Israel’s New Reality

The death of Ronnie Yahia, a 47-year-old student at the Sapir College for Liberal Arts in Ashkelon and a father of four, was a bitter reminder of the threat Israel faces on its sixtieth anniversary. It is a similar reminder to the one the Israeli army was given in southern Lebanon in July 2006 during the tragic Second Lebanon War. There were harbingers of this day. In January 2002, when Karine-A, a ship loaded with 50 tons of bullets, missiles and mines, was caught in the Red Sea, substantiating 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 is now clear: Israel is no longer merely dealing with a localized Palestinian threat, seeking to plant bombs in the heart of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israel is immersed in a larger battle against fundamentalist Islam, a movement that has always postured itself against Israel, but which today is actively engaged in an effort to destroy the Jewish State.

The agenda unifying 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: Eliminate the “cancerous cell”—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 evident. As for the means, anything is legitimate.

From Israel’s perspective, the implications are clear and it will defend itself at any price, as costly and as tragic as it may be. On the Northern front, a million Israelis were displaced in the Second Lebanon War, due to an incessant raid of missiles emerging from Hezbollah outposts in Southern Lebanon. With an average of 150 missiles a day raining on its citizens for over a month, Israel had no choice but to target the very villages in which Hezbollah had been taking refuge among civilians. On the Southern front, the citizens of Sderot and the Western Negev have had to endure the continuous Qassam missile raids for the last 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.

As an Israeli citizen and an ex-solider in the Israel Defense Forces, the Second Lebanon war opened my eyes to the new dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reality of fundamentalist Islam, to which due to its geographic location Israel is uniquely susceptible, has several implications. Whereas the Israeli government has not yet formally acknowledged these implications, I believe the day will soon come when it will have no other recourse. The days of the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict” are over. Questions such as the refugee right of return and the fate of Jerusalem have lost 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. Terminating the occupation of the West Bank (which Israel did in Gaza in 2005) is not going to change the magnitude of the threat to be dealt with, neither on the Sunni nor on the Shiite front. This conflict has for a long time been about more than just reaching an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. For the Sunni Wahabis and the Shiite revolutionaries, bringing about the end of the Palestinian occupation will not suffice. They will not be satisfied until they see the end of Israel itself.

Israel has acknowledged its need to withdraw from Arab territory, which they had occupied for security considerations. Withdrawal from the 20-mile “Security Belt” in Southern Lebanon in May 2000 proved counter-productive. It brought Hezbollah 20 miles closer to the 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 to the State of Israel will continue to grow as countries like Syria and Iran improve their ballistic capabilities. The threat of all-out conflict looms, with no clear path to peace. In the meantime, the Harvard community attending events such as “Breaking the Silence,” which sheds negative light on me and my peers in the Israeli army, ought to be aware of the incredible difficulty we in the State of Israel are currently facing.

Shira Kaplan ’08 is a government concentrator at Kirkland House. She is currently completing her thesis on Iran’s crisis behavior in the post-revolutionary era. She served in the Israeli Defense Forces for two years before coming to Harvard.