Israel’s new reality

The death of Ronnie Yahia, 47, an instructor at the Sapir College for Liberal Arts in Ashkelon and a father of four, was a bitter reminder of the threat Israel is facing on its 60th anniversary.

It is the same reminder the Israeli army faced in Southern Lebanon in July 2006 during the tragic Second Lebanon War. And perhaps the same one it first identified in January 2002, when Karine-A, a ship loaded with 50 tons of bullets, missiles and mines, was caught in the Red Sea, consolidating the long-suspected link between the (Shiite) Islamic Republic of Iran and (Sunni) terror groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian Authority. The lesson has become clear: Israel is no longer dealing with a localized Palestinian threat seeking to plant bombs in the heart of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It is immersed in a larger battle against fundamentalist Islam, which ironically bridges inter-Islamic differences in an effort to destroy the Jewish State.

The agenda linking Hassan Nasrallah, the Shiite leader of Lebanese Hezbollah; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Shiite Iranian president; and Ismail Heniyeh, the Sunni leader of Hamas and the de facto prime minister of the Gaza Strip is simple: remove the “cancerous cell” called the State of Israel from the Middle East. Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah have reiterated this message out loud; Heniyeh’s Hamas Constitution explicitly calls for this objective. The goal is self-evident. As for the means, anything is legitimate.

From Israel’s perspective, the implications are defending itself at any price, as costly and as tragic as it may be. The reality Israelis face today is unheard of according to any Western standards. In the northern front, 1 million Israelis were displaced in the Second Lebanon War from Haifa and above, due to an incessant rain of missiles emerging from Hezbollah outposts in Southern Lebanon. With an average of 150 missiles a day falling on its citizens for more than a month, Israel had no choice but to target the very villages in which Hezbollah was hiding, taking refuge among civilians. In the Southern front, the citizens of Sderot and the Western Negev have been living under the Qassam missile attacks for the past seven years. The Qassams, coming from the heart of the Gaza Strip, have forced the Israeli government to be brutal again and target the leaders of Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Strip. How would you have reacted if San Francisco and Boston were being hit on a daily basis with an average of 50 missiles a day?

As an Israeli citizen and an ex-soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, the Second Lebanon war opened my eyes to the new reality Israel is facing. The reality of fundamentalist Islam, in the heart of which the Jewish state is physically located, has several implications. Whereas the Israeli government has not yet formally acknowledged these implications, I believe the day will soon come when it does. The major implication is that the days of the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict” are over. Questions such as the refugee right of return and the fate of Jerusalem have lost, in my view, their immediate relevance to the Israeli security problem. As we say in the Israeli intelligence community, it is not that these questions are not important; they are simply less urgent. Resolving the Palestinian conflict by withdrawing from the West Bank, for example, seems a negligible issue compared with the other threats Israel is facing. Terminating the “occupation” of the West Bank (as Israel did in Gaza in 2005) is not going to change the magnitude of the threat we are dealing with, neither on the Sunni nor on the Shiite front. I contend that the Palestinian issue has long ceased being the “fuel” of the conflict; the Sunni Wahabis and the Shiite revolutionaries will not suffice with the end of the “Palestinian occupation.” They will not suffice until they see the end of Israel itself.

Israel has acknowledged its need to withdraw from Arab territory. Its possession of Arab territory has never been out of sheer pleasure or entertainment, but out of cost-efficient security considerations. Its withdrawal from the 20-mile “Security Belt” in Southern Lebanon in May 2000 proved counter-productive. It brought Hezbollah 20 miles closer to our northern borders. Its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005 was fatal. With long-range missiles, neither the residents of Sderot, not Ashkelon, nor my parents in Tel Aviv, can sleep peacefully at night.

The threat on the State of Israel (which is smaller in size than New Jersey) will continue to grow as countries like Syria and Iran increase their missile capabilities. Israel is not going to respond by asking for anyone’s help. Out of no-choice, it will rely on itself, and solely on itself. The price is going to be high on both sides. The solutions for the new threats are no longer so clear.

Shira Kaplan is a Harvard student. She is currently completing her thesis on Iran’s crisis behavior in the post-revolutionary era. She served in the Israel Defense Forces for two years before coming to Harvard.