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Another Qassam rocket fired at Ashkelon, another volley of shells on Beit Lahia, another suicide bombing foiled and one that wasn't. That's the headline in the newspaper, on the evening newscast, on Internet bulletins. But the message that the Israel Defense Forces is digging up beneath the ruins and between the craters is far more important than any passing report. It is not about to end. Not this week, not this year, not this decade, maybe not even this century. This is our life (and our death), as far as the eye can see. Endless bloodletting, until the end of time.

An understanding of the confrontation as persistent and ongoing, is the unavoidable conclusion drawn from an internal IDF study that was written over the past two years and is expected to soon receive an official stamp of approval. It was compiled by a team led by the commander of the Staff and Command College, Brigadier General Amos Ben-Avraham, and the head of the IDF History Department, Colonel (res.) Shaul Shai. The team was initially led by Major General Amos Yadlin, former head of the IDF National Defense College. In the summer of 2004 Yadlin became Israel's military attache in Washington and was replaced by Major General Yair Naveh, who was then in the Home Front Command. In the meantime, Naveh was transferred to Central Command and Yadlin returned from the United States to serve as director of Military Intelligence.

More significantly, one chief of staff went and another came. During the period of Moshe Ya'alon, and in the transition in the Palestinian Authority from Yasser Arafat to Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the IDF spoke in terms of achieving a decision and breaking the Palestinian will to continue the confrontation. Under Dan Halutz, and especially since the Hamas takeover, this ambition appears to have been forsaken. A similar mood now prevails on both sides, which accepts the persistence of the conflict as decreed by fate. The challenge is not to get out of the conflict - there is no way out - but how to live with it without going mad and without depleting strength and energy.

It began at Masada

Halutz's General Staff, led by his deputy, Moshe Kaplinsky, operations chief Gadi Eisenkott and Yadlin, has found an answer to the old question, which was posed a generation ago by Moshe Dayan: Shall we live by the sword for all time? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Yes, we shall "eat" the sword, as the Hebrew phrase has it, eternally, though with breaks between the meals. Deterministic? Fatalistic? Pessimistic? "Realistic," a major general said this week. The conflict is irresolvable. The mutual claims by the two sides cannot converge or be offset in the form of a compromise of coexistence and assured peace. This is the shaky roof, which is not replaceable and which threatens at every moment to come crashing down on the heads of the occupants. Below it remains space for day-to-day life, for managing the relations, for "flattening the violence" and, insofar as the defense establishment will be successful in serving society, the economy, the citizens - for prosperity in time of conflict.

The General Staff team distinguishes between conflict and confrontation, which is one of the rounds in the lengthy contest, similar to the difference between a war and a campaign and a campaign and a battle. According to the team's classification, what occurred in the past six years is the 10th confrontation between Israelis and Arabs since 1929.

The Americans also had a similar team, in the intelligence department of the ground forces' Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). Last summer, it published the "Military Guide to Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century." The guide's survey of terrorism begins with Masada and the Zealots: "An organization that exhibited aspects of a modern terrorist organization was the Zealots of Judea. Known to the Romans as sicarii, or dagger-men, they carried on an underground campaign of assassination of Roman occupation forces, as well as any Jews they felt had collaborated with the Romans. Their motive was an uncompromising belief that they could not remain faithful to the dictates of Judaism while living as Roman subjects. Eventually, the Zealot revolt became open, and they were finally besieged and committed mass suicide at the fortification of Masada." (The full text of the guide is available at www.fas.org/irp/threat/terrorism/guide.pdf)

The guide also cites the hijacking of an El Al plane to Algiers in 1968 as the moment of the birth of the era of modern terrorism and singles Dr. George Habash out as the midwife. The terrorism of the PLO's various factions was "ethno-nationalist." It contributed to the internationalization of terrorism because it was joined by organizations, which were bored after the conclusion of the American involvement in Vietnam and found a new cause in the Palestinians.

For 18 years, from the assumption of the throne by the boy-king Hussein until Black September in 1970, Israel conducted complex hot-cold relations with the Hashemite regime, which flinched from engaging the Palestinians in a confrontation. For another 18 years, until 1988, Israel toyed with the idea of a Jordanian solution for the West Bank, until Hussein became fed up with the show and set the Israelis and Palestinians against one another. For the next 18 years, Israel made slow progress - partial and imagined progress - at first with U.S. mediation and then directly, with the Palestinian secular nationalist movement.

This year, a new campaign began, religious and uncompromising in character. Hamas and the other offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood (whose writings are being avidly studied by the General Staff) can compromise only within the framework of a non-concession strategy.

The old PLO terrorism aged and was succeeded by the terrorism of Hezbollah, Hamas and the World Jihad, under the auspices of the Taliban regime. Only the activation of U.S. military power brought about the downfall of the Taliban; no compromise was possible with them. The model of the American warfare (with the aid of the "Northern Alliance" and other local elements) in Afghanistan at the end of 2001 is now being closely studied by the Israel Air Force. True, U.S. officers say that had extensive ground forces been used in the campaign in the Tora Bora mountains, the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his people would have ended in annihilation already then, but political circumstances - and the preparations for Iraq - precluded this.

What was practiced in Afghanistan - cooperation between an airborne force with precision-guided munitions, and Special Forces on the ground guiding the planes to their targets - may be utilized by the IDF in its coming operations.

The perception of the war as protracted and even unending is heightening the IDF's consciousness of the need for forbearance and reducing the eagerness for large-scale, expensive operations that achieve quiet for only a brief period. The policymakers in the current General Staff note the limited usefulness of the two previous strategies: attrition (September 2000 to April 2002) and conquest (Operation Defensive Shield, spring 2002). The Palestinians were neither worn down nor vanquished. Under their pressure - and for this purpose it is immaterial whether it was President George Bush who squeezed the trigger with his two-state road map, or whether the political trigger was squeezed by Ariel Sharon in consultation with himself - Israel withdrew from settlements which, in the absence of such pressure, were categorized as real estate assets.

The significance of a withdrawal like this was addressed by the Military Guide to Terrorism, which says that bin Laden & Co. believed that they, and not the Americans who equipped and trained them, expelled the Soviets from A fghanistan, and that the Shiites in Lebanon believed that they and their suicide bombers, and not any independent activities of the Reagan administration, expelled the Americans from that country.

Israel has no genuine military option in Gaza. A southern version of Operation Defensive Shield, which decision-makers will be tempted to try when Hamas is blamed for failing to prevent a serious terrorist attack, is liable to become bogged down already in the first row of houses in Jabalya.

This week, officers who served in Gaza recalled a briefing by chief of staff Shaul Mofaz to the GOC Southern Command Doron Almog and the divisional commander, Yisrael Ziv, when Operation Defensive Shield's continuation was being considered (the plan was eventually dropped). Almog and Ziv were surprised to hear then that, for Mofaz, success would have been the sight of the commander's jeep, flying an Israeli flag and circling the central square in Gaza City; straggling behind the jeep, there could have been a lengthy and vulnerable line of military convoys on the "Tanzer" route, Gaza's main street. However, there would have been no military advantage to such an operation, as forces would have had to return to their bases afterward, unlike the situation in the West Bank. Army divisions would not be effective in the dense tangle of towns, neighborhoods and refugee camps in Gaza. Indeed, following the evacuation, operations of the kind mounted from 2000 to 2005 are no longer effective. These mostly followed the pattern of a quiet night raid, the arrest of wanted persons and a noisy rescue, and produced most of the casualties among the forces, armed militants and civilians.

It follows from this also that the IDF, even if it will not dare say so explicitly, for fear of invading the political echelon's terrain, believes that the pullout from Gaza - in the chosen format - was a mistake. A more correct evacuation, and the model for the future, occurred in the northern West Bank. If there will be another evacuation, by government decision, the IDF will recommend using that model.

'Exacting a price'

Counter-fire - from air, sea and by artillery - is the alternative that was chosen, unenthusiastically, because the IDF does not have ground control in Gaza. Its dangers are clear and its benefits - "exacting a price," demonstrating resolve - are less so. The civilian casualties may intensify the population's demand that Hamas restrain the Qassam launchers, but they may also make the international community and Israeli public rail against the policy and undermine the Israeli effort to give the Palestinians hope for a better future (if they only adopt a spirit of compromise). The Israeli dream is to find a local force that will make all the recalcitrant elements abandon their bad behavior; it makes no difference whether it is Fatah that will restrain Hamas or Hamas that will restrain Fatah. The dozen years of Oslo showed that this dream had no chance of being realized under Arafat. Hamas, which disavows Oslo (it heads the government of an authority that was created by an agreement between two bodies it does not recognize - Israel and the PLO), buried the dream for good.

Hamas believes that time is in its favor. It wants time to strengthen itself and to close the gap in the balance of forces with Israel. The truce is convenient for Hamas, until the moment it decides it is inconvenient. Israel is looking for an initiative that will destabilize Hamas and bring to power strong moderates who will take action against the extremists. Abbas is a moderate, but he is not strong. And a leader who will rally forces to wage war against Hamas is not yet in sight.