive force. In 1850, a Royal Navy squadron was dispatched to the Aegean Sea, where it seized Greek ships, confiscated property, and even blockaded the port of Piraeus for two months. The blockade was lifted only when the Greek government agreed to pay Pacifico restitution.
These punitive actions caused an international uproar: France and Russia, which along with Britain sponsored the fledgling Greek state, protested vehemently against the blockade. Even London itself was bitterly split over the issue. The House of Lords condemned the sanctions, but the House of Commons reversed the sentence following a lengthy speech delivered by Lord Palmerston, the foreign minister. The renowned statesman appealed to British legislators’ sense of national pride, and justified his country’s intervention on Pacifico’s behalf by recalling an ancient and revered precedent: “As the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity when he could say, Civis Romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen], so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong.”
Some one hundred thirty years after this proclamation, the State of Israel proved that such commitments are not solely the privilege of imperial powers like Rome or Britain. Even a small country is sometimes prepared to take far-reaching measures-in more than one sense of the word-to defend its citizens against acts of aggression. On the night of July 3, 1976, an elite Israel Defense Forces (IDF) task force raided Uganda’s Entebbe airport in a daring effort to free ninety-eight Israeli and Jewish hostages held by a group of European and Palestinian terrorists. The rescue mission, which came to be known as “Operation Yonatan” (named after its commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, who gave his life in the raid), was crowned a dizzying success, and is today considered one of Israel’s finest moments. The pride felt by both Israelis and Jews the world over stemmed not only from the extraordinary operational achievement of the IDF, but also from knowing that-in this case at least-the young country had lived up to its promise of coming to the aid of Jews everywhere, even if it meant jeopardizing the lives of its finest soldiers in the process.
But in the three decades that have passed since the Entebbe raid, and particularly in the last few years, Israel’s commitment to defending its citizens from the ceaseless aggression of its enemies has eroded considerably. Certainly the residents of the beleaguered Negev town of Sderot would agree with this statement: Many of them believe that Israel’s political and military leadership has not done all it can to stop, or even substantially reduce, the rocket attacks that have endangered their lives and property for the last six years. Indeed, the rise of an Islamic terrorist regime in the Gaza Strip-and the concomitant deterioration in the living conditions of the Jewish communities nearby-has continued far too long without a serious Israeli response. Sderot’s mayor, Eli Moyal, merely expresses a widely held opinion when he insists that the government knows full well what it must do to deal effectively with the rocket threat, “but it simply doesn’t have the courage.”
At the time of this writing, the Israeli government still has not ordered a comprehensive and systematic action against the Hamas terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, despite near-unanimous agreement that an extensive ground operation there is unavoidable. There are, of course, good reasons to delay such an order; Israel is hardly anxious to open yet another round of bloody clashes with the Palestinians, the results of which will most certainly be extensive civilian casualties, wall-to-wall international condemnation, and a torpedoed political process-however faltering it may already be-with “moderate” Palestinian leaders. But there seems to be another reason no less, and perhaps more, important for the hesitation displayed by Israel’s political and security elite on this issue. In an article published in the Hebrew daily Haaretz in March 2007, commentator Amir Oren described the persistent nightmare that hangs over both government and IDF decision makers: “A campaign in Gaza… will be effective only if it is thorough and protracted,” he wrote. “The price in Israeli casualties threatens to be heavy: According to one of the unofficial estimates-fifty to eighty dead and nine times as many wounded. The majority of the casualties are expected to be from regular infantry divisions, as well as the engineering, armored, and special forces units.” Such a high casualty rate, he continued, will make it difficult for Israeli society-and in turn, its leaders-to maintain the patience and resolve required for a serious campaign against Gaza’s terrorists. “IDF casualties will undermine public support for the campaign, even if the provocation for it is a horrendous terrorist attack,” emphasized Oren.
In the face of such a scenario, the Israeli government’s trepidation is understandable. The loss of a single soldier is a tragedy not only for the bereaved family, but for the entire nation. Nonetheless, a government policy that leaves its civilians at the mercy of the enemy in order to avoid military casualties is not merely a gross strategic error with ruinous longterm consequences. It is also a betrayal of the state’s fundamental duty to its citizens. Sadly, this misguided order of priorities has already taken root in Israeli public discourse, becoming a near-unimpeachable consensus that guides politicians and commanders alike. Thus, we must not avoid an open and honest debate on this sensitive matter, nor refrain from pointing out some of its problematic ramifications.
 
The extreme equivocation, bordering on impotence, that characterizes Israeli policy towards the metastasizing cancer of Gaza-based terrorism is, not coincidentally, reminiscent of the confusion and indecisiveness that plagued decision makers during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Then as now, Israeli leaders preferred, at least initially, to avoid sending massive ground forces over the border, largely out of concern that such a move would endanger too many soldiers’ lives. And then as now, the home front, forsaken by the government, felt exposed and vulnerable to the enemy’s wrath.
This feeling was, unfortunately, entirely accurate: Over the course of thirty-three days, from July 12 until August 14, Hezbollah fired close to four thousand rockets from South Lebanon into northern Israel. A quarter of these rockets hit population centers, killing thirty-nine civilians and damaging more than twelve thousand buildings. Others landed in open areas, causing fires that set hundreds of acres of natural woodland ablaze. More than two thousand civilians sustained either physical injury or mental trauma (or both); more than 300,000 residents left their homes for safer areas to the south; and tens of thousands spent endless days in bomb shelters. The economic damage has been estimated at billions of shekels. Israel’s civilian population has not suffered such heavy wartime blows since 1948.
The barrage of rockets that wrought disaster on Israel’s north, along with Hezbollah’s stubborn battles against IDF ground forces, revealed to the Israeli public the true extent of the Shi’ite guerilla organization’s entrenchment in South Lebanon. Since the IDF’s withdrawal from the region in May 2000, Hezbollah had worked incessantly to enlist and train new fighters, undergone exhaustive rearmament, established a ramified system of bunkers along the border, and deployed thousands of rockets aimed at Israel. These systematic preparations, undertaken with the encouragement and assistance of both Iran and Syria, went wholly uninterrupted by Israel. In an article recently published in the book The Second Lebanon War: Strategic Dimensions, Giora Rom, a senior analyst at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and ex-deputy commander of the Israeli air force, explains the strategic approach that led to this long-running fiasco: “The IDF’s aversion to a ground operation in South Lebanon goes back many years, and reflects a worldview according to which removing the rockets’ threat to civilians does not justify the price (i.e., the lives of soldiers), and the solution to the operational problem is to be found elsewhere.”
This desire to find the solution “elsewhere” dictated Israel’s initial decision, in the first two weeks of the war, to concentrate on aerial bombardment of Hezbollah strongholds, artillery shelling of South Lebanon, and a limited deployment of infantry, armored, and engineering forces in villages close to the border. Only when this impressive display of power failed to achieve the hoped-for results did the necessity of an extensive ground operation begin to sink in. The psychological impasse that led to the postponement of the inevitable is delineated in journalist Amir Rappaport’s 2007 book Friendly Fire (Lebanon), which describes, among other things, the dramatic cabinet meeting of July 27, two weeks and a day after the outbreak of hostilities. Then-IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz, who had by now forsaken the illusion that Hezbollah’s power could be broken through air strikes alone, proposed a full-scale call-up of IDF reserves. Yet Shaul Mofaz, the minister of transportation, and former minister of defense and IDF chief of staff, objected to the proposal. Mofaz, writes Rappaport

said straight out what the others preferred to keep to themselves: “The Israeli public is extremely sensitive to the price this is extracting from us.” He pointed out that thirty-two soldiers had been killed since the beginning of the fighting. He didn’t count the many civilians who had been killed by rockets. “We shouldn’t distinguish between blood and blood, but the public takes casualties among soldiers hard, harder than casualties among civilians. Especially in wartime,” said the transportation minister. Nobody bothered to mention that the IDF’s job is to defend the country’s civilian population, even at the cost of endangering the lives of soldiers.
Mofaz’s view is hardly exceptional; it has, in fact, been a guiding principle behind many of the country’s important political and military decisions. Perhaps the most striking of these are various prisoner exchanges in which Israel has released thousands of terrorists for a mere handful of POWs or MIAs. The journalist Ben Caspit, writing in the Hebrew daily Maariv this past October, defined Israeli policy on such deals in one word: “Recklessness.” “The international price list decided upon in this insane game,” he rages, “decreed that Israel should release thousands of murderers and terrorists in return for one soldier in the best-case scenario, the body of a soldier in a lesser case, and a drug dealer at worst. It will always be the same picture: On the one hand, buses packed with jubilant terrorists on their way to freedom, and on the other hand, one solitary soldier or three coffins.”

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