It was 3 p.m., and Israeli news reports broadcast that the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip announced that Israel had gotten the message: If the Israel Defense Forces hold fire, there will be quiet.
The commentator explained that this statement should be seen as psychological warfare. Surprisingly though, it seems the Israeli cabinet got the message loud and clear when it agreed to a ceasefire.
This insolence is the direct result of the last eight months, in which Israeli deterrence eroded in a shocking manner. For four-and-a-half years following “Operation Protective Edge,” residents of the western Negev enjoyed a kind of quiet they had not known since 2000. The deterrence worked.
But on March 30, the Palestinians announced the “March of Return,” an ongoing operation that entails daily attacks on the border fence, the throwing of explosives, Molotov cocktails and grenades towards Israel, incursions into Israeli territory and the culmination of all these activities: the arson terrorism that has burned Israeli farmlands and forests on an enormous scale.
The Israeli government has chosen to respond to all of this with restraint.
No normal country would allow such an assault on its sovereign territory. Israel should have made it clear from the outset that incendiary kites would be treated like rockets, and that the terrorist cells launching them would be destroyed exactly like those that fire rockets at Israel.
But the Israeli government decided to act with restraint, and this restraint has eroded deterrence. The rockets returned. Israel responded to the onslaught and then agreed to a ceasefire—not a comprehensive cease-fire, but one that puts an end to the rocket launches and Israel Defense Forces’ attacks on Gaza. It is through this response that Israel has sent a clear message to the terrorist organizations: Arson is permissible. Terrorists can set fire to the western Negev as long as they do not shoot rockets at Israel.
Israel’s deterrent value continues to erode. Time after time, we agree to a quasi-ceasefire that is followed by yet another round of fighting. This time, more than 450 rockets and mortar shells were fired at communities in Israel’s south last week in a period of 48 hours.
One would have expected the government to act to put an end to this erosion of deterrence. We should have dealt the terrorist organizations a blow that would have delivered loss and destruction on a massive scale and that would have made Hamas beg for a real, comprehensive, long-term ceasefire.
Instead, Hamas set the rules. We were sucked into the fighting, just as we have been in the past.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken of his honest desire to avoid a war. Indeed, leaders are expected to do everything in their ability to avoid a war or at least delay it as much as possible.
But the means to that end is deterrence.
The erosion of deterrence encourages and emboldens the enemy and brings us closer to war. Had we responded to the first incendiary kites as if they were a barrage of rockets, the phenomenon would have been nipped in the bud. The restraint brought us around a thousand rockets in recent months. Hezbollah recognizes this failure, as does Iran. Our restraint in the south could set the north alight too.
Should Israel agree to a ceasefire or reach an agreement with Hamas? Absolutely, but only from a position of strength. And in order to restore deterrence, we should have hit them hard.