‘It’s about time” was the reaction of most Israelis to the government’s decision on Wednesday to impose further economic sanctions on the Gaza Strip and to define it as “hostile territory.” The government spoke specifically of cutting off electricity to Gaza’s inhabitants if more Kassam rockets were launched from the Hamas-controlled territory, and of a possible fuel cutoff down the road.
A variety of terrorist groups -- Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Fatah-associated Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade -- have been firing the primitive, home-made Kassams at Israel’s border settlements since the end of 2001, and the first ones landed in the border town of Sderot in March 2002. The rockets have so far inflicted relatively few casualties and little damage -- more than 1,000 have been fired, killing about a dozen Israelis and seriously injuring several dozen -- but they have caused widespread unease or panic in Sderot. Dozens of families have moved out of the area in recent months after the Israel Defense Forces, deploying a variety of means including cross-border armored incursions, ambushes and helicopter missile attacks on the rocket teams, proved unable to stop the rocketeers. The IDF measures sometimes resulted in collateral damage and casualties, triggering condemnation by human rights groups and Western politicians and media.
How did it come to this? In the summer of 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally pulled the IDF out of Gaza and uprooted Israel’s settlements in the area, leaving the territory -- but not the border crossings to it -- completely in Palestinian hands. The Israeli leadership hoped that this would result in the cessation of terrorism from the area. But the opposite occurred: The number and variety of rockets hitting Israel increased.
Since June, when Hamas took control of Gaza, it has allowed Islamic Jihad and other terror groups to continue rocketing Israel, and it supplies these groups with Kassams when they run short, according to Israeli intelligence. Hamas engineers are said, also by Israeli intelligence, to be hard at work on producing Kassams with more powerful warheads and longer ranges. Indeed, a handful of improved Kassams even reached the southern outskirts of the city of Ashkelon, north of Gaza. Last week, a rocket hit a tent camp of IDF trainees, injuring 50 soldiers, three of them severely.
Wednesday’s decision by the government, bowing to public opinion, is the response to the continued rocketing. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Cabinet clearly hope that a staggered cutoff of electricity -- Israel supplies the strip with 120 megawatts of its 200-megawatt consumption (the remaining 80 megawatts come from Egypt and an Arab-owned plant inside Gaza) -- will lead to popular local pressure on Hamas to stop the rocketing, which most Israelis regard as insufferable on both a symbolic and practical level. The government clearly hopes that this measure will receive Washington’s blessing -- and less diplomatic fallout than military reprisals.
The Israeli cutoff of electricity will leave Gaza with sufficient energy to run all its hospitals, government offices and other vital services but will no doubt result in many of the 1.5 million inhabitants suffering periodic blackouts. If a fuel cutoff is eventually added to this -- Israeli government lawyers are looking into the matter in terms of international humanitarian law -- the result could be far more severe. But this is what Israel is threatening -- if Palestinian terrorists continue to rocket Israel’s border.
Benny Morris, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, is the author of “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited,” among other books.