The New Republic

Rockets Can Only Do So Much Damage. That's Why Hamas Is Deploying a Far More Effective Weapon.

I moved to Israel from New York in 1982, during another summer of fighting, and Israeli society was tearing itself apart. The Palestinian Liberation Organization was firing Katyusha rockets into residential areas of the Galilee; the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had invaded Lebanon, in Israel's first asymmetrical war against terrorists in urban neighborhoods. As civilian casualties in Beirut mounted, Israelis raged at each other in the streets. On Rosh Hashanah, I saw then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin emerge from a Jerusalem synagogue, to be greeted by left-wing demonstrators shouting, "Murderer!"

This summer, Israel once again fought an asymmetrical war, with large numbers of civilian deaths on the other side, but this time there were no protesters stalking the prime minister, or any real opposition from the left. According to one poll, 95 percent of Jewish Israelis backed the war with Hamas -- this, in a country where there is rarely consensus on anything.

Beyond Israel's borders, this unanimity has been interpreted as hysterical overreaction. Compared with Gaza, after all, Israel has suffered little devastation. The Iron Dome anti-missile system has been remarkably effective in thwarting Hamas attacks. Why, demanded our detractors, couldn't Israel show restraint?

And yet this critique only reveals how deeply the world misunderstands Israel's predicament. A cease-fire may have finally ended this summer's hostilities, but the psychological impact, as Hamas intended, has been profound.

In the early years of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arab world tried to destroy Israel through conventional military attack. But that illusion ended with the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Arab armies surprised Israel on two fronts but were beaten back within two weeks.

After the Oslo peace process collapsed in September 2000, terrorists launched a war on civilian Israel. The four years of Palestinian suicide bombings that followed were arguably the worst in Israel's history. Numbed from constant attacks, we became a society of shut-ins. During those years, my wife and I were raising two teenagers in Jerusalem. Both repeatedly came close to being caught in bombings; both lost friends. My wife, a convert to Judaism, told me: "Now I finally understand what my rabbis meant when they warned me I was risking the lives of my future children by becoming a Jew."

By this point, pioneering Israel had become a consumerist society of shopping malls and material comforts, and we nearly lost the battle against the suicide bombers, by forfeiting to them our public spaces. However, in the end we surprised ourselves and our enemies. The bombers were thwarted through military initiatives, targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders and construction of the West Bank security barrier. But ever since, a question has lingered: How long can we hold out? When Islamist leaders from Gaza to Lebanon to Iran mockingly declare that Israelis love life while they love martyrdom, they are reminding us that this is a war of wills.

Throughout this last decade, Hamas has fired thousands of rockets at Israeli communities along the Gaza border. A commander at an army base near Gaza once told me bitterly that Hamas never fires rockets at his men, only at the residential neighborhoods around them. It is of secondary importance to Hamas whether its rockets actually kill anyone. The purpose is to convince civilians that their government cannot defend them; dead Israelis are merely a bonus. As Yasir Arafat, master of psychological warfare, once put it, the aim of terrorism is to foster widespread despair, which would ultimately result in the flight of the middle class and the collapse of the Jewish state.

Periodically, whole parts of this small country have become uninhabitable. When the rocket barrages aimed at southern Israel become especially intense, as in recent weeks, entire communities empty, their residents fleeing to the north. When Hezbollah fires barrages at the north, residents there flee to the south. Even Jerusalem is no longer off-limits. In 1991, when Saddam Hussein was firing Scud missiles on Israeli cities, he spared Jerusalem, presumably because it is home to a large Palestinian population and the Temple Mount. But now Hamas has fired missiles at Jerusalem -- a reminder that no place is safe.

The images of Israeli dislocation are hardly as heartbreaking as the images from Gaza. And yet the psychological consequences are significant. For years, Israelis in some southern communities have arranged their lives so that they are always within seconds of a shelter. But recently these southerners have been calling into radio talk shows on a regular basis with a common refrain: We can't take it anymore. There is a real possibility of a permanent mass defection from this part of the country. And if Israelis can't live on the border with Gaza, the same may prove true for those who live on the border with Lebanon. Many Israelis will inevitably draw the conclusion anticipated by Arafat: There is no future here.

The rest of the world may see an invincible Israel, but we know how quickly our military advantage can be neutralized. Recently, several rockets were fired from Lebanon into the Galilee. They caused little harm and weren't considered newsworthy abroad. But here, the incident made headlines. If Hezbollah, with its tens of thousands of missiles, renews attacks, the Iron Dome will be unable to cope.

For decades, Israel's security doctrine, embraced by left- and right-wing governments, was to prevent terrorist enclaves from being established on our borders, within reach of Israel's population centers. But that doctrine has collapsed, and Israelis live with a growing sense of siege. On the Lebanon border, there's Hezbollah; on the Syrian border, units of al-Qaida; to the south, Hamas and more al-Qaida. Meanwhile, the Islamic State marches on Baghdad and approaches Jordan, and Iran moves closer still to becoming a nuclear power. To Israelis, the Gaza conflict is just the latest round in a highly effective attack on its long-term viability in a radicalizing Middle East.

And because Hamas' objective isn't military but psychological, its leaders can view the carnage in Gaza and still declare victory. The devastation is an essential component of Hamas's strategy -- to trigger international outrage and constrain Israel's right to defend itself.

These efforts have only hardened Israeli contempt for the world's judgment. Israelis know that the IDF does not deliberately kill civilians, because our sons and our neighbors' sons have been fighting in Gaza. We know that dead Palestinian civilians serve only the interests of Hamas. We know that mistakes happen in war because -- unlike many of Israel's Western critics -- we know war. And we knew, from previous experience, that the Hamas figures of civilian casualties, at first widely accepted by the media, would turn out to be distortions. (In early August, both The New York Times and BBC noted that the almost 2,000 casualties then recorded in Gaza included a disproportionate number of combat-age males.)

Many here recognize that there are fair questions to be asked about some of Israel's tactics. Should the IDF target terror leaders even if that means killing family members? What should the IDF be doing to prevent civilian casualties? How should we respond to fire from schools? Did we go too far -- or not far enough?

The war has already renewed the debate, all but dormant here in recent years, about the future of a two-state solution. Labor Party opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog says that Israel should negotiate with Abbas and be prepared to give up most of the West Bank. The most dovish member of the Israeli cabinet, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, has argued that Israel should consider toppling Hamas to strengthen Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, a prerequisite for renewing peace talks.

I ran into an old friend, a well-known journalist, whose son had just emerged from the fighting in Gaza.

"So what do we do now?" I asked.

"I'm ready for almost any deal," he said. "But even if Abbas were a serious partner, I worry that he'd be overthrown by Hamas if we pulled out of the West Bank. When Bibi said that we can't give up security control there, I actually found myself agreeing with him."

"I have two nightmares about a Palestinian state," I said. "That there won't be one and that there will be one."

Meanwhile, we try not to ask ourselves too many questions about the future, because it is too terrifying. The only good news from this terrible summer is that we've again surprised ourselves with our resilience. When Hamas released a video of a song in bad Hebrew threatening terror attacks, Israelis countered with YouTube clips of young people dancing to the catchy tune in the streets of Tel Aviv. It was a psychological message of its own: We're here to stay.

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