Haaretz Editorial

In Praise of Retreat

Wise commanders who must choose between shooting at civilians or retreating know there is no point in pursuing the mission.

The cameras capture tense moments that end without casualties: Israeli soldiers in a divided city like Hebron or in a Palestinian village like Kafr Qaddum come across demonstrators, are pelted with rocks, hold fire, disengage and return to barracks.

Shame on you, fume the settlers, and with them the critics on the right who claim to cling to the traditions of the Israel Defense Forces, bewailing the loss of our vaunted deterrence. This is an emotional response that ignores the facts and cleaves to obsolete concepts. Deterrence does not work against groups of individuals; it operates only between states or quasi-state organizations such as Hamas or Hezbollah. The suppression of terror in the first half of the previous decade was achieved by control of the territory and stubborn warfare, not local deterrence designed to terrorize demonstrators.

Soldiers should not be performing policing duties within a civilian population. That is what police forces are for, especially the Border Police. In the eyes of the army, assigning members of the engineering or artillery corps, or even infantry units, to missions that do not resemble combat should be an economical use of regular army forces. If soldiers are employed for such duties then it would be better to use reservists, who are more mature and thoughtful than conscripts in compulsory service and are called up mainly for training and special operations. But this is in effect a breach of trust by the political and military leaders against the soldiers. And so soldiers are thrown into friction with civilians, many of them teens, without a hope of success, much less a decisive victory.

Wise commanders who must choose between shooting at civilians or retreating know there is no point in pursuing the mission. Opening fire can escalate into a massacre. It is better to accept the embarrassment and criticism than to cause fatalities, to risk a military or international trial and to inflict diplomatic damage. Restraint is power; restraint in the presence of cameras is also common sense.

What is right tactically is right strategically many times over. There is no benefit to Israel from continued friction with the Palestinians. Borders must be drawn - two states. Refusal to recognize this dooms generations of soldiers to scenes like those in Hebron and Qaddum.