FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - May 15, 2021 - 12:00am

The good news is that an early and comprehensive vaccination program has brought Israel close to, or at, herd immunity. The bad news is that Israel is slipping perilously towards yet another war with her neighbors.

Tensions began escalating last week when hardline Israelis began demolishing Palestinian homes to make way for new Jewish settlements. This has always been provocative. What makes the last round of land grabbing was that the neighborhoods where Arabs are being ejected are located in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem.

Riots soon broke out in Jerusalem and in other cities with mixed Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods. Bands of Muslim as well as Jewish thugs began invading their neighbors. The violence quickly spiraled after over a decade of relative peace.

Then the militant group Hamas stepped into the picture, raining scores of rockets on Israeli cities. As has been their practice, the Israelis responded in force: sending in warplanes to bomb Hamas rocket launchers.

Hamas, quite uniquely, is waging a guerrilla war from densely populated Gaza City. When Israelis attack Hamas positions in the city, collateral damage tends to be high. Earlier this week, Israeli planes took down a tall building from where it appears rockets are being launched.

I had the chance years ago to visit Ashkalon and Sderot, two large Israeli cities bordering Gaza. Homemade rockets fired from across the border terrorized the population. There were bomb shelters everywhere. Every bus stop was designed as a bomb shelter.

I clambered up one of the observation towers along the border with Gaza. The strip of land separating the two warring groups was not too wide and one could observe the people on the other side going about their daily life.

In one dump, Israeli soldiers collected the spent tubes from the primitive rockets fired across the border. Since that time, Hamas appears to have improved on the rockets. But they are still far from being smart bombs and could inflict casualties randomly.

Northern Israel also confronts the danger of unguided missiles fired from southern Lebanon by the militant group Hezbollah. This militant group is supported by Iran and has reportedly received deadlier missiles from their patrons. It should not be surprising that Hezbollah hardliners are itching to join the hostilities.

The latest reports say that Israel is moving tanks and artillery to the border, possibly in preparation for a ground assault on Gaza. This has happened in the past when Israeli units mounted incursions into the densely populated city to clear out Hamas positions. The militants, while taking heavy casualties, simply regrouped south of Gaza City to painstakingly prepare for another armed confrontation.

It will not be surprising that, even before this column sees print, Israeli forces are in the streets of Gaza City. Another armed incursion will bring untold miseries to the people of Gaza, many of them may disagree with the militancy of Hamas but are incapable of stopping this heavily armed hardline group. Over a hundred Palestinians are reported killed for far.

Confronting both Hamas and Hezbollah has been very costly for Israel. Over the past years, Israel developed an “Iron Dome” defense system. This involves maintaining rocket interceptors on alert all hours of the day to block incoming rockets and protect civilians. The interceptors certainly cost more than the crude rockets the militants fire at random hours.

This condition of permanent war footing is costly for both sides. Gaza seems to be in an endless cycle of repairing after a shooting war and then getting into hostilities again before the repair is completed. Imagine how much better the lives of the Palestinians might be if they were not trapped in this cycle of permanent war.

Cautionary tale

From a neighborhood spat to communal disturbance to all-out war: the descent of the situation in the Middle East provides us a cautionary tale. With enough jingoism, years of saber rattling and constant war footing, it is so easy to brings things to a full-scale armed confrontation.

Those who want us to “do more” in insisting on our South China Sea claims seem to want to bring the situation there to somewhere close to war footing. There are over 200 fairly large “militia” vessels in the contested area, supported by dozens of China Coast Guard ships and fully developed military installations on the reclaimed reefs.

If we want to “do more” in this situation, we need several dozen Coast Guard patrol vessels constantly shadowing the “enemy.” We do not have those vessels. All we have managed to do the past weeks is to have our tiny patrol vessels shoo away Chinese vessels before returning to port to replenish.

“Doing more” will also require building fortifications on the reefs to demarcate our EEZ claims. This will require tens of billions and many years to accomplish. The end result will be something akin to the border between the two Koreas where troops armed to the teeth stare each other down day in and day out.

The money required to purchase dozens more patrol vessels and add new fortifications will push us deeper into debt. Remember that we have just borrowed billions to buy vaccines and execute a rapid inoculation program. Spending more to militarize the South China Sea will bury us in debt. There are better uses for our cash.

We now estimate we need an additional P75 billion to vaccinate Filipinos between 15 and 17 years old. We will need more if it is determined that we need booster shots next year to maintain protection against the virus.

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