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Into Hamastan

By Jed Babbin

Unless he is extraordinarily lucky, Israeli Army Corporal Gilad Shalit won't live to see his twentieth birthday. The Sunday raid by Hamas terrorists from the Gaza Strip succeeded in wounding and kidnapping Shalit, killing two of his comrades and wounding two more. Israel has begun a sizeable military penetration into Gaza which aims to recover Shalit - alive or dead - and punish the Palestinians for their raid. As the Israeli incursion began early Wednesday, America and Egypt were counseling calm and - if he's still alive -- a scared teenage boy was sitting in some lightless room in Gaza praying for rescue.

Like every soldier, Shalit was trained to understand that hostages are expendable but - in the rough confidence of youth - understood that idea only in terms of people he would someday try to rescue. By now the unimaginable has occurred. Shalit's mind must be focused on the soldiers' dilemma his comrades face. They will do anything to rescue him, but nothing to trade for him. He knows he is the expendable hostage in this episode like so many have been before him and so many will be after. This is the definition of stability in the Middle East.

The kidnapping of Shalit, the Palestinian political maneuvering around it, and the Israeli counter-strike are tactical exchanges. But in war a tactical event sometimes has strategic effects. A tactical defeat, such as the one Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson suffered at Kernstown on 23 March 1862, was a strategic victory for the Confederates because it resulted in stalling 50,000 Federal troops in Maryland that would have otherwise reinforced McClellan's peninsula campaign. Shalit's kidnapping can be turned into a strategic defeat for the Palestinians. It should be used to destabilize the relationship between the Palestinians and the nations that use them as cannon fodder in a perpetual war against Israel.

Palestinians are the only people apparently incapable of acting in their own self-interest. For generations they have been willfully ignorant of the fact that their refusal to make peace with Israel serves only their enemies. Since Israel was created by UN mandate, the Palestinians have been rejected by Jordan (itself 60% Palestinian), Egypt and Syria. Saudi Arabia and Lebanon don't want them. But for decades under Arafat, the Palestinians did the bidding of the same countries that rejected them. Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others bought Arafat's regime for the price of terrorist campaigns against Israel. They fund and provide sanctuary for Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups for two reasons: first, to keep alive the Palestinians' hope of erasing Israel from the map; and second to absorb the casualties in the terror war against Israel that those nations don't wish to suffer. In the Middle East, the stability that we have helped nurture is the stability of terrorist states.

Last year's Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was a council of despair. Ungovernable and with a deeply-embedded terrorist infrastructure, Gaza was only a source of casualties for Israel. Withdrawal - accompanied by sealing the borders to prevent terrorist incursions - appeared the last best hope. Maybe Ariel Sharon could have brought off the idea of withdrawing and sealing off Gaza as a terrorist base. But Ehud Olmert is no Sharon, and as Olmert watched Gaza became Hamastan.

Terrorist, anarchic Hamastan proved a jar that couldn't be sealed. This year alone about eight hundred rockets were fired from it into Israel and though dozens of terrorist incursions were foiled, more and more succeeded as the Gaza-based terrorists learned how to penetrate the Israeli barriers. Still, the Olmert government hung back. It lacked the courage and decisiveness needed to re-enter Gaza to stamp out the terrorist enclaves. And, more importantly, it couldn't go back into Gaza without admitting that its withdrawal policy was a failure. Instead, Olmert ineptly struck back at rocket launch points and Israel's ability to defend itself seemed - thanks to Palestinian disinformation campaigns directed at sympathetic media -- to produce innocent civilian casualties among the Palestinians.

Hamastan poses problems both too large and too small for Israel to solve. The small problems, such as terrorists excavating the terror tunnel used to surprise Gilad Shalit's unit, can never be entirely prevented. The military strike into Gaza this week won't re-establish Israeli occupation, and it will from time to time be repeated. Bigger problems, such as the Hamas government and the support it gets from Israel's neighbors, won't, say some top Israelis, be solved by topping Hamas because there's no moderate Palestinians to take their place. That is another counsel of despair. Israel is stuck in a military cycle it thinks can't be broken. But it can, and it must, for our benefit as much as Israel's.

Israel can never settle the Palestinian problem by dealing only with the Palestinians just as we cannot ever settle Iraq's problems by dealing only with Iraqis. Because Israel's neighbors, and Iraq's, are the sources of their problems, so they must be the focus of the solutions. They are regional problems. If they are not solved throughout the region, they will not be solved at all.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal - operating from his headquarters in Damascus -- ordered the raid in which Gilad Shalit was kidnapped. Meshaal, and pretty much every other terrorist leader other than Usama bin Laden, operate from Syria with impunity because Bashar Assad's Syria - the Syria he inherited from his father, and which has been on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1979 - is entirely stable. He has no fear that through American or Israeli action his support for terrorism will be interrupted. From Syria money, weapons and terrorists flowed into Iraq for months before and ever since the American invasion of 2003.

Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon said that Meshaal - even in Syria - was a target for Israeli action. We should encourage Israel to strike into Syria, and not just to capture or kill Meshaal. Destabilizing Syria, and thus destabilizing its support for terrorism in Israel and Iraq is the goal. If anyone chooses to equate "destabilization" with "regime change", we should do nothing to encourage or dissuade them. It's time to put the terrorist genie back in the bottle. If the genie won't comply, we may soon have to smash the bottle all to pieces.

Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a contributing editor to The American Spectator and author of Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States (with Edward Timperlake, Regnery 2006) and Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think (Regnery 2004).

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