The Long Way Round

The growing escalation that followed the abduction of Gilad Shalit illustrates the dead end in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict finds itself.

After a Qassam rocket landed at a school in Ashkelon last week, Minister of National Infrastructures Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was sent to the radio studios to calm everyone down: "In my view," he said, "there is no difference between a rocket landing in Sderot and one reaching Ashkelon. It is the same apparatus. All they did was attach another engine to it in order to extend its range." That was very convincing: The Palestinians have not upped their ability to strike at us; the terror groups are merely treading water.

Notwithstanding the learned assessment of Ben-Eliezer, the growing escalation that followed the abduction of Gilad Shalit illustrates the dead end in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict finds itself. Israel has lost its deterrent capability vis-a-vis the Palestinian militant groups; and in Israel's eyes, the Palestinian leadership has lost its standing as the authority with which to manage crises and negotiate an end to the conflict in general.

This is a situation that makes any sort of dialogue very difficult and invites violent power plays. The Israeli response to the abduction is an attempt to regain its deterrent power though a clumsy operation that is not directly aimed at achieving the declared goal - bringing the abducted soldier home. For its part, the response of the Palestinian leadership to the adverse developments has been to abandon the field of action to radical groups.

The value of deterrence lies in its hidden presence; the moment the side against which it is directed chooses to exercise violence, that is a signal that deterrence has evaporated. Between the disengagement of September 2005 and Friday morning, Israel arrested 4,371 Palestinians in the West Bank. It carried out these arrests for the sake of deterrence, to collect intelligence, and to prevent attacks. Obviously, these preventative operations have operational value, but they also indicate that the Palestinian public is not deterred from continuing to struggle against Israel.

According to data provided by the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman's Office, the same period (until the end of June) has seen 436 attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip using indirect weapons (Qassam rockets and mortars). The IDF responded with the firing, on average, of 110 artillery rounds per day. According to data by the B'Tselem human rights, the number of Palestinians killed during that same period reached 238. Between September 13, 2005, and July 7, 2006, the Palestinians carried out seven attacks inside Israel, resulting in 19 deaths, civilian and military, 217 injuries and one kidnapping. In the West Bank, 11 Israelis were killed. It is impossible to avoid the following conclusion: The fighting spirit of the Palestinians is not fading; they are willing to pay in blood for their expression of opposition to Israel and/or its occupation.

The abduction of Gilad Shalit has sparked a crisis whose dynamic is recognized from previous cases: At first, the two sides are entrenched in their positions and they put forth tough demands. The nations involved are flooded by a storm of emotions because of concern for the fate of the abducted victim, on the one hand, and rage caused by the lethal Israeli response, on the other. From the point of view of each of the sides, there is strategic logic and moral justification to their respective stance. However, experience shows that at the end of the day, a way is found that enables them to end the crisis by some form of concession and withdrawal from their original positions. Obviously, this will also happen in this case, and the question is why do the two nations see fit to exhaust all opportunities to suffer before they find a formula for compromise.

One can appreciate that Ehud Olmert is trying to teach the Palestinians a lesson and deter them from kidnapping other Israelis. Nonetheless, it is doubtful whether this expectation is realistic: Can Olmert withstand the domestic pressure to compromise in order to secure the release of Shalit? And if his stance results in injury to the abducted soldier, will it be possible to revert to it if there is a future abduction?

Surely Olmert considers these dilemmas as being helpful to the enemy; but when we take a look at the aforementioned data, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the terrorism fed by Palestinian hatred toward Israel is a bottomless pit, and the way of dealing with it cannot be limited solely to military means.