Unless there’s change, Israel will act

Colin Rubenstein

(The following is a full, unedited version of an article that appeared in the Sunday Age – May 13, 2007)

The recent Winograd Committee preliminary report, assessing Israel’s performance in last year’s Hezbollah-Israel conflict, was highly critical of the relevant political and military leaders. It reflects a negative public mood and prospects for a change of political leadership seems to be in the offing.

It is proof that Israel’s democratic process works – shortcomings to both political decision-making and military preparedness are being remedied. Unfortunately, there are signs that Israel may soon need enhanced political wisdom and military skill if the situations in Lebanon and Gaza do not change soon.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah is re-arming rapidly, thanks to Syrian and Iranian munificence, and may soon have more rockets than it had before the outbreak of war on July 12 last year.

On that day, Hezbollah fired dozens rockets into Israel and then launched a cross-border raid, capturing two soldiers and killing eight others. These shots were only the continuation of a campaign that began in 2000, following Israel’s UN-certified withdrawal of its forces from all Lebanese territory.

This has included many attempts to kill or abduct Israelis and regular firing of rockets, anti-aircraft shells and small arms across the border. Israel restrained itself, hoping to avoid giving Hezbollah a pretext for further attacks and that eventually the UN would fulfil its mandate under Security Council resolutions to disarm Hezbollah. Instead, however, Hezbollah rapidly built up its military infrastructure of tens of thousands of rockets and heavily fortified bunkers. When, last July, Hezbollah added eight Israeli lives to the 24 it had taken in the previous six years, Jerusalem decided it had to react to this threat.

The Winograd and other criticisms in Israel of the war are of the failure to respond effectively enough, not of the war’s legality or morality.

Nonetheless, by the August 14 ceasefire, Hezbollah was dramatically, though temporarily, weakened – both by the loss of trained fighters, bases and rockets and because the UN mandate to disarm Hezbollah was strengthened. Moreover, the Lebanese army was deployed to the southern border for the first time since the 1970s.

The hope was that Israel’s inconclusive victory would allow Lebanese sovereignty to re-assert itself. If Lebanon controlled its own foreign and defence policy, last year’s war would not have happened. Hezbollah is a Lebanese militia, but its leaders admit that their orders, as well as money, arms and training, come from Teheran and Damascus. However, Beirut and the UN have so far been unable or unwilling to disarm Hezbollah – instead weapons for Hezbollah continue to flood across the Syrian border, in direct contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.

Another Hezbollah-Israel conflict looks very likely in coming months – both sides say they are preparing.

The Palestinian government, meanwhile, has no more concern for the welfare of the Palestinian population than Hezbollah has for the Lebanese population at large.

Since the election of Hamas in January 2006, a terrorist organisation proudly dedicated to destroying Israel, Palestinian quality of life has decreased, despite an increase in total international aid to the Palestinian people. This is not simply the result of the international embargo on direct aid to the Palestinian Authority government as long as it insists on condoning violence, rejecting Israel’s right to exist, and refusing to be bound by past Israeli-Palestinian agreements – stances that contravene the whole purpose which aid to the Palestinian Authority was intended to fulfil.

Hamas is following the Hezbollah model in Gaza. Arms are flooding in under the Gaza-Egypt border, largely from Hamas’ patron, Iran. Bunkers, weapons caches and fortified rooms from which to launch attacks against Israeli soldiers are all being constructed in Gaza’s crowded cities. Hamas is ostensibly maintaining a ceasefire against Israel, but in fact, is helping other groups, such as Islamic Jihad and Fatah factions, to fire rockets at Israeli towns almost daily.

Hamas’ loyalists receive funds and jobs, other Palestinians typically suffer. Meanwhile, efforts to indoctrinate society into their Islamist model of eternal violence against Israel continue – the recent case of Hamas TV using a Mickey Mouse doppelganger to indoctrinate children on the virtues of jihad, terrorism and martyrdom is only one example of a wider phenomenon.

Further, clashes between armed supporters of Hamas and Fatah have turned into general violence between various armed clans and bands, leaving over a hundred Palestinians dead this year.

The establishment of a Palestinian national unity government in February has not significantly changed this reality. Hamas is very much the dominant partner, the government platform does not alter Hamas’ rejectionist stance, while law and order and delivery of services have not improved.

An Israeli incursion into Gaza to dismantle the rocket factories and stockpiles and catch or kill the rocket crews is expected in the next few months if matters do not change there soon. Any such effort would be bloody both for Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters and civilians, because as noted, Hamas is placing military assets in civilian areas and fortifying them.

However, Israel will have no choice. With Iranian and Hezbollah help, Hamas and Fatah rocket attacks into Israel are becoming more effective and longer in range. Large Israeli towns are increasingly under threat. Moreover, a massive power plant, providing a quarter of Israeli electricity, will also soon be in range.

But neither of the expected bloody conflicts in Lebanon or Gaza are inevitable. The key to both is cutting off arms supplies and preventing outside interference. UN Resolution 1701 has to be enforced by the UN forces in Lebanon. Weapons smuggling into Gaza must cease, where Egypt needs to make a greater effort. The Arab world must be prevailed upon to make the Palestinan government at least stop the rocket fire into Israel. Finally, Teheran and Damascus must be held to account for the damage they are unleashing with their illegal arms shipments to Hamas and Hezbollah.

Otherwise, Israeli action in self-defence will be the inevitable and understandable outcome.

Dr Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. See the edited version of this article, published in the Sunday Age.