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Israel’s Big New Gun Could Be an Instrument of Peace

Zev Chafets

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last week the Israeli Defense Ministry made a startling announcement. It will soon begin testing a a new laser weapon to shoot down missiles and drones. If it passes battlefield testing, it could be deployed by the end of 2020, on the Gaza front. It will soon begin trials of a new laser weapon that can neutralize short-range missiles and rockets, low-flying artillery shells and airborne incendiary devices.

If field tests go as expected, the “laser sword” could be deployed by the end of 2020. It is a fearsome weapon of war. Paradoxically, it could also be an engine of peace.

The laser “sword” augments the Iron Dome anti-missile system, which had been about 85% successful in shooting down rockets from across the border. This week, a new version of the Dome was pronounced to now be 100% accurate. Still, it is a cumbersome and expensive weapon. Each shell costs close to $50,000. Lasers -- which can take down incoming tank shells, drones and incendiary balloons -- run on electricity, fire a limitless amount of ordnance and cost roughly $3.50 a shot.    

The deployment of the laser sword, and the newly improved Iron Dome, coincides with the imminent completion of a massive, hi-tech defensive wall along the border of Gaza. It is roughly 20 feet high, descends far enough underground to block infiltration tunnels and runs below the shoreline of the Mediterranean to prevent attacks by Hamas naval commandos. It gives Israel a virtually impregnable defense.

This is not unrelated to the present negotiations taking place, via Egypt, between Israel and Hamas. They aim for a long truce which, given the new balance of forces, will amount to Palestinian surrender.

So far, Hamas has agreed to reduce and moderate its weekly demonstrations. Israel, in response, has lifted a ban on importing the tires which are used as incendiary smoke screens by rock-throwing Hamasniks.

Israel is also opening a door to commerce. Gazan strawberries on sale in Tel Aviv testify to a liberalization of the ban on imports. And, for the first time since the Palestinian intifada of 2000, chronically unemployed Gazans are being given permits to cross the border for jobs in construction and agriculture. So far, the number has been limited to 5,000 by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, which fears terrorist infiltration. But if Hamas ends hostilities and cooperates in vetting job seekers, that number could rise exponentially.

There are other signs of comity. An American evangelical charity, Friend Ships, is opening a state-of-the-art field hospital in northern Gaza. The Palestine Liberation Organization leadership in Ramallah, which is in a state of permanent rivalry with Hamas, has attempted to frustrate this by denouncing the hospital as the front for an American intelligence project. But both Israel and Hamas have ignored the propaganda and given the green light.

In 2006, in reprisal for the kidnapping of a soldier, Israel took out Gaza’s power plant. Since then, Gaza has suffered severe, persistent power shortages. On Monday, it was reported that Israel has decided to go ahead with the construction of a natural gas pipeline to Gaza. It will carry as much as one billion cubic meters per year to local power plants, and supply most of the Gaza's electricity needs. The plan is to go online in 2020.  In the past, the PLO leadership in Ramallah has opposed this plan as a possible step to Gazan independence.  

Even more cooperation is on the table. The most ambitious and imaginative is the creation, by Israel, of an artificial island off the coast of Gaza. It would be linked to the mainland by a bridge, and include a water desalinization plant, a freight harbor with sufficient storage space and, if all goes well, eventually a seaport and an airport. The plan, first proposed in 2017, was stymied by then Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. But the new defense minister, the hawkish Naftali Bennett, reportedly supports the plan and has ordered an IDF feasibility study.

Israel does not want to annex or govern Gaza. It wants peace and quiet, cheap labor and a decent standard of living for its neighbors (and perhaps, someday, a Palestinian state in a place that is not Judea and Samaria). If the Hamas leadership’s readiness for a deal stems not from changed hearts but cold calculation of the new strategic situation, so much the better. Such a realization motivated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, once Israel’s arch-enemy, to make peace after the 1973 war.  

There are still irreconcilables on both sides. Hardliners in the organization, Iranian proxy Islamic Jihad and the PLO in Ramallah would each, for its own reasons, prefer to see Hamas beat its head against an unyielding wall. In Israel, Avigdor Lieberman is now accusing Prime Minister Netanyahu of trying to form a coalition with Hamas and there are Israelis, not all of them Likudniks, who will never trust a deal no matter how thoroughly they are defended by unbreachable walls and sci-fi weaponry like the laser sword.

Extremists on either side can’t be allowed to delay the conclusion of the Gazan wars. It is not easy for Hamas to concede defeat in a holy war and it will try to pretend it hasn’t lost. Israel need not make it harder. Jerusalem’s guide should be Churchill’s dictum: “In victory, magnanimity.”

To contact the author of this story: Zev Chafets at zchafets@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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