The Situation Is to Blame

At Kerem Shalom, people like to say today, things would have been different if only the lookouts had looked behind them as well.

In less than three week, Israel has been hit with two incidents in which its soldiers have been abducted or killed, in Kerem Shalom and in the Galilee. The relative quiet, more imaginary than genuine, was violated twice, and will not be restored in the near future. The tranquillity of the summer - at least for those not living in Sderot or on the razor's edge of the northern border communities - was shattered. Shattered, too, was the great illusion of the two withdrawals carried out since May 2000, from Lebanon and from the Gaza Strip.

The illusion was to view the periods between the flare-ups as the norm, and the flare-ups as the exception. But the opposite is in fact the case. The status along Israel's borders with non-state entities - the Palestinian Authority and the realm of Hezbollah - is a status of war. Crisis is an inherent part of this status. Any hiatus is temporary.

Until the next report is submitted by the next investigator - Major General (res.) Giora Eiland once again perhaps - the message of his probe into the Kerem Shalom affair is worth taking on board, because both arenas are similar.

Anyone who has read reports from similar probes in the past or has watched and listened to the generals making their statements must admit that Eiland's was different in terms of depth and quality. True, his recommendations regarding personal consequences for the individuals involved were soft, but his conclusions about system-wide failures were harsh and spared no link in the chain of command.

But above all, Eiland blames the situation. In the south, Israel is up against a sovereign Gaza governed by a hostile organization, Hamas, which does not recognize it and is waging war against it, but has retained the initiative - attempts to attack Israel if it so desires, or instead complain that Palestinian civilians, including its own members in civilian dress, are being harmed.

The mistakes vis-a-vis military readiness in light of the freedom of action enjoyed by Hamas and other enemy organizations are dwarfed by the mistakes made by the governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, who created the situation and did not anticipate the inherent dangers. When suicide bombers exploded inside shopping malls, security guards were stationed at the entrances to the malls and the bombers turned to blowing themselves up next to them. The military posts and patrols along the border protect the civilian communities and serve as targets themselves, but it is impossible to assign a guard for every guardian.

Anyone who traveled along the northern border fence in the past few months, near Zar'it or Shtula, or almost anywhere else, could see the potential for complications of the situation - on one side, Hezbollah members with their weapons drawn and concealed reinforcements behind them; on the other side, Israel Defense Forces soldiers or civilians (who for some time have been prohibited from traveling there due to concerns of attacks or abductions).

The only thing separating Israelis from death or abduction was the presumed desire of Hezbollah to choose a different time, place and means, and the organizational discipline that prevented its members from shooting or abducting without an order from Hassan Nasrallah. For Israel, it was a strange type of noble war - lukewarm, but for the occasional flare-up - in the Wild North, in which the sheriff let the bandit draw and fire first.

With this kind of routine, it is possible to have 100 victories and a single failure, and the latter must not become the focus. The IDF has no better division commanders than Aviv Kochavi in Gaza and Gal Hirsh in the Galilee. Chief of Staff Dan Halutz apparently recognized this not only when he praised their performances in previous incidents, but also last month, when he approved the plan for the exercise in the Northern Command.

The underlying assumption of that exercise was that an incident like the one that took place yesterday would occur, and that the IDF would, in such a case, carry out a massive strike in south Lebanon, from the air and on land, with the intention of destroying Hezbollah's military might and returning to Israeli territory without occupying Lebanon.

At Kerem Shalom, people like to say today, things would have been different if only the lookouts had looked behind them as well. The same holds true for the entire country. Those who do not look back, to the withdrawals, and who do not understand their significance, will always be surprised by what is in front of them.