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Last month, Second Lieutenant Asaf from the platoon commanders school, represented the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in a peacekeeping exercise in which 27 countries from NATO and its partners took part, at Yavoriv Training Center in Ukraine. For the first time, infantrymen from Israel took part in multinational battalion training maneuvers, within the framework of a unit commanded by a Ukrainian and a company under the command of an officer from Macedonia. The Israelis excelled, it was reported from Macedonia with satisfaction. As a prize or as punishment, Asaf and his soldiers were this week sent to take part in the IDF peacekeeping mission in the Negev.

In the present chapter of the anti-disengagement protest, in which the limits of power in a limited confrontation are being examined cautiously, the two sides learned that the army and police are good at formulating answers, but that the opponents are still dictating the questions. The government had organized a meeting for the two sides in the second half of August, in Gush Katif, the Gaza Strip settlement bloc. The opponents, though, announced that it is more convenient for them to meet now - in Netivot, Kfar Maimon, Kissufim and Gush Katif.

The drama had two acts: "the bus-stoppers" and "encircled in Kfar Maimon." It's hard to believe, but at the beginning of the week the police were complacent: Their assessment was that the assembly in the Negev would occupy only the police's Southern District. At 9 A.M. on Monday, the General Command Staff (GCS) of the police convened to discuss the week ahead. On the agenda: a semi-annual summation of crime statistics and road accidents. The commander of the Southern District, Uri Bar-Lev, did not take part in the discussion: he had more urgent matters to attend to. Bar-Lev got an early start and at 6:30 A.M. reviewed his plans for dealing with the assembly of opponents of the Gaza withdrawal, which was scheduled for that afternoon in Netivot, a town close to the Gaza Strip.

Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi, who was commander of the Southern District until a year ago, approved Bar-Lev's plans and excused him from the meeting. Bar-Lev went to tour the area. He was convinced that he would be able to handle the tens of thousands of people the organizers were threatening to bring to the assembly, as a launching pad for the march to the Kissufim checkpoint, gateway to Gush Katif. At the end of the previous week, in internal discussions held by the Southern District, Nisso Shaham, commander of the Negev Region, had raised the idea of intercepting the tens of thousands at their points of departure instead of waiting until they reached Netivot. Shaham imported this concept from Jerusalem, his previous post. The tactic had been used in 1996 at Sha'ar Haggai on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road by Asaf Hefetz, then the police commissioner, to thwart demonstrations planned by the right-wing group Zo Artzeinu and by the Islamic Movement on the Temple Mount. In the days ahead, the opponents of the evacuation will discover that the behavior of the security forces and the police is derived from the way the Arabs in Israel and the Palestinians are treated.

The general idea of preventing the assembly from taking place was also voiced during that weekend by police Major General Yohanan Danino, who heads the operations staff of Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra. In the cabinet meeting on Sunday the attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, noted that the possibility existed, but the decision was left to the professional level - the police commissioner and the district commanders.

After weighing Shaham's suggestion, Bar-Lev decided not to accept it. Karadi, who didn't know about the idea, thought it would be best to let the opponents air their protests. In a meeting with the heads of the Yesha Council of settlements, Karadi said the police could agree to a rally in Netivot and even a procession to Kfar Maimon, but not to the march to Gush Katif, which was tantamount to a declaration of intent to perpetrate a criminal offense.

Shaham's suggestion was presented to Karadi at the GCS meeting, when the head of Police Investigations and Intelligence, Dudi Cohen, also gave him new information: the organizers of the assembly had purchased one-way tickets for the 650 buses they had ordered. There was no longer any doubt that after the rally, the participants were going to make good on their declared intention to invade Gush Katif. This information led to the initiative to stop the buses. It was a tactical proposal, aimed at thinning out but not canceling the assembly, because the police had already decided to ignore the definition of the rally as illegal and to allow anyone who got close to Netivot to take part in it. To rationalize the contradiction, Karadi stated that the assembly would be a tolerable "breach of order," whereas an attempt to proceed afterward in the direction of Kfar Maimon and Kissufim would be a mass "breach of the law."

In light of the possibility that tens of thousands of civilians would enter a closed military zone, Karadi's view was that in the balance between freedom of movement and fear of a mass breach of the law, the scale tipped toward stopping the buses. Most of the police major generals backed the decision. The police legal adviser, Anat Shefi, ratified it with Mazuz and with the deputy state prosecutor, Shai Nitzan. Bar-Lev, who heard about it after the fact and was not happy about the idea of detaining citizens who were on their way to an event, accepted the fact and set about implementing the decision. Karadi and Danino called Ezra to update him. Ezra authorized the plan without reservations. Danino called the prime minister's military secretary, Major General Yoav Galant, to brief him, and through him Ariel Sharon.

Shortly after taking office, Karadi said that with him there was a "GCS that leaks information and a police chief who decides." He would be happy to find a similar situation in the adversary's camp, but in the Yesha Council and its affiliated group of rabbis there is a GCS without a chief. Every member represents a different line, which generates opposition among others.

Expensive saving

Tactically, the opponents failed at two points. The first was to order the buses only until Netivot and not wait until the demonstrations were over. That was a very expensive saving, which gave the police an early warning and brought about a situation in which tens of thousands were prevented from getting to Netivot. The second was their decision to enter Kfar Maimon, an isolated site with few roads that is difficult to access and is surrounded by fences.

The crowd that ended up at Kfar Maimon facilitated the police mission. On the first night, the police command thought the 4,000 police and soldiers at the site would be able to block the marchers from Netivot, but yielded and let them enter Kfar Maimon. Karadi explained that the change of plan was necessary because of the presence of hundreds of infants and toddlers. His assessment was that there would be people killed and wounded in a violent clash, including many children who would be crushed in the melee. At dawn, when the disengagement opponents awoke from a night of victory, they were surprised to see that Bar-Lev had conquered the parking area they had prepared and had effectively enclosed them in a large pen.

The police discovered how difficult it was to count the crowd. At night, the swarm of marchers had led to estimates ranging from 30,000 to 50,000. In the morning, an overhead flight reduced the estimate to 8,000, a gap which cannot be explained by the fact that some of the protesters left. In the next two days entries and exits were free on an individual basis, not in large processions.

Sources in the senior command of the police said yesterday that this week's experience was an eye-opener exposing flaws that can still be corrected. This is the largest joint police-army operation in Israel's history, and it is taking place in an open and hot desert area. For the first time, 6,000 police were activated outside Jerusalem, and the supply lines proved creaky. It was not only the evacuation opponents who were bothered by the large mix of police and soldiers. Army and police officers were also uneasy about its ramifications.

"It's too late now to change things and separate," a senior police officer said - not necessarily reflecting Karadi's opinion - "but it would be better if the police operated only east of the Green Line and the IDF only in the Gaza Strip." The chief of Southern Command, Major General Dan Harel, was in Kfar Maimon, a totally civilian area, as the military arm of police Major General Bar-Lev. Soldiers manned checkpoints and informed travelers on the roads that only local residents would be allowed through. In effect, military government was imposed on the "Gaza envelope." In August, the inspector general will issue an order closing the area from Kibbutz Yad Mordechai and perhaps all the way from Ashkelon, and it will be enforced by 2,900 police.

In the general chaos, it was almost forgotten that the army and the police have a third partner, hidden from view - the Shin Bet security service. Shortly before he retired, two months ago, the outgoing Shin Bet chief, Avi Dichter, noted that few people inside or outside the state service grasp the power in the hands of the head of the Shin Bet and the chief of police. Last year, Dichter and the former police commissioner, Shlomo Aharonishky, signed an agreement setting the sector boundaries between the two organizations. That document, which was inherited by the present Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin, and by Karadi, assigns the Shin Bet the task of collecting and evaluating intelligence "in the sphere of public order against a subversive nationalist background." This refers to both Arabs and Jews.

Shin Bet nightmare

When the Shin Bet analyzed the Dichter-Aharonishky agreement in the light of the Shin Bet Law (which stipulates that the secret service shall thwart and prevent "illegal activity which aims to harm state security, the order of the democratic regime and its institutions [by means of] threats of terrorism, sabotage, subversion") three elements justifying the Shin Bet's incursion into an area considered the purview of the police were specified. These are: secret activity by an individual or a group; ideological and not merely criminal motivations; a violent nationalist background aiming to kill and to attack essential assets. The Shin Bet is not supposed to deal with the masses, only with those devising nationalist schemes in secret, when the planned or probable result is sabotage.

The Shin Bet unit for the prevention of (non-Arab) political subversion oscillates between two poles: high marks for covering the dozens of fanatics who are determined to disrupt the evacuation, while wondering who has eluded the picture or has not yet shown up. The nightmare of the Baruch Goldstein episode still haunts the Shin Bet, though no answer has yet been found for someone who gets up one morning, without any outward signs of advance preparation or communication with others, snaps and sets out to do mayhem. (In February 1994, Goldstein massacred 29 Arab worshipers in the mosque in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.) The working assumption is that there are, or could be, people like this. To expand the view, the Shin Bet is also surveying old and partial information that did not yield results on previous occasions.

The possible effect of this week's events - radicalization to the point of violent subversion - has not yet been subjected to an in-depth examination by the Shin Bet, but the preliminary conclusions are similar to those reached by the police: it is difficult to manage a crisis when the other side has no uniform chain of command whose authority is universally accepted. Those who rebel against the kingdom are liable to discover that within their ranks are some who would rebel against their kingdom, too; an underground within an underground.

The dialogue with the settlers' leaders and with their rabbis continues, though it is of limited usefulness, because the extremists "have no rabbi and no God," in the words of one of the settler leaders. Among the dozens of zealots, there are some who are armed. Most of them are outside Gush Katif, which was considered by the Shin Bet - at least until this week - to be mostly state-oriented and moderate, apart from the 20 students of Rabbi Shmuel Tal in Torat Hahayim Yeshiva and in the outpost of Kerem Atzmona.

Surprisingly or not, the Shin Bet takes seriously the legal duty to adopt a "state approach" and refuse missions "aimed at promoting party/political interests." The practical implication, in this fiery week, was that the Shin Bet sat on the sidelines and observed passively what the organization described as an event that is still part of the democratic game. In the eyes of the Shin Bet, if the developments at Netivot and Kfar Maimon should thrust politics to the point where the government falls and the evacuation is delayed, if that were to happen - it has nothing to do with them.