During the week whose the Torah portion has Abraham urging God not to impose a collective punishment on Sodom, the military establishment decided to impose harsh sanctions against the residents of the Gaza Strip: To harass them by cutting the electricity and fuel supplies. Unlike the biblical story, however, the degree of conviction that can be ascribed to Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his advisers regarding the necessity of the punishment is not absolute. They call the move a "test": If it works, fine; if not, they'll think of something else.
Even if one ignores the moral significance of the decision and focuses only on its expected benefits, one must conclude that it should be reversed immediately. According to reports by Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel in Friday's Haaretz, the Israel Defense Forces recommended the sanctions even though it knew they would not achieve the declared goal: to stop the rocket and mortar shells. The sweeping collective punishment was aimed at a different target: readying the Israeli public for a major, sustained ground operation deep in the Gaza Strip and persuading it, especially the residents of Sderot and its environs, that the IDF is "doing everything" to stop the Qassam rockets. That motivation functions almost as an alien consideration in the context of the issue at hand: If the military establishment knows from the outset that the harsh measure it is about to institute cannot achieve its goal, then why did it decide to recommend it anyway? This question becomes even more significant given that the person championing the decision is Ehud Barak, the man who accused Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his cabinet (prior to joining it) of being overly hasty in launching what became the Second Lebanon War. He is the one preaching calm and collected action on the military and diplomatic front in light of the state's sensitive situation.
Experience teaches that subjecting the Palestinians to collective punishment - roadblocks, curfews or economic pressure - has not brought the desired result. Just the opposite: it increases the terror organizations' motivation to strike at Israel, and increases the number of potential suicide bombers. In addition, the use of collective punishment damages Israel's image and efforts to gain international understanding for its position in the conflict with the Palestinians. Common sense would thus suggest avoiding this method. To put it simply, in terms of costs versus benefits - the idea of harassing Gazans to the point of depriving them of fuel and electricity deserves to be shelved in light of the price Israel will have to pay for implementing this plan. It can be inferred based on what Olmert told Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Friday that he understands this: A statement released after the two leaders met in Jerusalem said the prime minister promised his guest that Israel would not cause a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. If that is the case, then what is the point of publicizing Israel's plans to impose wide-ranging sanctions on Gaza's population? Either the intention is to harass them mercilessly, in which case one may question the value of the prime minister's promise to the PA leader; or to harass them only to a "tolerable" degree - in which case, what's the point in harassing them?
There is a moral message to the decision, too: When Israel assassinates terrorists and injures innocent bystanders, it claims in its defense that that was not its intention, and that the terror organizations' operational methods force it to act as it does. It is doubtful that this argument passes the test of morality, since some might argue that if Israel knows from the start that its actions will harm innocent victims, then it should avoid such actions. How much more so when the state walks, eyes wide open, into a moral and legal trap, in preparing to knowingly impose a collective punishment whose purpose is to harm tens of thousands of completely innocent people. So what should be done to combat the Qassams? Instead of trying economic siege and power outages and limited raids and ground campaigns and targeted assassinations - how about trying to reach a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians founded on a genuine Israeli willingness to give up the territories?
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