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Is the army trying to sabotage Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan? This suspicion is likely to arise in light of yesterday's operations by the Israel Defense Forces in the refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. Just as Sharon is talking about unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the National Security Council is working on plans for such a pullout, the army raids camps in the Strip and confronts armed Palestinian groups. The operation ended with 15 Palestinians dead, most of them armed men, and no IDF casualties.

As in most cases, however, it appears the real reason for the operation has to do with inertia, not conspiracy. During the term of the current chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, the IDF has been careful not to get overtly involved in the considerations of the political leadership. The operation was carried out yesterday because it is a continuation of the IDF's policy in Gaza over the last two years.

Once a month, on average, the ongoing defensive activities in the Strip are complemented by a major offensive operation. The first was in the Jabalya refugee camp in March 2002. The reasons for the raids change, but they nevertheless continue (except for a two-month period during the hudna last year). Almost every operation of this nature is met with resistance from armed Palestinians who come out to confront the tanks and armored personnel carriers storming into their neighborhoods. The results, because the fighting is in densely populated areas, are usually the same: about 10 Palestinians killed and no injuries to IDF soldiers.

Why is the IDF continuing with these operations if a withdrawal from Gaza now seems to be relatively close? In an interview with Haaretz, Brigadier General Gadi Shamni, the commander of IDF forces in the Strip, said the army "wins in this conflict, several times every day," adding that "we have no problem to continue fighting for as long as it takes."

In other words, unlike in the case of the Lebanon pullout in the spring of 2000, the army does not plan to allow the political leadership to present a withdrawal from Gaza as the result of a military failure. The army can meet the challenge, but the country's political leaders have decided to retreat, and the army, of course, will obey.

If there is one thing the army fears now, it's the rekindling of the image it earned in the eyes of the Arabs after the Lebanon withdrawal, as a force that fled with its tail between its legs - an image that contributed to the eruption of the second intifada.

Emphasizing its superiority, as in yesterday's operation, helps to erode this image. Against this backdrop, it is possible to understand the declarations of both the chief of staff and Shamni that the army plans to step up its offensive operations in the Strip in the coming months (even though the two do not draw a link between this and the disengagement plan). In the face of the army's recommendation to continue hitting Hamas, Sharon can hardly be seen to be tying the hands of those fighting terror.

During yesterday's operation, a tried method was used whereby snipers infiltrated into the outskirts of the camps. "The aim is to deceive the enemy, in order to get him to react in an area where he is surrounded by our forces and is in an inferior position," an officer who has been the commander of similar raids explained.

The photographs from recent operations show that the armed Palestinians use the many civilians in the area, including children, as a "human shield." Since this is done routinely, harming children (some, it is possible, by Palestinian fire) becomes almost impossible to prevent. Nevertheless, Israel does not consider it a reason not to conduct these raids.

But the question that has to be asked, is what is the benefit of these operations? Today, it appears highly dubious. At the end of his term, former defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer reached the conclusion that every IDF foray into a Palestinian civilian area might prevent a specific attack being planned, but also "produces" 10 new suicide bombers determined to avenge the losses they have witnessed. It is difficult to find evidence in Gaza today that large operations, beyond the killings of many rank-and-file operatives, undermine in any serious way the ability of Hamas to carry out attacks.

The Palestinian groups are trying to send suicide bombers all the time, but there is no doubt that the increase in the number of losses on their side, like in yesterday's raids, only stokes their appetite for revenge.