Sderot is a city in the south of Israel, very close to the Gaza Strip. In the year 2007, it has been hit by 1,000 Qassam rockets and 1,200 mortar shells launched by the Palestinians.
Life in Sderot has become hell, but Israel finds it very difficult to defend it, because the people who launch the Qassams are hiding among civilians. Slowly but surely, however, Israeli patience is running out.
Is there a way to stop this ongoing terrorist attack on Sderot without entering Gaza with great force in an incursion that would most probably cost the lives of many Palestinians and Israelis?
Ernest, a reader from Florida, believes there is. He proposes to deploy Qassams and Katyushas in Sderot aimed at Gaza and operated acoustically: When the Palestinian Qassam hits Sderot, the blast will automatically trigger the launching of an Israeli Qassam or Katyusha on the heads of the people in Gaza who had been harassing Sderot. All that without an Israeli finger involved in the process.
I bounced the idea with some experts. A lawyer well versed in the laws of war called it “creative.” One law professor thought it fitted the principle of self-defense. A professor of philosophy, on the other hand, objected strongly: “What if our Qassam, even if technically launched by the Palestinians, hits a kindergarten in Gaza?”
I was left without a solution.
Then, I received an invitation to a conference at Hebrew University titled, “Democracy Fighting Terror With One Hand Tied Behind Its Back: Why, When and How Must This Hand Be Untied.” Bingo! Never mind the long title: This was exactly what I needed.
The speakers were professor Aharon Barak, former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, and professor Richard Posner, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. No wonder that the huge hall at the Mount Scopus campus was packed with an anxious crowd.
However, when Efraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad, took to the podium to moderate the event, four young female students started heckling loudly. Obviously, they were not happy with the way Israel was fighting terror. I could hear them yelling something about the abuse of human rights.
There and then, the weakness of democracy was exposed. One thousand people, who had gathered solemnly to listen to the speakers, were taken hostage by four people who insisted on their right to protest. This collision of rights lingered for a while, until the four students were kicked out by the security guards, with the cheers of the relieved crowd. The lesson was that in a democracy, sometimes even the majority has its rights.
Finally, former Chief Justice Barak started speaking. The much respected judge was the one who had coined the phrase that in the battle against terrorism, democracy was fighting “with one hand tied behind its back.” In other words, in the rush to combat the terrorists effectively, human and civil rights should still be respected. The audience responded with a roaring applause.
Then Judge Posner gave his American point of view. He said that in times of grave danger, human and civil rights might temporarily recede. He reminded us that during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln — the greatest American president, in his words — unconstitutionally suspended habeas corpus, because he believed that saving the union was more important than protecting a specific right. When the crisis was over, the rights were re-established. Posner received the same volume of hand-clapping.
A limbo again.
As I left the auditorium, a friend told me about a psychologist sent to comfort the people of Sderot, who had been traumatized by the relentless shelling of their city. A mother of six told him that whenever the alarm went off, the people under attack had exactly 50 seconds to rush to the shelters before the Qassam rockets hit their target.
“Yet in that period of time” she said, “I can only carry two of them to safety. What about the remaining four?”
I pray that no Qassam rocket hits a kindergarten in Sderot and, God forbid, kills several children. All debate will then stop, and the tanks will start rolling.
In the meantime, keep trying, Ernest. And if anybody else has more creative ideas about how Israel should act, short of entering Gaza and stopping the terrorists by force, please let me know.
Uri Dromi is director general of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, a conference center in Jerusalem. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.