Amir Oren
Haaretz (Opinion)
May 19, 2008 - 5:56pm

Colonel Nir Peres has one of the most frustrating jobs in the Middle East. He heads the Israel Defense Forces' Coordination and Liaison Administration at the Erez border crossing. Peres' efforts are aimed at preventing a large humanitarian disaster in Gaza, and he is trying to get the local population to blame Hamas for its distress. He must convince the IDF's top brass to show restraint and use force for immediate operational needs only, in order to maintain a chance of a calmer future within a generation or two. And he must show the Palestinians the price they are paying for their willingness to allow rocket-based terrorism to operate from their midst.

Last week Peres traveled to the UN Headquarters in New York to explain Israel's situation. His audience, national representatives and administrators, heard his words and were impressed by them, but they reacted with helplessness. The camel is fated to carry its heavy load; at most, the final straw can be kept away from it for a while. The time for doing so is running out rapidly. Israel has already launched the first phase of the operation, the verbal journey to the starting point. When liaison officials in the territories, including those in Gaza, try to urge Israeli restraint, they stress the need to drive a wedge between the suffering population and the radical, indifferent leadership, which is now sprouting symbols of high authority like those that characterized Fatah's rule; Ismail Haniyeh's motorcades are even longer than those of Yasser Arafat.

Colonel Peres has told the Palestinians that they face a choice between "flowers for export or mortar shells," "strawberries or Qassams." Palestinian farmers, who support one-sixth of Gaza's population, expected to make handsome profits because of the shmita year [when Jews are required to leave the ground uncultivated], and due to the shortage of produce in Israel. But these expectations, they know, became victims of terrorism. Instead, they incurred major losses. While the cost of cucumbers and tomatoes in Tel Aviv market stalls rose to nearly NIS 10 a kilo, Hamas' attacks on the border crossings brought about their closure, flooding Gaza with crates, each costing NIS 5 and containing 14 kilos of produce. There is a method to the madness of attacking the vital arteries of civilian life: Suffocating the passages to Israel will increase the pressure to open the Rafah crossing into Egypt.
As uncomfortable as it is to admit, the data suggests that the Israeli occupation did well by Gaza. Life expectancy in the Strip has risen from 48 years in 1967 to over 72 years now, higher than the life expectancy in Egypt, which was not very kind to Gaza when the Strip was subject to its military rule. According to a study conducted by Daniel Nadav of the Defense Ministry, the introduction of Israel's health-care system into Gaza, the adoption of local hospitals by Israeli medical centers, and the transfer of Palestinian patients to hospitals in Israel resulted in a sharp and immediate drop in the mortality rate. This positive development had negative consequences - a growing population density caused by a high rate of natural increase, and diseases that are more common in societies that have changed their consumption habits and aged (in 1967 only one in 70 people in Gaza was elderly).

Almost three years after the disengagement of Jewish settlers from Gaza, there can no longer be any doubt: The military evacuation has failed, even if the civilian evacuation was necessary - after all, the settlement activity was unacceptable from the start. Gaza is a testimony to the ongoing failure of the defense establishment, from the years-long dismissal of the need to invest in the research, development and acquisition of missile interception devices; through the abandonment of the Philadelphi route and the northern buffer zone near the Erez crossing and Moshav Netiv Ha'asara; to the neglect that led to the loss of visual contact with the kidnappers of Gilad Shalit, because no continuous surveillance was used. Today, too, the rocket and mortar warfare is mainly a matter of resources and priorities. A constant presence of Israeli aircraft would save lives, but it would be extremely costly, cutting into the budget for other activities. Yet it could suppress the rocket attacks - just as an ongoing police patrol in all violent neighborhoods would minimize criminal activity there, but weigh heavily on the public pocket.

The primary mission of the Israel Air Force, to protect the country's skies from attack (be it by planes, missiles or rockets), has not been met. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave in to President George W. Bush's pressure and agreed to include in the Palestinian elections a movement that opposed - and still opposes - the recognition of Israel, the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, and any form of compromise.

One thousand days after the disengagement, the "point of no-return" that the instigators of the withdrawal wished to establish has disappeared. Instead, a new "point of no-return" has emerged, pointing in the other direction: a "return" to Gaza. The diplomatic payback Sharon demanded - Bush's consent to leave the settlement clusters in the West Bank, along with the dubious interpretation of an American blessing for their further expansion - all these will vanish once John McCain or Barack Obama take office. Hamas' conditions for a cease-fire are nowhere near those set by Israel.

So far, Israel's military entry into Gaza has been delayed because of IDF demands that the political echelon first formulate an "exit strategy." Now the General Staff has stopped waiting for a reply. If the disengagement was the strategy for exiting Gaza, the only plan now really being put together is the strategy for exiting the exit strategy.


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