Netiv Ha’asara, Israel — Israel’s dilemma over using fuel and gas supplies to punish Gazans for rocket fire came into sharp focus this week when a salvo of five mortar shells slammed down on this farming cooperative near the Gaza border.
Despite a government decision to impose the controversial sanctions to deter Palestinian militants from similar attacks in the future, experts and locals doubted whether cutting electricity in Gaza would contain the cross-border strikes.
Netiv Ha’asara residents, who have become accustomed to the mortar attacks since Israel pulled out of Gaza two years ago, see instead an effort to delay an inevitable military push back into the chaotic coastal strip.
“They need to find a solution,” said Shayke Shaked, standing in the living room that his wife and 9-month-old granddaughter fled just seconds before the window glass was shattered by the force of a mortar explosion Tuesday evening. “The clash with the Palestinians is unavoidable. It’s just a question of when and how many people will be killed before an invasion is ordered.”
Just two days earlier, Israel began scaling back fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip and closed a key crossing for humanitarian provisions. Defense officials said they instructed supply companies to cut Gaza’s fuels shipments by as much as 11 percent, part of the implementation of a decision from September to declare Hamas-controlled Gaza an enemy entity.
“The purpose is to be able to exercise Israel’s right of self-defense,” said a government spokesperson who declined to be identified, “and to send a firm message to those wishing to attack us that we will not tolerate these attacks, and we will take necessarily means to defend its citizens.”
A decision to cut power to the Gaza Strip was blocked by Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. The government’s legal adviser instructed the defense establishment to come up with another response rather than defend the power cuts against a Supreme Court petition by human rights groups who called the move a violation of international law.
“The attorney general said that if the State of Israel wants to be a modern democracy, it can’t use the terror methods used by its enemies, and it can’t turn a civilian population into a hostage, and use it as leverage,” said Moshe Hanegbi, the legal commentator of Israel Radio.
“It’s evident that despite the disengagement declared two years ago — and this is the most disturbing thing to come out of the attorney general’s decision even if he doesn’t say it explicitly — we haven’t succeeded in disconnecting the Gordian knot that we are legally responsible for what goes on in the Gaza Strip.
“If it were a case of two sovereign nations, one alongside the other, then we wouldn’t be obligated to supply electricity to Gaza. But the fact that we still control the sea exit of Gaza, and the airspace over Gaza doesn’t allow us to completely disassociate ourselves from the obligations of international law.”
Israel declared in 2005 after pulling out of Gaza that it no longer saw itself as responsible for the civilian population, but the Palestinians maintain that Israel is still an occupying force.
Despite Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in June, Israel has not stopped supplying Gaza with the lion’s share of its electrical power or fuel. But it has imposed other sanctions, such as a moratorium on exports and a severe limitation on commercial imports.
But the debate over the legal implications of the sanctions didn’t seem of interest to Shaked. “While they’re debating about all of these high-court petitions, they’re cut off” from what is going on.
Shaked, said the Palestinian mortars have been gradually coming closer to the residential area of Netiv Ha’asarah. Not too long ago, he told his wife Etti, to run into the basement if she hears mortar fire.
“We used to be indifferent to the mortars and the Kassams. But I said, ‘Guys this is a serious mortar crew.’ ”
The moshav cooperative comes right up to the border fence with Gaza, putting it on the firing line for Palestinian mortar crews. Last year an Israeli was killed on the moshav from a cross-border attack. Though they are under the same pressures as Sderot, residents here said they will not evacuate the cooperative-like city.
To the north rise the giant towers of the Israel Electric Corp.’s power plant in Ashkelon. Sources at the Israeli Electric Corporation said they have received no instructions as yet from the Israeli defense establishment about cutting power supplies to Gaza. A company source insisted that no one at the state utility relishes the prospect of cutting power to Gaza.
Nowhere was there more skepticism than on the battered moshav. “If you cut out the electricity, will they become lovers of Israel?” asked Rivka Martziano, a neighbor of the Shaked family who heard the explosions from across the street. “It’s not humanitarian. Cutting off electricity is like shooting at them.”
Though Israeli spokespeople insist that a humanitarian crisis in Gaza runs counter to Israeli interests, the army closed the Sufa crossing, used to allow dozens of supply shipments into Gaza per day. Only one commercial crossing remains open between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
In the past, Israel officials have said they hoped that economic pressure on Palestinians would demoralize the public and stir discontent with leaders.
But Israeli analysts said they doubted that the new sanctions would achieve the desired goal of stopping the steady trickle of crudely made short-range rocket attacks on Israeli towns. The move is instead meant for public consumption both in Israel and abroad to prove that, in case a more aggressive offensive is ordered, Israel had exhausted all of the available options.
“I don’t think it has a chance of working. Pressure by means of economic sticks and carrots by and large has failed,” said Yossi Alpher, a former government adviser and the co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian op-ed journal Bitterlemons.org. “It should be obvious by now that you’re not going to starve them into submission. At the end of the day the solution is political, not economic.”
Analysts said cutting off the Gaza Strip economically is a less costly way to pressure the Palestinians than sending in masses of troops and tanks.
“Many soldiers will be killed and so will many innocent Palestinians, because the IDF will employ a massive artillery bombardment,” wrote Avi Isacharoff, a Palestinian affairs expert for the Haaretz newspaper. “This will be a ‘dirty war,’ very aggressive, that will have scenes of destruction similar to southern Lebanon in 2006.”
Back inside the Shaked household, a neighbor named Yehudit, characterized the government sanctions as a “joke.” She predicted that the moshav would have no peace until Israel talked with Hamas. “If you want a radical solution, you have to talk with your worst enemies.”
She had come to visit Etty, who had been sitting in the salon of her house when she heard a mortar go off. Remembering her husband’s instructions, she covered her granddaughter’s ears and headed for cover. An hour later she was composed but exasperated.
“We want quiet! They wanted Gaza? We gave them Gaza. Now leave us alone.”
After reporters had left the house, moshav council member Yigal Volk came by to assess the damage and suggest that residents — who are overshadowed in the public eye by Sderot even though they live with the same danger — begin discussing solutions with the media.
“The sanctions are not a solution. They will only cause them to fire more rockets, which will reach deeper and deeper into the settlement.”
Volk said that Israel’s army needs to set up a security zone in northern Gaza as deep as five miles in order to stop the attacks. The zone should be cleared of civilians and occupied by Israeli troops — even at the price of soldier casualties and international opprobrium, he said. A fair price for security of the settlement, he said.
“You’re sitting with me,” Volk said to a visitor, “and I don’t know if in another moment a mortar will fall.”