If there is one thing that is frightening about the way the high command of the Israel Defense Forces is handling the military campaign against the Palestinians, it is the readiness to escalate the fighting by carrying out operations that are liable to bring about a full-scale war, in which not only the Palestinians will participate.
Otherwise it is difficult to understand, for example, the decision to send up an F-16 war plane in order to drop two one-ton bombs on a building in the middle of a city. All it would take is for one of the bombs to miss its target by 20 or 30 meters, for hundreds of Palestinian civilians to be killed. To understand what happens when a thousand kilograms of explosives blow up, it's sufficient to recall that the suicide bombing that killed 15 people in the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem made use of just 10 kilos of explosives.
The chance of a miss always exists - let us bear in mind the Americans' "smart" bombs that struck the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war. There, too, the Pentagon and the General Staff didn't intend to inflict casualties on innocent Chinese civilians.
If the full cabinet and the security cabinet don't hold a serious discussion on the policy they want to see adopted, the only course of action left is for the IDF to propose what to do. The chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, comes to each security cabinet with a plan for an operation that is more extensive and more ambitious than its predecessors.
So, when the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo comes under fire for hours on end, from morning until afternoon, the army does not propose using the logical method of small, trained units to ambush the shooters in Beit Jala and capture or kill them in the act - instead, it suggests seizing the entire town. And when a suicide bomber succeeds in blowing himself up in the heart of Jerusalem, the chief of staff recommends sending tanks into Jenin, for the first time since 1967, and demolishing a building, while the Air Force presents its plan to send war planes to attack a building in the center of Ramallah using huge bombs.
Invoking sophisticated rhetoric and using a lexicon of terms of its own coinage, the IDF, with the support and perhaps even the encouragement of the senior political level, is changing its policy without this shift drawing the appropriate public attention. Instead of pinpoint strikes at perpetrators of terrorist acts, the army is extending its sphere of activity and is effectively annulling the distinction between those who intend to resort to violence and arms, and Palestinian residents who live in the city from which suicide terrorists set out. The enemy is not only the person carrying the bomb, or those who are shooting at Gilo, the enemy is also the population of Beit Jala. Expanding the definition of the enemy also justifies sending tanks into Jenin, since the city has become a "hotbed of terrorism," and as such must pay a price.
In the absence of a political level that would restrain such an approach, the IDF will continue to escalate its operations: Today the use of bombs weighing a ton in the center of a densely populated city is accepted with understanding and without question; tomorrow the conquest of Nablus might be accepted as a logical and almost unavoidable step.
When military operations that only seven months ago were considered inconceivable and hugely exaggerated become a matter of routine, we can expect military measures that today seem to be unreasonable.
The constantly escalating operations that the IDF is proposing cannot deal effectively with the terrorism being perpetrated by the Palestinians and with the guerrilla warfare they are waging, but on the other hand those operations could bring about an uncontrolled deterioration to an all-out war with the Palestinians, and even a regional war.
Neither the presidents of Egypt and Syria, nor the leaders of the other Arab states, will be able to persist in their policy of standing on the sidelines if an Israeli bomb causes the death of 250 Palestinians. Even Hosni Mubarak, who has stated frequently that a regional war is not an option for him, will be forced to react, even if by means of symbolic measures.
The entry of Egyptian troops into Sinai, as such a symbolic move, could bring about a clash with the IDF. The transfer of a Syrian division close to the Golan Heights, as a gesture of support for the Palestinians by Bashar Assad, is liable to trigger an Israeli military reaction and an unplanned escalation. These scenarios could be realized even by misdirected IDF fire or the aerial bombing of buildings that were thought to be empty. Those who think the IDF can't make mistakes like that would do well to recall the case of Kafr Kana, in Lebanon, during Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, when more than 100 Lebanese civilians were killed by mistake. No one planned for that to happen, but a mistake by IDF artillery gunners made it happen.
The threesome who are today leading the IDF - the chief of staff, his deputy and the commander of the Air Force - probably understand that the operations they are proposing to the security cabinet do not constitute a way to cope with terrorism and guerrilla warfare. What they apparently fail to understand, or prefer to ignore, is that what they are engaged in is not a "rolling operation," as they call it, but the prelude to a "rolling war."
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