Sunday, October 28, 2007

Stumbling in the dark for a Gaza policy

At least one good thing has come out of the government's decision to cut electricity in parts of Gaza for brief periods following Kassam attacks - it generated a rare notice in Time magazine of the situation in Sderot. "Hardly a day passes without a homemade rocket or two fired by Palestinian militants streaking crazily across the sky from Gaza and into Sderot," Time reports this week, one of the fewer than a half-dozen mentions of the town on the magazine's Web site over the past year (compared to dozens on the hardships in Gaza).
The bad news is that the mention came in an article ominously titled "Darkness Looms Over Gaza," which largely focuses on questioning the effectiveness, legality and morality of the "new clampdown on Gaza."
And this is before any lights have actually been extinguished there.
One can only imagine how the foreign television news networks will report from Gaza the first time that happens, even for just 15 minutes. Just don't expect to see much footage of Sderot residents scrambling for cover in those broadcasts.
Anticipating the barrage of criticism that will come our way once the power cuts start, The Jerusalem Post reported Friday that "Israel's ambassadors and spokesmen are expected to say that Hamas is engaged in war crimes by targeting innocent civilians, and that Israel's steps are not collective punishment but rather the justified response to attacks on Israeli citizens."
Good luck with that.
There's probably no avoiding the bad publicity that this policy will spark, and sometimes Israel has to accept that consequence in the defense of its citizens. Before this happens, though, possibly as soon as the next few days, it's worth examining the reasons being given for this strategy, in order to assess whether it's worth the backlash.
The primary justification for cutting power to Gaza is the hope that it may discourage the firing of Kassams. But it's hard to find anyone in the government, even in the defense establishment, who actually supports that position.
Israel supplies some 60 percent of Gaza's electricity, and there are reportedly plenty of small portable generators in operation there.
It's unlikely the groups firing the Kassams care much if the average Gazan suffers as a result of their activities, something they've proven time and again (gunmen have reportedly even threatened residents of Beit Hanun who have publicly protested against their neighborhood being used as a launching pad).
If anything, the Hamas leadership will simply see this as a good opportunity to justify their continuing cross-border attacks.
Rather than explaining the power cuts as an immediate defensive measure, government officials such as Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i are instead touting them as part of a strategy of ending Gaza's dependence on Israel for water, gasoline, food and passage to the outside world.
As a long-term plan, there's nothing wrong with this idea. Indeed, as Hamas strengthens its hold on Gaza, this kind of "complete disengagement" is probably inevitable.
But setting the groundwork for such steps first requires serious discussions with Egypt and the international agencies already in operation in Gaza that will presumably step in to fill Israel's role.
It also should be preceded by an extensive campaign of public diplomacy explaining and justifying our legitimate right to discontinue support to a "hostile entity" committed to our destruction.
It's hard to see though how sudden 15-minute power cuts fit into such a strategy. If Israel no longer feels obligated to provide electricity to Gaza, it should formally notify the international community of such a policy and set a reasonable deadline that will allow alternatives to be developed.
Unfortunately, right now the government appears to be speaking out of both sides of its mouth, with the IDF threatening measures that affect the general Gazan population one day, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reassuring Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the next that Israel won't be doing anything to cause a "crisis" there.
It may well be, as Ha'aretz suggested Friday quoting defense sources, that the power cuts will generate even more Kassam attacks. Those increased attacks could well help justify to the international community the major military incursion into Gaza that is inevitably coming.
Personally, I doubt very much the Olmert government would be foolish enough to do anything prior to Annapolis that knowingly would increase the chances of a Kassam attack on Sderot that might result in major casualties. Such a development would no doubt reduce the prime minister's diplomatic room to maneuver there even lower than it is now.
If the government really wants to lessen international reaction to a major IDF operation in Gaza, it should instead take much more dramatic steps than it has until now to focus foreign media attention on the suffering of the citizens of Sderot - something like having the prime minister visit there more often, perhaps even spending some nights in Sderot.
The last, and perhaps most likely reason for this new policy are domestic political concerns. As the Kassam attacks increase in the run-up to the Annapolis meeting, the government and IDF obviously feel they must try something new to stop the attacks - or to at least give that impression - short of a full military incursion.
Cutting electricity to selected parts of Gaza for brief periods might seem like a low-cost, low-risk temporary answer to meet that demand.
It's not.
As "darkness looms over Gaza," another dark cloud will loom over Israeli policy toward the Palestinians in the arena of international public opinion, just when this government needs it least: as it prepares to renew serious negotiations with the Palestinians in the glaring global spotlight of the Annapolis conference.
The government and the IDF must do whatever they can to protect the citizens of Sderot. That means more serious military steps and heavier investment in protective measures. Cosmetic power cuts only make it look as if it is Israel, and not the Palestinians, who is stumbling in the dark, at least when it comes to formulating a coherent policy on Gaza.

No comments: