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During the Oslo years the Israel Defense Forces had a recurring nightmare that grew stronger as the expected time approached for the collapse of the process and the resurgence of violence (May 1999 or September 2000). This was a "March of the Hungry" in which a huge, overwhelming mob of unarmed civilians, women and children, would climb over the Gaza Strip fence and try to march on nearby kibbutzim, or Ashkelon, with a growl of distress on its lips. An army knows how to deal with an armed force, uniformed or irregular. Civilians humiliate an army, presenting it with unfamiliar operations, and ethical and legal challenges.

The civilian mass-march scenario was based on a long-forgotten event from the early 1950s, and on a "Ship of Return" that planned to sail for the coast of Israel. It didn't happen at the expected time and place - in a different form it appeared in Lebanon with a civilian charge on South Lebanese Army positions that hastened the collapse and evacuation in May 2000.

Moshe Kaplinski, then Galilee Division commander, and Gadi Eizenkot, military secretary of defense and prime minister Ehud Barak, are now the GOC Central Command and commander of the division in the West Bank. The scenario that worries them is not some isolated perforation of the separation fence in the center - one of the groups opposed to the structure has already uprooted dozens of meters of it in Samaria - but of a march of thousands, tens of thousands, maybe more, Palestinians supported by Israeli and foreign activists. They would come with bare hands and simple implements to trample down the length of the fence.

With the Bush administration's qualifications behind them, the World Court of The Hague in front of them, and the eyes and satellite-linked lenses by their side, the protesting destroyers of the fence would challenge the IDF to repulse them. Unless present plans are shelved, the IDF would repulse them, first with smoke and water hoses but when that failed, the army would follow up with live fire from the ground and from the air.

The hazy transition from state of war to disturbing the peace and back again complicates relations between the army, police, territories Civil Administration, and Shin Bet - whose Jewish Division is supposed to keep an eye on any organized efforts to harm security.

Since the summer, the IDF has been controlling both sides of the fence. It has taken over responsibility for the Israeli side from the police to prevent coordination mishaps that might help infiltration attempts. It is also to surmount an absurd legal situation - a Palestinian found east of the fence was not in Israel illegally and there was no pretext to arrest him, but the moment he crossed into Israel, he was no longer under IDF jurisdiction. The same was true in the opposite direction for an Israeli heading into the territories.

According to initial IDF findings, Friday's incident began with the penetration of "Anarchists Against the Fence" through one of the gates, from west to east. A signal was received at the fence control center indicating it had been penetrated, but with no indication of the direction. A Golani detachment was dispatched to the site but didn't find the intruders. When the next signal was received, soldiers from the same company were sent to thwart the penetration and claim they found not a protest demonstration but an effort to destroy the fence. This version falls under the heading of factual error - similar to errors that have caused IDF units to fire on one another, or at Israeli citizens breaking through roadblocks, or at the guards of the antenna that pretended to be a settlement outpost in Pnei Hever a year ago.

The problem does concern the fence, but the chain of command. In the field the Golani engineering company is subordinate to an artillery battalion (from the Northern Command), which is subordinate to the commander of the regional Ephraim Brigade, which is subordinate to Division Commander Eizenkot, who is subordinate to GOC of the Central Command Kaplinski, who is subordinate to Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, who answers to the defense minister.

This defense minister happens to be the former chief of staff, who regularly demanded that his officers "seek to make contact" in a way that sounded illegal to commanders under him, until they gathered together the listeners to make it clear to them that orders are received only in a well-organized and hierarchal procedure, not in a revival show orchestrated by Shaul Mofaz. This show and its results should be investigated - and not within the IDF.

Investigation of the incident at Maskha village is now proceeding along two channels. One is the investigations division of the Military Police, which tends to take its time because it eventually produces a file of evidence to be handed over to the army prosecutor. The second investigation is being conducted by the Central Command, headed by Colonel Yoav Hareven, who was bureau chief to Mofaz when he was chief of staff. One would hardly expect Hareven to raise his sights from one specific incident and expand his investigation to include an appraisal of the atmosphere generated by Mofaz.

In the mutual cover-up club that is the army top brass, Mofaz looks after the man who appointed him chief of staff, Yitzhak Mordechai, and those close to him, and Ya'alon looks after them and Mofaz - not dissimilar to the way members of Knesset decline to lift immunity on their colleagues.

The IDF is run without any real civil oversight, because at the very heart of "the political level" is a chief of staff without a cooling-off period. The positions that should have the power and authority to provide internal checks, balances and safeguards - the ombudsman of the security establishment and the chief military prosecutor - are awarded to those who are most eager to protect the system, not rock the boat.