The targeted killing of Hamas founder Ahmad Yassin and the "open season" that Israel has declared against Hamas leaders and those of other Palestinian terrorist organizations must be viewed as part of a larger Israeli policy designed to achieve a number of objectives.
One of the major objectives is to create more favorable conditions for Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the dismantling of the settlements there. The assassination of Yassin was designed to weaken Hamas over the long-term and was also designed to prevent Palestinians from coming to the conclusion that Israel was withdrawing under fire from the Gaza Strip (thanks to the efforts of Hamas and other terrorist organizations) and thus make it possible to avoid the kind of blow to Israeli deterrence that occurred in the wake of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000.
It is highly doubtful, however, that Israel will be able to enjoy the longer-term benefits of this and future key assassinations should it implement Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's separation plan. This is because this anticipated pullback, far from decreasing the number of future terrorist attacks, will actually increase it.
Sharon's separation plan is designed to minimize the financial and human costs involved in maintaining direct Israeli control over enclaves within heavily populated Palestinian areas in the Gaza Strip (and in some of the West Bank), as well as to provide more easily defensible lines that can be held by fewer troops.
One of the increasingly serious problems that Israel has faced over the nearly four years of open conflict with the Palestinians has been how to maintain troop levels high enough to cope with security threats on the part of Palestinian terrorists, while, at the same time, not undermining the system of military reserves from which much of the additional troop strength is taken.
The fence network already in place in Gaza and being built in the West Bank includes a sophisticated system of cameras and other high-tech devices designed to detect movement -- thus enabling the Israel Defense Forces to station fewer troops at fewer points along the fence in order to achieve what would previously have required far larger deployments.
While the idea of pulling back the Israeli army and dismantling Israeli settlements located in the heart of Palestinian-populated areas in the Gaza Strip is, in and of itself, a necessary step in the context of a future peace settlement, it becomes a catastrophic mistake in the absence of such a peace settlement. And this, for three primary reasons.
Firstly, any pullback of the Israeli army and dismantling of Israeli settlements in the context of an ongoing Palestinian campaign of terrorism against Israel offers the Palestinians both a moral and a practical victory. Yasser Arafat's strategy of encouraging terrorism against Israel as a means to "force Israel's hand" will be vindicated, because he will be achieving a long-standing and major goal -- the "ending of the occupation" over part of land claimed by the Palestinians, as well as the dismantling of some of the hated Israeli settlements.
Handing Arafat such a victory will only encourage him -- and those who share his view that terrorism is a legitimate tool to be used to achieve national goals -- to continue to believe that negotiations with Israel and concessions to it, in the context of a peace process, are not necessary. Why should Palestinians negotiate and make compromises when sticking to a policy of promoting terrorist violence eventually produces Israeli concessions without any comparable Palestinian concessions?
The prime minister of Israel is thus sending the Palestinians a clear message that violence and terrorism pay and that Israel does not have the resolve, in the long run, to defend its interests and to stand firm against terrorism. In practice, the main benefactor of this in the Gaza Strip will be Hamas, and thus Israel will be inadvertently handing these intractable enemies of Israel a victory.
Secondly, this anticipated pullback, far from decreasing the number of future terrorist attacks will actually increase it. This is because Israel's policy of surrounding Palestinian cities with army roadblocks and entering the heart of Palestinian cities from time to time on search and arrest missions of Palestinian terrorists and attacks on Palestinian bomb-making factories forces the terrorists further underground and significantly restricts their freedom of action to plan and execute terrorist attacks against Israel.
A withdrawal from the Gaza Strip will provide Palestinian terrorists with complete freedom of action, and the result will be larger numbers of attacks, as well as increasingly deadlier ones. No network of fences can guarantee complete success in preventing terrorist attacks if they are not coupled with an active military policy of searching out the terrorists where they live and plan their attacks.
Moreover, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have already acted to attempt to surmount Israel's barriers there by building increasingly sophisticated Kassam rockets, which they fire from time to time into Israeli towns near the borders of the Gaza Strip. If a future planned withdrawal from much of the West Bank is also carried out, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Israel's international airport will be within range of such rockets.
This will create a situation similar to the one that Israel faces on its northern border, where Hezbollah rockets aimed at Israel have successfully limited Israel's freedom of action in responding to Hezbollah attacks on the border and active support for Palestinian terrorism.
Thirdly, the inevitable wave of terrorism that Israel will experience in the weeks and months following the planned unilateral withdrawal will necessitate Israel going back in and reentering Palestinian cities in Gaza, as it had done with respect to the West Bank in April 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield.
And, as was the case during Operation Defensive Shield, the crowded Palestinian cities will take their toll on human lives --Â Israeli and Palestinian -- as Palestinian gunmen set traps for the Israeli army and Palestinian civilians find themselves caught in the crossfire.
Moreover, international criticism of Israel, which has, all in all, been increasingly muted over time, will flare up once again as the world is treated to images of Israeli tanks inside Palestinian refugee camps. From the point of view of public relations, a continued Israeli presence, which the world is used to seeing and has grown tired of commenting on, is preferable to a renewed and broad-based Israeli military assault on Palestinian cities.
As long as a credible Palestinian leadership that is committed to negotiation, which means also a commitment to making painful compromises, does not exist, unilateral withdrawal cannot produce tangible benefits for Israel. Moreover, such a withdrawal will not require any commitment whatsoever on the part of the Palestinians to maintaining a semblance of quiet in the areas vacated by Israel.
The vacuum created by the withdrawal of the Israeli army will quickly be filled by terrorist organizations and, in the Gaza Strip, this means primarily Hamas. This is hardly a more desirable situation than the present one. Â
Dr. Nadav Morag is director of the Center for Israel Studies at the University of Judaism.