The view from the Pit
A rare peek into Israel's war room - where, in the coming week, the IDF will be following the drills for completing the preparations for the evacuation, with forces from the army and the police
In keeping with Israel Defense Forces tradition, on the wall of the Paratroops Brigade headquarters hang pictures of the previous commanders. First in the series - Ariel Sharon. Last - Aviv Kochavi. Before him - Gadi Shamni. As yet there is no picture of the current brigade commander, Yossi Bachar. Toward the end of the week, all four were busy grappling with the two-headed challenge in the territories: Palestinian terror and opponents of the evacuation from Gaza and the northern West Bank.
Colonel Bachar oversaw "Operation Epilogue" against Islamic Jihad in Tul Karm, following the terror attack in Netanya. Brigadier General Kochavi, commander of the Gaza division, was busy sealing off the Gaza Strip - with a belt full of holes in the form of checkpoints - from disengagement opponents keen to get in and from terror that wants to get out. Shamni, who was commander of the Hebron brigade in 1996 and of the Paratroops in the West Bank in 2001, is now head of the Operations Division in the General Staff. And Sharon continued to rely on the power of the army, and initiated - in a kind of chess game with the Yesha Council of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza - the sealing-off of the Strip.
Shamni, who considers the fight against the smuggling of weapons from Egypt to Gaza and the Negev, both above and below ground, to be one of the IDF's key missions in the territories (the others are fighting terror, building the separation fence and dealing with the firing of Qassam rockets and mortars), has himself "gone underground" along with another 230 officers and soldiers. Every morning, they arrive at a gray building in the Kirya (army headquarters) in Tel Aviv, swipe their electronic ID cards in order to enter the double doors, and descend into the dimly lit depths of the "pit," where the Operations Division is based.
Officially, it's just the IDF war room. Actually, in the absence of a state command post, it's the national war room. From here, the activities in two, three or four sectors are observed.
In the coming week, this is where the IDF will be following the drills for completing the preparations for the evacuation, with forces from the army and the police. During the evacuation itself, Shamni will be the one who will have to decide whether to recommend that the army be used to reinforce the police - for example, whether to transfer 5,000 soldiers from the south or the north to head off an assault by settlers on the Temple Mount.
Shamni, who took over his position in April of last year, used to humbly describe his job as "the chief of staff's operations officer." In a moment of excessive modesty, he referred to himself as just an "operations sergeant." This is true if you believe the only ones sitting around the rectangular table in the room known as the "library" are actually librarians - and not Shin Bet security service and Mossad people, the coordinator of activity in the territories and various IDF officers. IDF air and naval power is sometimes loaned to the various arms of the intelligence community. Such inter-service coordination has grown tighter in the years of the conflict with the Palestinians. Recently another layer was added - including the Ministries of the Interior and the Environment, and the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority. And it's the same in the field. For example, the quickest way to obtain a property-tax certificate to compensate a farmer whose land was trampled by fortification projects and by tanks driving over it, is to get the division commander to phone him. The barriers between the various working ranks are falling down, even if the ministers above them are less cooperative with each other due to the wariness that comes with being political rivals.
Here, in a collection of underground tunnels leading to the headquarters of the air force and the navy and to the double building housing the General Staff and the Defense Ministry, is where the supreme command post of the two echelons - political and military - is located at times of emergency. The army is the host, and at the head of the crescent-shaped table sits the "director of combat" - the chief of staff or his representative - surrounded by officers of the Israel Police, the IDF Spokesperson's Unit and the various branches of the General Staff, opposite video screens showing split-screen images of the scenes of activity, a list of the latest developments and a chart of casualties. The guests - the ministers - are given a conference room in the corridor that leads to the war room.
A rare peek into the "pit" from which were conducted the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, the Lebanon War and countless operations, reveals some depressing archaeological findings. The structure, in both senses of the word, is obsolete: It's not just the wear and tear on the walls and electric cables and so on that is so glaring. It's as if nearly six decades haven't passed. As if it's not clear that the top echelon should be the entire government and within it the ministerial committee for security affairs (and alongside them, the Knesset, with effective means of oversight), and that one level below should be the Defense Ministry, with a strong civilian component, and only then, beneath that, should come the army.
Who makes policy?
The problem, as usual in Israel, begins with definitions. Who exactly is the "political echelon"? The prime minister? The defense minister? The cabinet? The government? What if there is no agreement between all of these? It was into this seam that former chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon tried to press himself - for as long as the idea of the Gaza evacuation was Sharon's alone, before it received the government's seal of approval. At the Pentagon, they first receive a presidential paper entitled "The National SECURITY Strategy," from which the U.S. Defense Department derives its "defense strategy," which is passed on to the Joint CHIEF OF STAFF, which formulate the "national military strategy." In the IDF, the process is just the reverse. They start from the bottom and move upward, with political approval attained only at the end.
The politicians tend to avoid enunciating their platforms clearly and directly, and refrain from making genuine use of civilian tools like the National Security Council. Instead, the IDF is forced to try to decipher the political echelon's intentions, by means of guesswork and reading the signs transmitted in declarations, interviews and indirect citations in articles. If the journalist is hard of hearing and he mistakenly quotes the prime minister as saying, for example, "she hu yagbil ("that he will limit") rather than "she hu yagdil" ("that he will increase"] or "she hu yagbir" ("that he will strengthen") something - the IDF may well understand the imperative by which it should act as just the opposite of what was intended.
The political imperative spawns the "strategic purpose" and then the "systematic idea" is detailed in "paths of action" and "end situations." Theses are the clever substitutes for old words - "intention," "goal," "method." The clever rhetoric makes it easy to forget that all this is essentially a jumble of hopes, expectations, predictions and working assumptions. This way, the adversary's logic and interests are analyzed like wishes that don't always rely on cold, hard reality.
The IDF also isn't constructed well for what it has to do in the territories. In the face of organizations (the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Yesha Council) that relate to the two sectors as a whole, the army separately operates the Central Command (with two divisions) and the Southern Command (normally with just one division, but with another four divisional military and police headquarters during the evacuation). The generals of these commands do not have active fronts in Jordan and Egypt; their contribution, compared to that of the division commanders, is marginal, and the shared knowledge that could have accumulated is being wasted.
The strategic rationale of the current move to evacuate Gaza and the northern West Bank is presented as a coordinated disengagement from these territories for the purpose of sustaining the calm in relations with the PA, and to eventually make an accord with a moderate and responsible Palestinian leadership. So they say in Tel Aviv. In Neveh Dekalim, where the forces in Gaza are gradually emptying out, the rationale is described as "taking advantage of an opportunity." The problem is that the opportunity is not so unequivocal, and that the initiative can be found on the other side, in its various forms - among evacuation opponents, the Islamic Jihad and the Yesha Council. They are the ones who set the agenda this week and made Sharon and the IDF respond earlier and more forcefully than planned.
The way the winds are blowing
In civilian eyes, the evacuation will be the peak of a period. In the IDF, it is viewed as just one of three sub-campaigns: the campaign leading up to the evacuation, the campaign of the evacuation, and the campaign after the evacuation. At the General Staff, they don't even have a separate name for these. In the Gaza division, they're referred to collectively as "Sea Wind." Now we're in Sea Wind A; the evacuation will be Sea Wind B; and coordination of the evacuation will be Sea Wind C. Terror, they say gloomily, will occur no matter what, with or without coordination, sporadic or continuous. The Palestinians, who have shown that they are capable of dealing firmly with manifestations of internal chaos and violence, will continue to act helpless in the face of attacks on Israel.
Up until the evacuation, the IDF is determined to proceed with restraint, knowing that a targeted strike (at a terror activist) or a mistaken strike (at children and civilians) will prompt a response, possibly lead to casualties among those due to be evacuated, and spark an escalation and public response that will make it much more difficult to carry out the evacuation. This is from the Levy Eshkol school of thought, that "the ledger is open and the hand is writing" - i.e., that a growing account is being kept against the Islamic Jihad, which is opposed to any calm.
After the attack in Netanya, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a public statement, essentially gave the green light for Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shallah, who's sitting in his headquarters in Damascus, to be targeted. Rice paved the way for an Israeli operation against the terror that is activated from within Syria and is sabotaging the rehabilitation efforts of the "peoples of Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine."
The "pit" is mainly supposed to be used for military planning, for an operation or a war. On day-to-day issues, the intelligence is matched up with operations in the adjacent rooms that share an inner window to the "pit." The aggressive IDF image is undermined somewhat when one keeps hearing about how crucial the need is for international - and, above all, American - approval.
"Washington is the eighth circle, perhaps the most important of all, in the evacuation operation," a senior officer said the other day. The IDF 2005 is outflanking Israel's Foreign Ministry, in an effort to strengthen the government of Mahmoud Abbas and to bolster the standing of the relatively moderate "internal Hamas," compared to the more militant "external Hamas." Only at the bottom of a list of five missions, which may in some way contradict each other, does provision of "security and a sense of security" to Israelis appear.
Already planning the raids
Unofficial assessments are even bleaker. First, they deal with bracing for possible scenarios in which tidal waves of disengagement opponents come crashing over the Gaza checkpoints, like Palestinian "marches of the hungry" from Beit Hanoun to Ashkelon, of which the IDF has always been apprehensive - just in the opposite direction. Senior officers in the field, in both the army and the police, say that they can deal with the situation if the numbers are in the hundreds: They would do this by using the observation and interception forces of Brigade 7 and a reserve police force from Eilat under the command of police commander Bruno Stein, which would engage in pursuit from the Kissufim checkpoint and wear down the would-be infiltrators. They could even cope with thousands. But tens of thousands may quite well be too much to handle. The IDF acknowledges that the outcome of the struggle depends in large part on the size of the force that the opponents are able to recruit and activate when the time of reckoning comes.
And even if the opponents are rebuffed, in the General Staff and the Gaza division they're also concerned about what the Palestinians are preparing: A mortar that lands in an empty field on an ordinary day is not the same thing as one that lands in a crowded area on the day of the evacuation. At the very least, the Gaza division could find itself acting as a buffer between the launching sites in Khan Yunis and the evacuees and evacuators from Gadid and Neveh Dekalim, along with a "barrier" composed of the Golani and Givati brigades. This may not be enough, and the two other brigades - the Paratroops (who are supposed to leave Tul Karm soon) and the Nahal - may be needed for urban raids and remain in place for some weeks.
At the "pit" in the General Staff they're hopping that the evacuation will be completed, somehow, and that then - with American and other support - the Palestinian and Israeli sides will both be stabilized. This is only a hope, and it comes with a red alert: Partial calm can be expected only as long as Israel is transferring territories and in anticipation of the Palestinian elections on January 20. After that, the terror attacks will probably resume with greater force. It all sounds depressingly familiar: This is just how the Palestinians behaved a decade ago, when they were handed control of most of the West Bank cities in the end of 1995, and then came the elections of January 20, 1996, after which came the terrible terror bombings of February and March, shortly before the Israeli elections.
If the disengagement is carried out, so the assessment goes in Tel Aviv and in Gaza now, it won't mean that the highest peak has been conquered; it will just be another one of many. Lieutenant Colonel A., from the naval commandos, one of Brigadier General Kochavi's special operations officers, is already being asked to look ahead, to the other side of the hill, and to plan the raids to which the division's forces will be sent into Gaza in response to terror attacks that come out of there after the evacuation. Among all the predictions and scenarios, there is just one absolute certainty: Following the terror attacks, and on the eve of the raids, an announcement will be issued in the name of the defense minister saying that Shaul Mofaz has convened the heads of the defense establishment for an emergency consultation - where he will have drummed understanding into their heads and encouraged IDF commanders to rouse themselves from their frozen state and to strike at the enemy.
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