Gil Troy: Israeli attacks followed months, even years, of provocation

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Gil Troy - currently in Israel - teaches history at McGill University.]

Even after Hezbollah launched hundreds of Katyusha rockets on Thursday, wounding 90 Israelis and killing at least two, Jerusalemites remained calm.

Where you stand regarding Israel's unsought two-front war depends on how quickly you say "Kassam" and "Katyusha" when telling the story. True, Israel's supporters - and civilians -- can take pride in a country which will go to Herculean lengths to save even one kidnap victim and has made the well-being of three soldiers a national obsession.

Still, the kidnappings are a sidelight. The months-long downpour of Kassams, especially on the working-class southern town of Sderot, has shaped Israel's Summer Rains Gaza strategy. And Hezbollah's rocket barrage has made intolerable the six-year status-quo standoff.

No nation can tolerate persistent shelling from a neighbour. The question isn't "How dare Israel attack Gaza and Lebanon?" but "What took so long for Israel to respond effectively"?

On the Lebanese border, the response appeared quick - judging by the time elapsed from the moment Hezbollah ambushed the young soldiers on routine patrol until Israel began hitting central targets in Lebanon.

Yet for six years Israel has shown remarkable restraint in the north. Despite Israel's complete, unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah's Islamist radicals wanted to continue their war against the Jewish state.

Hezbollah then amassed an estimated 10,000 missiles against Israel. Hezbollah provocations, ranging from the attempted kidnapping and murder of three patrolling soldiers in 2000 to occasionally bombing northern Israeli towns, have triggered controlled responses. Israel's strategy has been to try to avoid a multi-front war. The real question, however, is why Hezbollah enjoys attacking the Jewish state so wantonly.

Similarly in the south, Israel's reactions seemed hasty only when linked to the kidnapping two weeks ago. After what they calculate to be 1,500 Kassams in 1,900 days, with eight deaths, the good citizens of Sderot resent their government's inaction. They often seem as angry at Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as at their murderous Palestinian neighbors. "Sharon Wake Up, Olmert is in a Coma," one sign in the town square reads.

The residents have endured this harassment for far too long. Here, too, the questions easily switch from the strategic to the existential. Why is it, so many wonder, that Gaza's Palestinians have devoted their energies in the year since disengagement to trying to destroy Israel, rather than building a peaceful future?

The fact that this two-front war has been launched from areas evacuated by Israel army's has undermined the credibility of Israel's peace camp - as well as Olmert's pro-disengagement government. In Sderot on Sunday, most people blamed the Gaza disengagement for intensifying Palestinian attacks.

Moreover, the Palestinians' deadly shell game of spring and summer highlighted one of the more depressing aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli clash and a lingering source of Israeli insecurity. The widespread Hezbollah-Hamas desire to eliminate Israel, and Palestinians' success in peddling their one-sided narrative to the world remain unnerving....

Hamas and Hezbollah have repeatedly called for Israel's extermination - and acted to realize their twisted ideals. While the appropriate response is debatable, chiding Israel without acknowledging the lethal realities of the challenges facing Israel reveals much about the Western capacity for self-delusion. True statesmanship requires honest evaluations not blind moral equivalence. Especially this month, Israel has been victimized enough....

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