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The true story behind Operation "Daglan" ("Standard-bearer"), the assassination of Salah Shehadeh, commander of the military wing of Hamas in the territories, is not Israeli-Palestinian, or even Palestinian. Realizing this is important for understanding the background to the operation and how it evolved. The Israeli side of the story - professional and political - is even more eye-opening.

The cooperation between various components of the defense system, boasted Y., the deputy chief of the Shin Bet security services some time ago, is "strictly professional and noncompetitive." The idea is to get the job done, not to score points. The individuals involved may work for different ministries and report to different ministers, and their uniforms, if worn, may be of different colors, but they share a common objective and a common belief that what they are doing is necessary and justified.

This has been the feeling accompanying efforts to head off and fight terror during the 22 months of violent conflict with the Palestinians in which 586 Israelis have died. Cracks began to appear in this wall of solidarity on Tuesday, as conflicting reports came in from Gaza: In the beginning, the pilots reported a direct hit. Then doubts arose as to whether Salah Shehadeh had been killed. Later, his death was confirmed, and finally, casualty figures were released for his family and the neighbors' children.

Y.'s generous assessment, it turns out, was accurate only in part: When things go well, praise is spread around, but when things go wrong, responsibility is shunted from one organization to the next. This, however, was unofficial. Within a few hours, Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon officially announced that he had no complaints against any specific arm of the defense establishment. No commission of inquiry would be appointed, he said. An internal investigation would be conducted, followed by a joint Israel Defense Forces-Shin Bet inquest.

Like Ya'alon, Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter has already been there: Six and a half years ago, Dichter was head of the Shin Bet's southern division when Military Intelligence, the air force and other bodies joined forces to assassinate Yihye Ayash. Ya'alon was then the chief of Military Intelligence. The question which arose at that time - and soon became even more relevant, when the terror attacks of February and March rocked Jerusalem and Tel Aviv - was whether this operation had put an end to an understanding being worked out between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, whereby Hamas would refrain from terrorist attacks (in Israel, not the territories). Would the attacks masterminded by Ayash have been called off even without the assassination, which only inflamed the desire for revenge?

Ya'alon keeps finding himself in a perpetual loop of assassinations. When Raed Karmi was assassinated in January, Ya'alon believed that this operation was crucial and justified, in order to prevent Karmi from carrying out his plans, which included the assassination of a prominent Israeli. On this score, Ya'alon has never changed his mind. Long before that, he turned down Hamas' claim that the five major terror attacks in 1994 and 1995, declared to be revenge for the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, were the start of the suicide bombings. Ya'alon, as commander of IDF forces in Judea and Samaria until the end of 1993, has not forgotten that even before the Oslo accords, Hamas vowed to carry out suicide bombings - a decision it implemented in the attack on Mehola in the Jordan Valley, in the summer of 1993. After the attacks in 1996, Ya'alon dismissed the idea that plans for an imminent cease-fire had been called off in the wake of the Ayash assassination.

Shimon Peres was both prime minister and defense minister at the time, and if Ya'alon derived any satisfaction from his policies, he did a good job of concealing it. After that came Peres' four-and-a-half years in the political desert, three of them in the Netanyahu wasteland and a year and a half in the Ehud Barak prairie - a period at the end of which the minister for regional development and the deputy chief of staff were already quarreling about how to deal with Yasser Arafat. Under Ariel Sharon, Peres made a comeback, but with Ya'alon's appointment as chief of staff, the basic conflict between the two has erupted in full force. They disagree on almost everything, apart from admitting that if they had known the outcome, each man in his own field, they would have done differently - Peres in Oslo and Ya'alon in "Daglan."

An excess of power

The weakness of the civilian sector in Israel gives the defense establishment, and above all, the IDF, an excess of power that impacts on all other sectors. At General Staff headquarters, a futile debate is going on: If they draft plans that touch upon civilian affairs in any way, they will be accused of invading the political domain; if they don't, the politicians will be mouthing empty words.

The current policy of the government, recommended by the chief of staff, focuses on fighting terror and seeking dialogue with a different Palestinian leadership - a more moderate one. Anybody but Arafat. Ya'alon figures that, as in the past, Arafat is looking for an escape from the Israeli, Western and Arab noose that is tightening around his neck. His major objective, at the moment, is to show that nothing can be done without him and that stationing IDF troops in West Bank cities will not make Israel more secure. Arafat is not interested in a cease-fire because it would be interpreted as an achievement for Israel.

Senior military intelligence officers, and other high-ranking officials who read the material upon which intelligence assessments are based, dismiss the claims appearing in the Israeli press this week about a cease-fire that was almost brokered between the Palestinian Authority and Israel - before the contemptible bombing in Gaza inflamed passions. At general staff headquarters, they not only dismiss these claims but attribute them to Shimon Peres. To him and not, say, Javier Solana. When Solana was secretary-general of NATO three years ago, during the Kosovo War, the bunker in which Slobodan Milosevic was hiding in a residential neighborhood in Belgrade was bombed with his approval. A missile aimed at a Serb bridge hit a bus that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. No one would suspect Solana of not knowing the facts of life: that a surprise variable can crop up and ruin the most well-laid plans.

The whole cease-fire business is nonsense, they said this week at general staff headquarters. Nabil Sha'ath was putting out feelers to see if Hamas and the Tanzim would put their signature on it. He was trying to sell a car he didn't own to a customer who wouldn't buy. Arafat, who has no interest in halting terror, did not empower Sha'ath to negotiate with these organizations, and they responded with a resounding no - a call for the escalation of violence in the territories.

Hamas was opposed to a cease-fire, especially Shehadeh, but not only him. Many, though not all, local Tanzim leaders were against it, too, mainly after Arafat's refusal to call for a cessation of violence was interpreted as rejection of a cease-fire. Hussein al-Sheikh in Ramallah and Majd Masri in Nablus were inclined to accept Sha'ath's initiative at first, along with a number of Tanzim leaders who are not believed to be linked to terror (Hussan Khader, Faris Kadura), but the Tanzim as an organization aligned itself with Arafat.

Arafat's remote control

The IDF was in favor of improving conditions for the population of the territories in order to alleviate some of the terrible suffering. Thus it also supported Peres' meetings with the Palestinian team (together with Likud kashrut inspector Danny Naveh, a representative of the Finance Ministry and the coordinator of activities in the territories, Major General Amos Gilad), to discuss welfare and economic issues. But Ya'alon gnashed his teeth when he discovered that Arafat's envoy, Saeb Erekat, had wormed his way onto the team. For Israel to agree to his participation, said Ya'alon, conflicted with the intentions of Israeli policy. Erekat was Arafat by remote control, and he had not been sent to make arrangements for Arafat's political burial.

Shehadeh was the first general commander of a terrorist organization to die in an Israeli operation in this millennium. Abu-Ali Mustafa, secretary-general of the Popular Front in the territories, assassinated last August, held a similar rank, but his cell operated only in the West Bank, not Gaza. On an equal footing with Shehadeh were Abbas Mussawi, secretary-general of Hezbollah, who was killed in Lebanon (with his family) in a helicopter attack in February 1992 (the Israeli embassy in Argentina was blown up in revenge); and Fathi Shkaki, the leader of Islamic Jihad, who was killed in Malta by Mossad bikers in October 1995.

Last respects

Shehadeh, 49, was not just a terrorist. He was a commander. Senior IDF officers eulogized him as a worthy opponent, a professional, a kind of peer, a "genuine ticking bomb." He was No. 1 on the wanted list. There may be heirs. Mohammed Def, who was considered Ayash's heir years ago, is one candidate, and possibly Adel Awadallah in the West Bank, who holds a rank similar to Shehadeh's on a regional level. But there has never been a terror chief like him, orchestrating operations in both Gaza and the West Bank, in addition to serving as Hamas' foreign liaison man. Shehadeh knew more about manpower, arms, training and financing than any of his colleagues. It was no coincidence that his men paid their last respects to him with a volley of the Qassam rockets he developed, aimed at settlements in the Negev.

In more than 100 assassinations in the territories, Israel has miscalculated and killed innocent people - women, children and bystanders - less than half-a-dozen times (Hussein Abayat in Bethlehem, Jamal Damuni in Nablus, Mohammed Sidar in Hebron). That says something about the decision-making process, although it offers slight comfort when the toll in human life is so high.

Under the microscope

The air force and its research teams had their eye on Shehadeh for half a year. As he moved from one hideout to another, operational plans, including the weight of the bombs intended for him, were changed accordingly. Shehadeh always planted himself in the heart of a civilian population center, recognizing Israel's sensitivity in this sphere. The planners knew they had to choose weapons and tactics that could guarantee a direct hit. Experienced air crews were selected and two bombers were set aside for this mission. Simulated attacks were conducted on buildings in order to collect research data, and issues such as the choice of projectile (missile or bomb) and quantity (two are preferable to insure hitting the target, but there is more collateral damage) were carefully weighed. "Every detail was examined under a microscope," says one of the supervising officers.

No F-16 bombing in Palestinian territory to date, including the recent bombing of a munitions factory in Gaza, has caused as much collateral damage as Operation "Daglan." Even in this case, only Shehadeh's building was destroyed - not the ones around it. The civilians who were killed, apart from Shehadeh's wife and daughter who were with him at the time, although Israel claims it was not aware of this, were living in tin shanties and sheds. The damage to these structures was not correctly assessed, perhaps because they were mistakenly thought to be nonresidential.

The procedure was correct, the IDF insisted this week, and no one can fault the pilots for not dropping their bombs on target. The decisionmakers took a risk because of who Shehadeh was. If he were just "small fry," they would never have gone ahead with it. Previous decisions not to proceed because Shehadeh was surrounded by civilians were justified in themselves, but they, too, came at a price: several major terrorist attacks and dozens of casualties.

The transition from plans drawn up under laboratory conditions to reality, where there are many players on the field - enemies and innocents - is always complicated. The players never act as the planners hope they will. The plan is put into practice when all the ends are wrapped up and conditions are ripe. That appeared to be the case last Monday at midnight, but appearances were misleading.

An escalation of the violence was expected even if Shehadeh was the only one killed. Now the Shin Bet and the IDF warn that rarer types of attacks, like stabbings, may be on the rise. Arafat, who meant to step up the violence even before, will try to fan the flames. In political terms, the price for "Daglan" is a certain loss of operational freedom for Israel, after losing the battle for global sanction.

As bad as things look this week, they may pale in comparison to the escalation taking shape in the north. Bashar Assad has dared to do what his father always studiously refrained from: supplying Hezbollah with dozens of 220-mm. rockets to fire at Israel if the IDF attacks Syrian targets in response to Hezbollah provocation. Syria is an even more bitter foe than Hezbollah, and the dangers Assad is toying with are even more potent than the ones that led to the assassination of Salah Shehadeh.