The most chilling comment I've seen on the mid-March surge of violence from Gaza, when terrorists fired 300 rockets at Israel in four days, was made almost three weeks earlier. The rocket fire had been steadily increasing, indicating that the deterrent effect of Israel's 2009 war in Gaza was fading, and Israel Defense Forces officers were discussing whether another large-scale operation in Gaza was needed. "The debate within the IDF, " The Jerusalem Post reported, "is whether it needs to wait for a successful attack by Gaza terrorists - be it a rocket attack that causes casualties or a successful cross border attack - or if the sporadic rocket fire is enough of a justification to launch an operation today."
Think about that: Palestinian terrorists have fired more than 8,000 rockets at Israel since its mid-2005 pullout from Gaza, along with thousands of mortar shells; even in 2011, a "quiet" year, there were 680 rocket and mortar launches, almost two a day. A million residents of Israel's south live in permanent fear, punctuated every few months by more intensive bouts of violence that, like the one in mid-March, close schools for days and empty workplaces of parents, who must stay home with their kids. In Sderot, the town closest to Gaza, an incredible 45% of children under six have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, as have 41% of mothers and 33% of fathers; these statistics will presumably be replicated elsewhere as the rockets' increasing range brings ever more locales under regular fire.
In any other country, such relentless shelling would unquestionably be a casus belli. But Israel's army was seriously debating whether this alone justified military action, or whether it had to wait until the rockets caused a mass-casualty incident.
This is the rotten fruit of a government policy that for years dismissed the rockets as a minor nuisance for reasons of petty politics: For the Kadima party, in power from 2005-2009, admitting the rockets were a problem meant admitting that its flagship policy, the Gaza pullout, was a disaster. Thus former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief advisor, Dov Weissglas, famously dismissed them as mere "flying objects," while then-Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres accused southerners of "stoking hysteria" about the rockets and demanded: "What's the big deal?"
Consequently, the international community also came to view the rockets as unimportant. Initially, as former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer told The Jerusalem Post, Washington expected "a very serious Israeli response to the first act of [post-pullout] violence coming out of Gaza" and "was very surprised there was no reaction to the first rocket, second rocket and 15th rocket." But Sharon insisted the rockets were "not really that bad." Thus "all of a sudden," Kurtzer said, "people got acclimated to the idea that there can be rocket fire."
If the rockets aren't so terrible, however, then a major military operation isn't justified. That's precisely why Israel's 2009 war in Gaza provoked such an unprecedented international outcry, culminating in the infamous Goldstone Report (which even its author later recanted ). According to IDF statistics, the war killed 1,166 Palestinians, including 295 civilians; it also caused extensive property damage. That's a very low rate of casualties, both civilian and overall, if the war was justified to begin with - i.e., if one deems the daily shelling of a million civilians for over three years intolerable, as one should. But it's a wildly disproportionate casualty rate if the rocket fire isn't "really that bad."
Yet unless the government is prepared to tolerate this situation forever - thereby flagrantly violating its foremost responsibility, protecting its citizens - another large-scale operation will be necessary, despite the Iron Dome anti-missile system's 85% interception rate: Since it can't provide hermetic protection, Iron Dome doesn't prevent the precautionary school closures, the work absences, the fear or the PTSD. Moreover, the next operation will have to be of much greater scope and duration than the last if the threat is to be eradicated.
The model is the West Bank, where the IDF has effectively eradicated terror: Israeli fatalities originating from the West Bank fell from over 400 in 2002 to 9 in 2011 ; shooting attacks fell from 2,878 to 9 ; and not one rocket has ever been launched from there. But this was achieved only by reoccupying all Palestinian-controlled territory in 2002 and not leaving.
In contrast, Israel ceded most of Gaza to the Palestinians in 1994 and never reentered those areas afterward, enabling Gaza to develop a rocket industry even before the 2005 disengagement, and then greatly expand it afterward. It turns out a long-term military presence is necessary to destroy the terrorist infrastructure, prevent its reconstruction and persuade the populace that terror doesn't pay.
But Israel can't launch such an operation in Gaza as long as the world deems the rockets a mere nuisance. Hence it must launch a campaign to change world opinion on this issue, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu successfully did with Iran's nuclear program.
This obviously entails explaining the enormous damage rocket fire inflicts, like Sderot's unconscionable PTSD rate. But it also entails exploiting the lesson learned from Netanyahu's Iran campaign: What most of the world cares about isn't preventing harm to Israel, but preventing Israeli military action. It was only the threat of such action that, as French officials acknowledged, finally spurred Europe to impose serious sanctions on Iran.
Thus Israel should begin warning relentlessly that if the rocket fire doesn't stop completely - as opposed to the current "norm" of one or two launches a day - it will be forced to reoccupy Gaza. That might actually galvanize constructive international action, such as pressure on Egypt to crack down on arms smuggling to Gaza and terrorist bases in Sinai.
But if not, it would at least underscore how seriously Israel takes the rocket threat, since most Israelis have no more desire to reoccupy Gaza than they do to start a war with Iran. And it would thereby prepare world opinion for the operation if and when it ultimately takes place.
Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary.For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.