Learning from London, preparing for September
In the absence of a clear diplomatic objective, the IDF's West Bank division is not so dissimilar from the Scotland Yard headquarters that commands London's Metropolitan Police.
LONDON - In the lexicon of the Israel Defense Forces that frequently develops in response to the security challenges of the day, the verb "to contain" has become key. It is a supreme ambition of army commanders and the defense establishment, in advance of possible recognition of a Palestinian state by the United Nations in September, "to contain" events. They are no longer seeking engagement on the ground, or even victory. Success will be reflected in the ability of the army and police to prevent events from spreading and escalating, seeing to it that things end with as few casualties as possible, on both sides.
In conversations and interviews against the backdrop of the riots in England, senior police officials in London also said they were seeking "containment" of the situation at any price. Police took steps to head off groups of young people who had been seeking to destroy and loot, pushing them away from shopping areas and transportation arteries, and exhausting them to the point where they would choose to go home. The most important thing was to avoid casualties.
There will surely be those who are furious about the comparison between the days of rage in London, which involved fundamentally criminal acts, and the anticipated events in September, with all of their military, political and regional implications, but from the operational standpoint on the ground, the elements are very similar. In the absence of a clear diplomatic objective, the IDF's West Bank division is not so dissimilar from the Scotland Yard headquarters that commands London's Metropolitan Police. Both carry out police operations among a complex civilian population.
The components required for operational success are also identical in both places, involving advance intelligence and planning. Prior identification of potential locations of friction and massive supply of forces and reinforcements, kitted out with appropriate crowd-dispersal equipment, are required to head off avoidable flashpoints and escalation. The IDF failed in these respects in 1987 with the outbreak of the first intifada; at the Netzarim junction in the Gaza Strip at the beginning of the second intifada; in the takeover last year of the Gaza-bound flotilla ship the Mavi Marmara; and in Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights this May on Nakba Day.
The British police, too, suffered failure last week, by failing to anticipate that a drug dealer's death, due to complications in efforts to arrest him, would lead to mass disturbances, and by not readying the necessary forces.
As with the failures, successes in both places are also similar. Advance preparation by IDF Central Command on Nakba Day prevented incidents that could have sparked a third intifada. Similarly in London last week, hundreds of police were dispatched in time, equipped with batons and protective gear, to locations where the force had advance notice that gangs would be gathering. And of course, from Tuesday onward, thanks to reinforcements from elsewhere in the country, the streets of London were flooded with security forces, precisely as the West Bank was flooded by the IDF on Nakba Day.
And just as in our region, when quiet was maintained in the center of the country, a surprise came in the north - with unrest in Manchester catching the police unprepared.
The dilemmas here and in England are also very similar. A large organization charged with maintaining security everywhere on an ongoing basis cannot keep tens of thousands of its people on high alert over a period of time on every potential front, even if the location of problems could be predicted in advance. So what should be done? Should military exercises and vacations be canceled? Should the reserves be mobilized? (Even the police in London have thousands of special police volunteers at their disposal, but overreliance on them will take them away from their regular civilian jobs unnecessarily. )
Should promises by local leaders to maintain the peace be counted on? And at what point can it be decided that the tension has dissipated and that a state of alert can be ended?
And then, of course, there are operational dilemmas - but here the comparisons between London, which is cool even in August, and the Middle East, which is steamy even in September, end. The British made very limited use of police truncheons, and the threat posed by the presence of attack dogs on the streets remained simply that. Although use of rubber bullets and water cannons were approved in principle, they were not used. Ultimately the restraint paid off.
The IDF's fire power and that of the Palestinians they face is well known. The level of restraint on both sides, however, is the big unknown.