A year ago, Shimon Peres admonished the residents of Sderot for fleeing their homes because of the Qassam rockets. "Qassams, shmassams," the then vice premier said scornfully. This week, Ehud Olmert repeated that same attitude: "We will not shelter ourselves to death," he declared during a cabinet meeting, and made it clear that he opposed the evacuation of the Sderot residents because "whoever evacuates Sderot, condemns Ashkelon and then Ashdod."
A month after Peres ridiculed the destructive capacity of the Palestinian rockets, and their impact on the fortitude of the Sderot residents, hundreds of thousands of residents in the North proved that they are also unable to stay in their communities while Hezbollah rockets are raining down on them. Then the Winograd Committee and the state comptroller made an appearance, and in words of extreme severity spelled out the failures of Olmert, Peres and the rest of the cabinet in protecting the home front.
Now the prime minister says that "we will not shelter ourselves to death," and wants to say that unlimited structural reinforcement against rockets is a strategy his government refuses to adopt because it is tantamount to suicide.
Very well. But what alternative is he offering the residents of the city under fire? Does he want them to sit in their vulnerable homes and pray? Is that not suicidal? Those close to him, and his experts, claim that reinforcing all educational institutions in Sderot (as the Supreme Court ordered the government to do) is a waste, impractical and useless because Hamas is improving the destructive impact of the rockets in its arsenal.
According to this viewpoint, in this arms race Israel will never be able to match, through its defensive reinforcement, the increasing range and penetrative abilities of the rockets and missiles that Hamas is likely to develop or acquire.
"I favor investing in tools that will bring about victory in a military campaign," Olmert argued during this week's cabinet meeting. "It is a lot more appropriate than defensive reinforcement," he added.
This is a statement by a man who a year ago proved to be completely unable to manage the enormous military machine available to the state. This is what a prime minister says to the residents of a weak town who are exposed to incessant bombing for the past seven years, and without the Israel Defense Forces - with all the sophisticated systems in its arsenal - being able to provide them with the basic security necessary to lead a normal life.
It was said in the past: T he Sderot residents are not unusual in their defeatist responses to the rocket attacks. This is the way the residents of Kiryat Shmona responded in the early 1980s, this is the way the Tel Aviv residents responded to the sound of explosions of Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles during the first Gulf War, and this was the response of the residents of the Gilo neighborhood in Jerusalem at the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. The more than half a million citizens who fled the Katyusha threat last summer have already been mentioned. People find it difficult to remain indifferent to the threat to their lives overhead; their basic instinct drives them to seek shelter. And if this is not possible in their homes, or nearby, they will go to a place where they can find refuge.
The political leadership has different expectations: They read about the unwavering courage of Degania and Negba, and they learned by heart the famous line attributed to Yosef Trumpeldor, "It is good to die for our country."
However, today's Israeli citizen is made of different stuff; 90 years following the battle of Tel Hai in which Trumpeldor was killed, and 60 years after the War of Independence, he is a regular mortal. Heroes were always in the minority. The role of the state is to respond to the needs of the general public and not evade its responsibilities by setting standards that only a handful of people in any society are capable of matching.
Sderot urgently needs to return to a life of routine, free of Qassam rockets. It may have been possible to keep them in place, and possibly make them pay the cost, were there to be a light at the end of the tunnel. But the Olmert government is not promising to solve their existential crisis - neither militarily nor politically. The residents of Sderot, on the one hand, see that their government is unwilling to hold a dialogue with Hamas; on the other hand, they hear that the IDF has no satisfactory response to the attacks they suffer.
The ethos of fighting until the last bullet was in the hearts of the soldiers and citizens who struggled to establish the state. In the name of what principle is Olmert demanding that the residents of Sderot should stop feeling that they are cannon fodder?
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