by Hugh Fitzgerald
Having been soundly defeated in the May war with Israel, but delusional in its conviction that it had won that war merely by still standing, Hamas has this August embarked on a new round of hostilities, this time in the form of sending incendiary balloons into the Jewish state, which upon landing have started fires on farms and forests in southern Israel, and in a revival of the Great March of Return, in which thousands of Palestinians gathered to march up to, in an attempt to breach, Israel’s security fence. The marchers threw explosives, including Molotov cocktails, at the IDF soldiers, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. This time, a Palestinian armed with a gun shot a border policeman in the head; he has since died.
More on the burden for Israelis of maintaining relative calm with Gaza, ever since Jerusalem’s complete withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, is reported here: “Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza echoes in US withdrawal of Afghanistan – opinion,” by Benjamin Anthony, Jerusalem Post, August 24, 2021:
The unilateral withdrawal from Gaza removed 8,500 Israeli citizens and soldiers from the enclave. Twenty-one Jewish communities within the Gaza strip were uprooted. The final resting place of those Israelis buried within the Strip proved to be anything but final, as their bodies were exhumed for reburial inside Israel; the loss felt by those by whom they were mourned renewed. Synagogues were razed and the agricultural infrastructure used by Jewish communities in the Strip to make the desert bloom and to attain self-reliance were smashed by Palestinian-Arabs hell-bent on pursuing perennial reliance on the international community and wanton self-immiseration; to be weaponized against the Jewish state.
In unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza, the Israeli government uprooted 8,500 Jews. It left intact for the Palestinians the 3,000 greenhouses those Israeli settlers had built, hoping they would be used by the residents of Gaza to take over the thriving export business in flowers and fruit that the Jews in Gaza settlements had started. It was not to be. Instead, the Palestinians vandalized and destroyed all of those greenhouses, apparently uninterested in carrying on the agricultural business the Israelis had left to them as a turnkey operation.
The government that oversaw Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza failed to provide appropriate housing, employment or compensation to too many displaced Jews who needed to rebuild their broken lives. Unilateral withdrawal, a gambit served up by a prime minister of the Israeli right and feted by many on the left as one that would grant Israel greater international approval – a naive hope if ever there was one – fashioned a permanent rend within Israeli society. No international legitimacy followed. No domestic consensus was forged….
It was Ariel Sharon who, though on the right, was responsible for Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza; Israelis fondly hoped that such a move might win it greater international approval, but nothing of the sort happened. Instead, the pressure only intensified on the Jewish state to remove its settlers from the “occupied West Bank” as it had from Gaza.
This commemoration of the disengagement [from Gaza in 2005] coincides with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. As the scenes resulting from that policy are internalized and judgment best rendered by Americans, it is appropriate to highlight those aspects of unilateral withdrawal that are particular to the state and the citizens of Israel, contrasting as they are with the experiences of most democracies, with a view to ensuring that even as others may have the luxury of pursuing such a policy, Israel has no such option.
Typically, when democracies withdraw from a stronghold, the majority of their civilians observe the fallout from afar. The home front is rarely impacted directly. When Israel withdraws, its conscripted military, its citizen-soldiers and its home front feel the effects of withdrawal in their daily lives, for years and generations to come. The folly of unrequited concessions for peace reverberates in Israeli backyards and living rooms; literally and figuratively….
The Taliban takeover is to be regretted, but it does not directly threaten Americans – Afghanistan is 7,400 miles from the U.S. Gaza, however, is located right on the border with Israel, and what happens in the Strip affects all of Israel, with the constant threat of rockets being launched into the Jewish state, incendiary balloons let loose over Israel to set fire to farmland and forests, and marches by thousands of Palestinians attempting to violently breach Israel’s security fence. Nor is it only Israel’s professional soldiers, but the Jewish state’s citizen-soldiers who have been called up repeatedly to fight Hamas; such call-ups disrupts the smooth functioning of their professional and family lives.
When Sharon unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, hoping for plaudits from the “international community” that never materialized, he missed a chance to force Hamas into signing a peace treaty, including a pledge to demilitarize the Strip, in order to obtain that withdrawal.
Israel has been forced to fight four defensive wars with Hamas in Gaza; in each of those wars, the number, and reach, of Hamas’ rockets have increased, so that now five million Jews — two-thirds of Israel’s Jewish population — are now within reach of its rocket fire.
Most of the Hamas rockets are fired indiscriminately into southern Israel, into such cities as Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Netivot, where the “other Israelis” – Mizrahi Jews from Arab lands – live. The inhabitants are left to absorb the blows from Hamas, until such time as Israel, provoked by attacks on such centers of Ashkenazi Jewry as Tel Aviv and Haifa, massively retaliates against Hamas in what the IDF calls “mowing the lawn.”
Israel has chosen to be always in a reactive mode with Hamas. It is the terror group, not Israel, that decides when hostilities begin, and with what intensity.
The IDF is largely a citizen-army. There is universal conscription, two years and eight months in the case of adult Jewish males, and two years for female conscripts. In addition, Israeli Jewish males must spend 36 days a year on duty as reservists, until they reach the age of 40. But military duties of such length can wreak havoc with their professional lives. It’s important that Israel conduct its wars swiftly, crushing the enemy so that its citizen-soldiers can quickly return to their civilian lives, minimizing the disruption to Israel’s economy.
A smudging of that social contract emerged when the term “mowing the lawn” was coined by Israeli strategists some years ago to describe policy toward Gaza. The term was applauded for its pithiness and wisdom. But neither the phrase nor the policy it describes were ever wise and the subject matter is ill-suited to cheap sloganism.
The reservists mobilized to carry out the policy are Israel’s professionals and entrepreneurs. They are Israel’s fathers and mothers. Only utterly detached governments could view a policy that drafts such individuals from their boardrooms to the battlefield – with a frequency more intense than that of World Cup soccer tournaments – as reasonable.
The author alludes to the damage done to the Israeli economy by the “professionals and entrepreneurs” who are taken away from their critical roles in the economy, not once but repeatedly, to yet again help deal a blow to Hamas heavy enough to buy some years of relative calm. That constitutes “mowing the lawn” – a phrase, and a practice, the author deplores. He wants Israel to uproot that lawn, not merely mow it.
Drafting the same individuals to face down the same enemy with the same lack of conclusion; who return from the battlefield escorted by the same foreboding sense that they will soon return to the same fray within the coming few years is not a serious policy. Men and women, drafted by the tens of thousands, cannot be asked to place their lives on the line in pursuit of “mowing the lawn,” a clear legacy of the disengagement.
The author was drafted into two such inconclusive campaigns. He has no wife and no children and so listened carefully to the conversations of his fellow reservists as they wished their first child goodnight in 2012 and their second child the same in 2014. These men have too much at stake to be disrupted so dramatically, as do those who await their return from combat.
Strategists often argue that the pursuit of conclusive military outcomes requires large-scale campaigns that yield large-scale casualties. As a result, the still only effective method of destroying terror organizations, a sustained incursion by the ground forces, is avoided at almost any cost. Witness again the sullying of the social contract. It is the task of the military to defend the citizenry, not the other way around. Since the disengagement, Israel’s citizenry has borne increasingly more of the brunt of what emanates from the Gaza Strip and they have been designated to do so in order to spare the military. The appropriate dynamic has been inverted and must be righted once more.
Since the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, it is Israel’s citizen-soldiers who have been repeatedly called on to fight Hamas, in the four wars that have erupted, instead of that task being largely entrusted to professional military men.
All military casualties are painful, but a ground force as casualty-averse as Israel’s has become, risks no longer being a ground force at all. Gradually, it will become something of a police force, best used in matters of law enforcement, not in war fighting. The IDF has long traded on the power of deterrence. Yet where Gaza is concerned, it is clear that not only has Israel lost much of its deterrence – tragically it is Israel that has now become deterred.
The strategy of deterrence Is obviously not working in Gaza: Hamas has not hesitated to start four wars with Israel. It is the IDF that, because it is determined to minimize its own casualties, refuses to commit to a ground invasion. And thus it, not Hamas, that is deterred. Israel does not crush Hamas, but “polices” the terror group in Gaza, rather than invading, dismembering, and destroying Hamas, which would obviate the need to again – in a few years – “mow the grass.”
Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza provided Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad with the space and time to expand, plan and execute. Israel’s weakest enemy has evolved into a strategic threat. A game Hamas, if joined by Hezbollah or another, will stress test to the maximum Israel’s ability to defend herself on two fronts simultaneously.
When Israel withdrew from Gaza, it left a vacuum that was then filled by Hamas, which drove out Fatah in 2007 and turned Gaza into Hamastan. The terror group began to acquire a huge arsenal of weapons, most smuggled in from Egypt’s Sinai, and to enroll tens of thousands of recruits, who could be trained inside Gaza, far from the prying eyes of the IDF. And Hamas also began to build its vast underground network of tunnels, that the IDF calls “the Metro,” where it could safely hide, and move around, both men and weapons.
Many invoke the disengagement as evidence that Jewish populations in Judea and Samaria may also be uprooted in exchange for a viable peace. Such opinions ought to be viewed askance. They ignore the lessons of the past and of the present. Far more congruent with the consequences of the Gaza withdrawal is the realization that unilateral withdrawal has not and will not work. Repeating the errors of Gaza in Judea and Samaria will simply repeat and expand the list of crises Israel faces. Its societal rift will deepen and likely turn violent. Vacated territory will become a larger hotbed for terror. Israel’s main population areas will be not at the furthest limits of its enemy’s firepower but in the near ground and when Israel defends itself, it will garner only greater international criticism, sanction and censure; and it will have to draft ever more of its citizens to fight the same conflict against a never-changing enemy.
The Gaza withdrawal is not, as some leftist Israelis believe, a model that should be repeated by Jewish settlers being removed from Judea and Samaria. Gaza is now a permanent threat, that it never was when Israeli settlers were there, acting as a buffer protecting Israel. Were Israelis to withdraw from Judea and Samaria, the PA (or more likely Hamas, which is more popular) would simply expand its presence, while Israel would be squeezed back within the 1949 armistice lines, described by Abba Eban as “the lines of Auschwitz.” That would leave Israel with a nine-mile-wide waist from Qalqilya to the sea, an inviting target for invaders from the east, who might cut the country in two in the space of a morning.
Some speak of the demographic threat to Israel to justify further withdrawal. Even if real, such an eventuality is far from upon [sic] Israel. Israel would be wiser to avoid present kinetic threats than to pursue policies that defer to perceived threats that may never actualize. Rejecting further concessions would be a good first step….
The “demographic threat” of Arabs supposedly outnumbering Jews in Israel has been shown to be hollow. The fertility rate for Israeli Arabs has sunk while that for Israeli Jews continues to increase. In 1969, Israel’s Arab fertility rate was six births higher than the Jewish rate. In 2015, the fertility rates for both Jews and Arabs were 3.13 births per woman, reflecting the dramatic Westernization of Israel’s Arab population, triggered by the enhanced social status of Arab women, a rising marriage age, expanded participation of women in the job market, and shorter reproductive time. In 2019, the Jewish fertility rate was 3.09, while the Arab fertility rate declined to 2.98, and continues to decrease, while the fertility rate for Israeli Jews bottomed out in 2019, now stands at 3.1, and shows every sign of steadily increasing.
The number of Israeli Jewish births in 2020 (134,866) was 68 percent higher than in 1995 (80,400), while the number of Israeli Arab births in 2020 was 16 percent higher (42,435) than 1995 (36,500), as reported in the March 2021 Monthly Bulletin of Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
The demographic “time bomb” of Israeli Arabs that some claim will overwhelm Israeli Jews does not exist.
Israel’s unhappy experience with its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, that so far has resulted in four wars, offers a hard-won lesson: the Jewish state must never again engage in such one-sided territorial concessions. Whatever Israel decides – whether to annex part, or all, of Judea and Samaria, and under what conditions exacted from the Palestinians – must reflect that lesson.
First published in Jihad Watch.