Was Obama Wrong About Sderot?

Jonathan S. Mark responds to Peter Beinart's analysis of President Obama's Jerusalem speech.

When President Obama spoke in Jerusalem last Thursday, he told the audience:

When I consider Israel's security, I think about children like Osher Twito, who I met in Sderot—children, the same age as my own daughters, who went to bed at night fearful that a rocket would land in their bedroom simply because of who they are and where they live.

Peter Beinart took issue with the word “simply.” He pointed to a correlation between the severity of the Israeli siege on Gaza and the level of rocket attacks aimed at Israel from Gaza. But "simply" means "in simple terms" or "basically." Was Obama's remark accurate? Absolutely.

We've all seen various rationales for why, since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Gaza militants have fired rockets at Sderot. Some of them are:

  • The rockets that Gazans fire into Israel are mere "bottle rockets";
  • Firing rockets from Gaza into Israel isn't terrorism, it's "resistance";
  • Gaza is "the world's largest open-air prison";
  • Sure it's bad that several dozen Israelis have been killed by rockets from Gaza, but that's not so many;
  • Sderot was a Palestinian village before 1948, therefore Gazans have a right to rocket it today

But no one can prove that the above rationales are the real reasons for the attacks. That would require peering into the minds of everyone who has ever fired a rocket from Gaza into Israel. As Nat Hentoff once said of justifications for imposing political tests on visiting Israeli professors at Columbia Law School, "The melody changes, but the underlying chords remain the same." What are the underlying chords that lead to rocket fire on Sderot? Simply put (there's that word "simply" again) they are:

  • Many Gaza militants are violent "one-staters" who believe Israel has no right to exist. Why do such militants fire at Sderot and not at, say, the Egyptian town of Rafah along the Gaza border? It is because Sderot has Jewish Israelis in it, and Rafah does not. President Obama calls this reason "because of who they are."
  • The rockets that Gaza militants fire into Israel have limited range. Sderot is the closest Israeli town to Gaza, and the easiest to hit. Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets and mortar bombs at Sderot, and not a single one at Haifa. Their rockets cannot reach Haifa. President Obama calls this reason for the rocket fire at Sderot "because of...where they live."

Searches for an ultimate "root cause" of Gaza militants' rocket fire on Sderot will probably never succeed. Every cause itself has some other cause. So any listing of causes is necessarily incomplete.

But it is possible to simplify the major reasons for rockets being fired from Gaza at Sderot, and not Haifa or Rafah. President Obama selected two major ones, ethnicity and geography.

That is all President Obama was saying, and he said it well.