In 1990, when abducted soldier Gilad Shalit was three, the Israel Defense Forces began considering how to build up Israel's defenses against Palestinian terrorists operating through underground tunnels. There was much talk about this method of combat in the Gaza Strip, which the army feared would spread to the West Bank and Lebanon. The Palestinians who kidnapped Gilad Shalit and killed two of his comrades in June 2006 camethrough such a tunnel.
From 1987 to 2001, nothing was done to address the problem. The Palestinians would employ this tunnel tactic from time to time and kill soldiers. Underground tunnels also helped them blow up four IDF outposts on the edge of the Gaza Strip. Hamas has chalked up successes with this method and is liable to surprise Israel again with attempts to kidnap soldiers.
Over the years, no solution was found. There was endless foot-dragging. Chiefs of staff reached decisions, but they were not implemented. Outside experts, such as Yossi Langotsky and scientists from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, volunteered their services, but the wheels did not turn. All of this is described in a report published by the state comptroller earlier this week.
What is extremely worrying is the fact that another problem - the firing of Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip - has been dealt with in a similar way. Here, again, the state comptroller offered a bleak account that demonstrates just how lumbering and rusty the defense establishment has become. For over six years, Israel has not found a solution, even a partial one, to short-range rockets, including Qassams. The conception that has taken root is that these projectiles do not pose a genuine threat to Israel. Hence the problem has been relegated to the back burner.
This is a shortsighted approach, because threats are also measured by their strategic-psychological impact on a population that finds itself under constant attack. We saw this in the Second Lebanon War, where the home front was given lower priority. In theory, everyone was dealing with the problem - the General Staff, the air force, the ground forces, the artillery corps, the Southern Command, the Central Command, the Home Front Command - but again, the wheels did not turn. The state comptroller's report described how chiefs of staff made decisions and their deputies overturned them.
In 2004, after more than a thousand Qassams were fired at Israel, somebody began to wake up. It started with RAFAEL (the Armament Development Authority). Despite the fact that the IDF's attitude had not changed, this authority decided to go ahead with the development of an active defense system for intercepting short-range rockets. A technological solution was sought even though it was clear that it would not provide Israel with hermetic protection.
But again, the foot-dragging began. The state comptroller says that the IDF did not issue a tender for a short-term rocket interception system until December 2005. After studying many different proposals, the defense minister approved plans to manufacture an anti-rocket system (produced jointly by RAFAEL, Israel Aircraft Industries and the U.S. firm Raytheon). The proposal for a chemical laser system was turned down in favor of a solid-state laser system. At any rate, this operational answer to short-range rockets will be ready, in the best of cases, only three years from now.
So what happens until then? Israel is caught in an absurd strategic situation. Because it has no way to stop the Qassams today, and a satisfactory solution is still years away, it could be dragged into a war in the Gaza Strip. Major damage inflicted by a Qassam rocket could be enough to spark a serious confrontation. Israel also has no solution for Qassams fired from the West Bank, which could potentially reach strategic targets like Ben-Gurion International Airport and urban centers.
There is only one answer to Qassam fire from the West Bank, and that is reoccupation. In other words, Israel's failure to find an operational solution to Katyusha rockets and Qassams could lead the country into a large-scale military confrontation with the Palestinians.
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