`This time it's clear they want it'
Outgoing Bethlehem Brigade commander Colonel Nadav Padan is more optimistic this time round about handing over security responsibility in the West Bank to the Palestinians.
What are the chances that the plan to hand over responsibility for security in West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority will succeed? The Israeli defense establishment approaches the planned procedure with a certain degree of skepticism. The Palestinian defense mechanisms in the West Bank have all but ceased to function since Operation Defensive Shield some three years ago. Israel now faces a number of possible partners there, most of whom are hostile to each other.
The IDF and Shin Bet security service have different assessments of how long it will take the PA to stop terrorism in each city that is transferred to its responsibility. Some assessments figure two months, others refer to a period of two or three years. The Palestinians are also being cautious. That is why the parties are close to agreeing on a pilot program: transferring one city (Jericho) or perhaps two (Bethlehem also) in the first stage and then waiting for the results. If the transfer goes smoothly, Palestinian responsibility will be extended to other cities.
The caution on both sides is largely based on past experience. Responsibility for Bethlehem has been transferred several times, and each time the move ended in a resounding failure, as was the case the last time this happened during the hudna of summer 2003. Colonel Nadav Padan, who this week is completing an 18-month term as commander of the IDF's Etzion Brigade (Bethlehem) says it was a predictable failure. The seven months when the Palestinians controlled the city and the IDF entered the city infrequently ended with two serious bombings. The Fatah networks in Bethlehem dispatched two suicide bombers to board buses in Jerusalem and they killed 19 Israelis. After the bombings, the IDF and Shin Bet resumed intensive operations in the city.
The Shin Bet's investigation of the bombings uncovered heavy involvement of Palestinian security force members: One of the dispatchers of the suicide bombers was bureau chief for the governor of Bethlehem. The conclusions Padan draws from the case may help the IDF avoid making the same mistakes. The primary reason for the failure, he says, stemmed from the fact that the city was "a bubble amid a different reality in Judea and Samaria."
According to him, "Bethlehem became a magnet for wanted suspects from the region, a safe haven for terrorists from Hebron and even Nablus, who knew they would be able to operate in a city that was beyond our reach due to the understandings reached." The terrorists, Padan adds, took advantage of the hole-filled seam line between the city and Jerusalem.
At that point, the separation fence section enveloping Jerusalem was still in the early stage of construction and Jerusalem could be entered without any problem. The security coordination between the IDF and the Palestinian security forces was superficial and minimal. "There was a lack of readiness among the Palestinian mechanisms," says Padan. "They had no intention of halting terrorist activity. They made do with patrols that stopped stone throwing, and in the best case, shooting at Jerusalem. But there was no real incentive for them to detain wanted suspects."
However, this time around Padan is more optimistic. "I met regularly with the heads of the security forces throughout my time here," he says. "Over the last few weeks, they've been talking differently, both to us and to their own people. There is no more winking. It seems like a genuine intention to take responsibility for security into their own hands. This is real progress. This time it's clear they want it. The only remaining question is whether they can really do it."
Padan, 38 and a native of Kibbutz Ein Carmel, is well into a promising military career. Next month he will move on from the Bethlehem Brigade to a key post as the commander of Bahad (Training Camp) 1 (see box). He also served in the Nahal Brigade in the period prior to the withdrawal from Lebanon and as battalion commander in the IDF's officer training school. Shortly before Operation Defensive Shield he was appointed commander of the undercover Arab unit, Duvdevan.
The week when Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) met in Sharm el-Sheikh to mark the festive end (even if it is highly doubtful) of the war in the territories is also an appropriate time for summing things up for the outgoing brigade commander. For three consecutive years, he was engaged in battle and so much changed during that time. When he was appointed to his post with Duvdevan, the IDF was still hesitating over entering the refugee camps in the West Bank from where terrorist networks where dispatching suicide bombers to enter Israel on a daily basis. The general staff feared there would be hundreds of IDF casualties in the camps.
Under his command, Duvdevan took part in the first entries into the refugee camps in Nablus and Tul Karm, which ended with a handful of IDF casualties. In late March 2002, Operation Defensive Shield started. Padan, like many IDF field commanders, is convinced that this was the operation that swayed the balance. That was the beginning of the trend of restraint, at the end of which came Abu Mazen's statements about the pointlessness of violence, following his rise to power. And even though he sports a red beret, he is willing to credit the hawkish camp within the IDF, which is associated primarily with the brown berets of Golani Brigade veterans, for discerning at an earlier stage the need to switch to more aggressive operations.
"The first ones in the army to get it were Chico [the Golani Brigade commander, Moshe Tamir, now the head of staff of the Central Command] and Yair Golan [the Nahal Brigade commander then and now the commander of the Galilee Battalion]. In retrospect, I share the Golani approach. We should have used more force, much earlier. But to be fair, we should be grateful that I reached this conclusion after the fact. The first time we embarked on a large operation in Ramallah, in March, we stood in front of the maps and didn't exactly understand what was happening. Are we really opening fire on the Muqata? So there will be no more Palestinian Authority? It seemed to us like going to war with Syria."
"We entered into this confrontation," says Padan, "with concerns that were too great. We glorified the Palestinians' capabilities, but when things reached the point of real fighting, the asymmetry between the sides was decisive. The IDF's ability to wage a professional battle and control its forces in a complicated situation was too much for the Palestinians. They could not manage to pose an organized opposition against us. Their defensive network collapsed because there was nothing more than a ragtag collection of groups.
"On the other hand, we did not grasp the strategic change in the situation in time. Up until Defensive Shield, we were still fighting terrorism with the goal at the same time being to preserve the Palestinian network and this was at a point when that network was already fighting against us."
The right to deploy force, he says, was learned by the IDF only during the of fighting. "When we captured the cities, we used armored brigades to enter them. These tanks drove around those cities like bulls in a china shop. The result was that we were asked to clean up the shards and pay for the damage. But when we recaptured Bethlehem in 2004, we did it on foot. Armored jeeps only entered in the second stage and we didn't use tanks at all."
Padan is handing over command of the Bethlehem Brigade to an old friend, Colonel Nitsan Alon. He cautiously predicts that the tenure of his successor in the area is likely to be slightly less stormy. "There is a pretty good potential of obtaining a reasonable security situation here. Bethlehem is a city of industry and tourism interested in a recovery," he says and immediately qualifies: "And still, I recommend not getting confused in an analysis of the situation. The Palestinians have not changed their objectives: a state, the 1967 borders, Jerusalem. We cannot be deceived by the smiles and handshakes. If it works, it will succeed because of shared interests. But there are considerable gaps of language and intentions separating us. We don't even agree on the definition of terrorism. For them, if an activist from the Dahaishe camp shoots at a military jeep passing Bethlehem, that is legitimate opposition. According to our definition, that is terrorism. In meetings with the heads of the security forces, I discovered that when we tried to discuss the resolution of the conflict, the talks imploded. When we dealt with the question of where the patrol would be posted to avoid shooting, we succeeded."
Appointed in unusual circumstances
Colonel Padan is taking up the prestigious post of commander of the officer training school under unusual circumstances: The decision to appoint him was made despite the fact that he is on trial for negligence for his involvement in the training accident in which a Duvdevan unit soldier, Sergeant Ro'i Dror, was killed. Dror, 19, from Kochav Yair, was killed in June 2002 during a navigation exercise that was part of the training for the unit. He suffered heatstroke while climbing, on his commander's instruction, the Arbel cliff overlooking Lake Kinneret in unusually hot conditions.
The indictment submitted to the Central Command's military court some two years ago charged Padan and another Duvdevan unit officer. The trial, which is proceeding slowly, is still in its beginning stages. The military prosecution claims that the accused deviated from safety guidelines when they permitted the exercise.
The decision of the previous military advocate general, Major General Menachem Finkelstein, to try Padan is a very controversial one within the IDF. No one disputes the fact that in the investigation of the accident, severe shortcomings were found in the exercise itself, the Duvdevan unit's training regimen and in the quality of its supervision. The question is to what extent Padan is guilty, given the fact that he was appointed to the post only four months before then and that throughout his tenure he was thoroughly engrossed in the operational activities.
Padan was appointed when the unit was in the midst of a difficult crisis (following the death of its previous commander, Lieutenant Colonel Eyal Weiss, in an operational accident). Duvdevan was involved at that time in dozens of operations under fire. Padan told his commanders immediately after Dror's death that he was willing to resign because of what he considered his overall responsibility for the accident by virtue of his position as commander of the unit. The commanders rejected his offer (Padan distinguishes between overall responsibility for what happens in the unit and what he sees as an absence of specific criminal responsibility on his part for the actual accident).
The previous chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, found no essential flaws in Padan's functioning and the same was true of a series of military inquiries. Under these circumstances, the current chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, who opposed the trial, decided to appoint Padan to the command of Bahad 1, despite the anticipated public criticism.