Opinion

Israeli Leaders' Unspoken Advice to the People: 'Get Used to the Rocket Fire'

An Iron Dome battery near Sderot.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In January 2016, senior people from the General Staff met to discuss what then-Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot called “relations between the army and society.” The forum discussed various points of friction between the Israel Defense Forces and society including the defense budget and its impact on civilian budgets, the military’s exceptionally early age for retiring with full pension, and what is known as the “security output” – whether Israelis are receiving enough security for the money spent.

The discussion took place about 18 months after the 2014 Gaza war that saw residents of the south and even some in the center of the country spend 50 days in bomb shelters – more than during any previous operation, including the Second Lebanon War of 2006.

The repeated operations in Gaza – Cast Lead in 2008, Pillar of Defense in 2012 and above all Protective Edge in 2014 – have undermined the southerners’ sense of security. Eisenkot admitted as much in his retirement interviews, saying, “I’m aware that we haven’t managed to provide a proper sense of security over the past three years in the face of the difficult security situation. This sense of security was undermined by fairly primitive patterns of behavior that the enemy developed.”

Ostensibly, feelings of security should be improved by technological developments that save human lives. They’re firing rockets? We’ll invent  Iron Dome. They’re building tunnels? We’ll build a wall. They’re sending over drones and incendiary balloons? We’ll develop something against that.

Iron Dome is one of the Israeli defense industry’s most brilliant inventions. It significantly reduces casualties thanks to a high interception rate. It gives the government a good amount of time to wage the operation du jour in Gaza and lets strategic facilities like Ben-Gurion Airport be defended. On the other hand, it reduces the sense of urgency about finding long-term solutions to the Gaza problem.

Though Iron Dome has reduced the number of potential casualties, it has increased the amount of time that Israel can tolerate rocket fire without breaking the rules of the game or promoting a diplomatic solution. The long days of enduring rockets and sirens and running for bomb shelters, of lost schooldays and workdays and closed businesses, severely undermine people’s feelings of security and redefine the very concept of what it means.

Is security measured by the number of dead and wounded? Or should it be measured by the number of lost days, the number of hours spent in bomb shelters and the amount of time needed to return to ordinary life without uneasiness and anxiety?

The last round of fighting, which began with the assassination of Islamic Jihad's Baha Abu al-Ata, was short, permitting a rapid return to normalcy for Israelis in the center and north of the country. But the south needs a fairly long period of quiet to restore its sense of security.

One conclusion at that IDF forum was that there’s a gap between Israelis'  expectations and what the military can provide. Yes, the IDF is strong and capable of dealing painful blows to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but it’s clear that any such operation will be accompanied by rocket barrages that will continue for days.

Consequently, one conclusion was that it’s necessary to close this gap between expectations and capabilities; that is, to make clear to Israelis that in every such round of fighting they'll have to sit in bomb shelters, lose workdays and schooldays and cope with significant disruptions to their daily routine.

This has never been done officially because no politician wants to say “get used to it” to people who are dealing with rocket attacks. But that has been the preferred policy of successive governments for the past decade. Culture Minister Miri Regev expressed this with a typical slip of the tongue in early 2019: “So what if they fired at Ashkelon? They shot, and we shot back.”

Still, Hamas’ marginal involvement in the latest round opens the door for an arrangement that would allow residents of the south, on both sides of the border, to get used to a different reality. Will this opportunity be exploited?