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There is a legend within the Shin Bet security services about the time, years ago, when the current head of the Shin Bet, Avi Dichter, found himself at a Palestinian event at which a film was being shown documenting the abduction and killing of the Israel athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. At what was for most viewers there the climax of the film - the killing of the Israelis - the audience stood up and cheered. Dichter followed them, to avoid giving himself away.

In the 1970s, it was common for terror attacks to be launched in order to capture Israeli hostages who could then be traded for Palestinian prisoners. Back then, the Black September group's strike at the 1972 Olympics - which occurred only a few months after the Sabena affair at Lod Airport (now known as Ben-Gurion International) - was the biggest attack outside Israel; but after the 1973 Yom Kippur War there was a wave of domestic attacks. The worst of these were at Ma'alot and Beit Shean.

In the mid-'70s, a combat doctrine was developed to contend with such events. Various forces were set up to intervene and take control of the situation: an initial force to surround the building or vehicle containing the attackers and their hostages, followed by operational forces to liberate the hostages. The doctrine was based on the acquisition of reliable information about the incident, rapid entry into the vehicle or building and the separation of the terrorists from the hostages.

In the last 25 years, the IDF's anti-terror forces have had little chance to practice the doctrine. Prominent exceptions were the Bus 300 affair in 1984, the "mothers' bus" incident four years later, and Nachshon Waxman's abduction in 1994.

The two most senior officers in the Gaza sector - Southern Command chief Major General Doron Almog and division commander Israel Ziv - were formerly senior infantry and paratroop officers, both of whom practiced similar terror attacks dozens of times. The IDF also foresaw a Palestinian assault on a settlement, but the chances of an attack involving hostages seemed to lessen with the high number of ambushes by snipers, mortar attacks and suicide bombers. One of the reasons given was Israel's parsimoniousness in releasing Palestinian prisoners in such exchanges.

Brigadier-General Ziv, who in the last decade was also the commander of the northern division in Gaza under Almog's command, joined Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, Head of Operations Directorate Major General Dan Harel and other senior officers at the site.

It was obvious that the incident had to be ended without further casualties. The military command did not know at first whether this was only an attack or also a hostage-taking incident. One thing was clear: The incident was another failure within the southern command, about five weeks after the assault on the IDF's Marganit outpost. In the cruel calculus of combat, every such failure cancels out the dozens of daily successes.

The operation at Alei Sinai came a year after the start of the violent incidents in Gaza, remembered most for the death of the Palestinian child Muhammad a Dura (shot by IDF forces in his father's arms).

The latest incident illustrates both PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's insistence on continuing to attack Israelis while pursuing peace talks, and Israel's insistence on maintaining settlements in the Gaza Strip. The Shin Bet is hoping that eventually Arafat will destroy the infrastructure of the Palestinian terror organizations and confiscate their weapons. The IDF is not holding its breath.