Gaza's war of nerves
The committee of the heads of the intelligence services is in the habit of convening in the office of the head of the Mossad, north of Tel Aviv. The host sits at the head of the table. Opposite him are the head of Military Intelligence, the head of the Shin Bet security service and the prime minister's military secretary. A number of clocks, displaying the local time at key destinations all over the world, hang on Meir Dagan's wall. When he was secretary to prime minister Ariel Sharon, Maj Gen. Yoav Gallant used to tease Avi Dichter, who was then the head of the Shin Bet: Perhaps you also want to hang some clocks in your office - to show Ramallah time and Gaza time.
Now Gallant, who has been GOC Southern Command for close to three years, has his eyes fixed on the Gaza clock. To be more precise: He has one eye on the hands of the clock and the other on the calendar. Gaza and Israel are not in a state of cease-fire. Rather, the current situation is one of rest for the warriors, as they gather strength for the next round. When exactly Hamas will decide to end this idle period is unknown but there are estimates: after the holidays - that is to say, after Ramadan (which this year falls in September) and Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. It could also happen earlier or be delayed by a few weeks, depending on the weather forecast and the clouds, which could become an obstacle to the air force's operations.
Military Intelligence, the Shin Bet, IDF Southern Command, the coordinator of activities in the territories, the Operations Directorate in the General Staff - all are busy taking stock and actively preparing for the eventual explosion. From the picture that is depicted, it transpires that those who warned that the temporary lull for the communities of the western Negev had demanded an unwarranted price, were right.
The Southern Command is being prepared for war by Gallant and the head of his staff, Brig. Gen. David Suissa. Facing it in Gaza is the Iranian corps of Hamas' army. The terrorist and guerilla organization has taken on a semi-military form, making use of camps - facilities formerly used by the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah-affiliated security mechanisms - and forming brigades, or sectors. They receive theoretical and practical instruction from Iran's Revolutionary Guards, who learned its lessons from the Shah's army in the 1980s, which in turn was instructed by the Israel Defense Forces in the 1970s. It can be assumed that Hezbollah instructors from Lebanon, and maybe even Iranian tutors, have made their way into Gaza via Egypt.
In the weeks since the lull came into effect, Hamas' rocket power is believed to have multiplied several times over. Previously, the number of long-range Grad rockets and improved versions of the Katyusha in the Gaza Strip stood in the dozens or the low hundreds. Now there are thousands, because it is easy to smuggle them into the Strip via tunnels. These rockets will be fired in volleys of dozens at large targets, such as Ashkelon, thereby ensuring that the imprecise weapons do not miss their target. The difference between a few rockets fired at a few communities and many rockets fired at many communities was grasped by Israel as the Katyushas of the 1960s were improved to the levels of 1981, 1993, 1996 and 2006, with increasing quantity and depth. To foreign observers, the experience of the Second Lebanon War was anything but pathetic. At a logistics conference organized by the National Defense Industrial Association in Miami last March, Maj. Gen. Michael Sumrall, assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for National Guard matters, chose to present the case of Haifa in the summer of 2006 - with the casualties and those who evacuated their homes - as a model of good organization on the part of the municipality, the police and other bodies, "without any federal aid."
Over the past three years, since the August 2005 disengagement, shelling from the Gaza Strip has left nine Israelis dead and 393 wounded. For the next round, Hamas' intention will be to crush communities located nearby the border fence with heavy mortars and others with rockets, to sow death and fear and cause people to flee. The abandonment of a kibbutz or a small moshav along Route 232 would be considered a great success.
Most of the launching sites for rockets are located in open fields, at the approaches to small towns, neighborhoods or refugee camps, rather than inside them, because it is difficult to place and direct a rocket between buildings or on their roofs. Those busy firing the rockets will take it for granted that the IDF will operate from the air, the sea and the ground to make them cease their firing. That is why they are building a defensive arraignment with a triple purpose - to kill as many invaders as possible, to delay the IDF's progress in urban strongholds, and to utilize time to encourage international elements to intervene on behalf of the suffering civilians on both sides.
From Hamas' point of view, this is a dangerous gamble. A renewed occupation of the Gaza Strip, or of important parts of it, as anticipated by some of the IDF's alternative plans, would mean an immediate loss of everything that has been gained thus far - much unlike the situation of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which was able to restore itself after the 2006 war. Hamas knows that this time, the IDF will pull back only after completing a thorough action that would bring down the Hamas government and its infrastructure. The assessment of IDF losses - estimated at many dozens - would result in the government pressuring the commanders to act cautiously and without haste.
A senior officer last week took a glance, from the top of the general staff tower in the government complex, at the city of Tel Aviv lying below. "They have been talking about a subway here for years already," he said. "In Gaza, only the train is missing - all the excavations, the tunnels and the passageways are already there." The underground system is meant for smuggling, hiding and fighting. This will constitute yet another challenge to the IDF. The heads of Hamas and key figures in its military wing have gone into hiding. Hitting a dozen of them, or even 20, would make it difficult for the organization to recoup while it is defending itself from those fighting it in the streets and confronting its military headquarters.
Gazans are preparing for a long siege, in a strange partnership between the population, Hamas and Israel. The issuing of new bank notes worth millions of shekels, with Israeli approval, is aimed at allowing the civilians to equip themselves and to forestall later complaints about distress and hunger. Every day some 360 trucks carrying food and other goods enter Gaza from Israel, three and a half times more than before the lull. Additional quantities, particularly of preserves and food packages that keep for a long time, are smuggled in from Egypt. But this will not prevent the Palestinians from begging for the world's help, following the display of the ships "Liberty" and "Freedom for Gaza," which are supposed to leave Cyprus this week (and which will be intercepted by the Israel Navy when they enter the country's sovereign maritime borders). The IDF is not excited about imposing a military government over the areas it would conquer; aid to them would continue to be provided under the present format, via international organizations.
Slim chances for Shalit
The chances of an early release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit as part of a deal are close to nil. In view of the urgent warnings by the Shin Bet and Military Intelligence about the extremely dangerous implication of releasing active murderers, in particular to the West Bank, who would rehabilitate Hamas' infrastructure there, the government will not dare to agree to the list demanded by Hamas. Releasing those who planned and carried out terror acts or dispatched attackers will merely double the organization's strength, and increase the killings and the destruction, as they would immediately resume their terrorist activities. You would have to be a complete fool to agree to such a list, even more so on the eve of a military campaign in the course of which the released prisoners may increase the numbers of Israeli casualties, both military and civilian.
Hamas' decision to violate the lull will mainly be influenced by internal Palestinian considerations, compounded by pressure from Iran and Hezbollah. Hamas cannot exist without an opposition. The previous lull was disturbed by the power struggles with Fatah. Now Hamas is on the defensive, accused of neglecting the West Bank. Every one of these factors, or a combination of them, is likely to release the safety catch.
Although it seems unlikely, there is a chance that Israel will initiate a move, independently or with the agreement of Mahmoud Abbas, to press Hamas into a wide-scale response that would bring about escalation. The defense establishment was for the most part opposed to the lull from the get-go and would be happy if it ends sooner rather than later. The fear of the political implications upheavals in Israel, however, are making it difficult for a rational decision to be made.
From this standpoint, Kadima's primary, set for the eve of Rosh Hashana, is well synchronized with the military timetable. If a new government is established in October, it will be faced with the challenge of Gaza in a few short weeks.
If Israel is suffering an intelligence problem today, it is not one of assessment but one derived from it. In an era of commissions of inquiry, it takes courage both to hear and to voice an assessment about a possible response of the other side (for example, whether they will attack an atomic reactor, or assassinate a terrorist leader) without hurrying to carry out a preventive attack on the enemy. The intelligence's bottleneck does not lie in assessment but rather in disseminating it and in preparing in a timely fashion for what is necessary.
The failure to disseminate intelligence material to the relevant units ahead of the Second Lebanon War encouraged MI head Amos Yadlin to break down internal partitions (as well as external ones, with the Shin Bet and the Mossad) and to establish an operative division in MI, headed by former heads of the Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit. This division is currently headed by Brig. Gen. Nitzan Allon; next summer, when Allon takes over the command of the West Bank division, his post will be filled by the commander of the paratroop corps, Herzi Halevy.
This change is intended to improve the drawing up of objectives. Yadlin, who was in charge of an intelligence squadron in the air force, swore he would overcome the gap between the real amount of armaments in the hands of the air force, the artillery corps and other forces, and the updated data that are necessary for the use of those armaments. In the permanent tension that exists between safeguarding sensitive sources and the purpose for which the intelligence is gathered - to be distributed - Yadlin has made it his personal job to decide. The serious error of not passing on intelligence about Hezbollah ahead of the 2006 war is not meant to be repeated. There will surely be other mistakes.
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