Rocket fire does matter, but will the public buy it

A public relations campaign must accompany any military one nowadays, and the Israeli government has consequently undertaken various PR measures, from personal diplomacy to tours of Sderot for foreign journalists.

All are perfectly reasonable steps. Yet the effort is marred by one fatal flaw: You cannot convince the world that Palestinian rocket fire justifies an assault that has killed hundreds of Palestinians when you have previously spent three years dismissing this fire as unimportant.

The Gaza operation would be a hard sell under any circumstances, because it is very difficult for people who have not experienced life under constant missile fire — namely, most of the world — to understand just how debilitating it is.

They look at the statistics, see that six years of rocket and mortar attacks have killed relatively few people and think “no big deal.” They cannot imagine what it is like never to have an unbroken night of sleep, since even on nights without rockets, the constant anticipation of an alert disrupts slumber; never to go to the supermarket or send your children out to play without fear; to see your ability to earn a living vanish as large corporations leave town and small businesses collapse for lack of customers, since fear of being caught outdoors by a rocket keeps people at home.

Even if you brandish statistics that never make the foreign media — like the fact that in Sderot 28 percent of adults and 30 percent of children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and more than 75 percent of children display some symptoms of post-traumatic stress — it makes little impression.

The problem is worse because non-Israelis think they do understand, as they, too, live with terror. They cannot grasp the qualitative difference between daily terror and the sporadic terror that most countries know.

The truth is that there is a “tolerable” level of terror. If attacks occur only at long intervals, as is true in the West, people quickly return to normal, and fear of terror does not take over their lives.

Inability to grasp the impact of daily terror does not necessarily reflect anti-Israel bias. The Bush administration staked its entire reputation on the outcome of the Iraq war, yet still took four years to realize that nothing would improve in Iraq until terror was reduced to a level that enabled people to leave their houses without fear.

Until then, it had accepted the Western dogma that economic development was the key to reducing terrorism. Never having experienced the debilitating effects of daily terror themselves, American officials simply could not understand that in fact, the opposite was true.

Explaining why rocket fire from Gaza justifies a punishing assault would therefore require a major re-education campaign regarding the difference between constant and sporadic terror. And major re-education campaigns cannot be accomplished overnight; they require a massive investment of resources over a long period.

Instead of conducting such a campaign, however, the Israeli government has spent the last three years arguing, in both word and deed, that the rocket fire is in fact “no big deal.” This began with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan to unilaterally evacuate the West Bank, which he abandoned only because of the Second Lebanon War. If the threefold increase in rocket fire that followed disengagement from Gaza was insufficient reason to eschew another unilateral pullout, such fire is clearly no big deal.

Repeated military operations that were declared successes even though daily rocket and mortar fire continued (albeit at a lower level) after they ended, and two truces that were similarly declared successes even though almost daily fire continued (again at a lower level) throughout them, also sent the message that such fire is no big deal.

The government’s opposition to reinforcing Gaza-area schools and homes similarly sent the message that people should be able to live with rocket fire just fine.

And the message was reinforced verbally. A year ago, Olmert told the Knesset that there is “no need to get all fired up” about the rockets, and a major military operation in Gaza would be “out of proportion to the pressures we face.” Public Security Minister Avi Dichter declared in July 2006 that disengagement was a success despite the rocket attacks, because “10 months without any Israeli being killed” from Gaza “is an extraordinary achievement.”

One can understand why the government adopted this line. First, this is basically the same government that executed the disengagement, so if rocket fire is a big deal, the fact that it more than tripled following the pullout means the government’s flagship policy was a failure. Second, the government has proved unable to stop this fire despite several military operations and two truces, so admitting that rockets are a problem means admitting it has failed on the security front.

But the bottom line is that the government has spent three years telling the world that rocket fire does not matter. And reversing this perception will require a concerted effort lasting for years.

No short-term PR blitz will suffice.

Evelyn Gordon is a veteran journalist with the Jerusalem Post, where this column previously appeared.