The "war of cities" between Baghdad and Tehran in the mid-1980s is the closest parallel to the scene in Sderot and Gaza in recent months. A parallel, but also a thousandfold magnification: The hundreds of Scud rockets that flew between the capitals of Iran and Iraq finally put an end to the eight years of war and the hundreds of thousands of fatalities, and forced even extremist leaders - Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein - to agree to a truce.
The circumstances of the past two years - the death of Yasser Arafat and the rise of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the evacuation of Gaza and the Hamas government - have created a war of cities along the southern coast and in the northern Negev. The air force, which up until less than a decade ago was the strongest card in Israel's deck, is waiting for the final match against the Arab countries or Iran. From a minor and hesitant partner in the fighting, the air force has become the main player. Sometimes there are advantages to this, especially in two dimensions - the number of Israel Defense Forces casualties and the central control of actions. Sometimes, and more so in recent weeks, there are disadvantages to this regarding the number of casualties on the Palestinian side.
If a foreign planner, free of preconceptions, were to be asked to suggest solutions to the problem of the rockets being fired from Gaza, he would certainly demand considering the return of the IDF ground forces to the Gaza Strip, or at least to its northern sector, from which the range of the rockets reaches the outlying areas of Ashkelon to the north. Taking control of this sector, to the point of erecting a fence within it, would be costly and would create other problems, but it would solve the problem of the Qassams - until the range of the rockets is increased, or until masses of Katyushas and Grads are imported.
The foreign planner would be sent home, because the first constraint of military planning is political: The government of Israel refuses to admit the failure of the idea that is at the basis of the military evacuation of Gaza. The idea of the government of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, his defense minister Shaul Mofaz and his deputy Ehud Olmert was to get diplomatic and security returns on the full evacuation of the settlements and military forces: diplomatically, in international support (including the illusion of America's agreement to the settlement blocs in the West Bank), and - should the need arise - foreign understanding of a large military operation against unruly Gaza; security-wise, in the Palestinian regime's actions against anyone who through opening fire endangered laboriously accumulated achievements, most of all the liberation of Gaza. To ensure that there would be no Israeli remorse about the evacuation plan, both Abu Mazen and the Hamas scrupulously maintained a truce while the evacuation was being implemented.
Two basic assumptions have been proven wrong. There is no international support for IDF operations against terror, if civilians are injured in them; and the rise of Hamas to power, with the help of the limpness of Sharon-Olmert-Mofaz, reduced to zero the hope that a Palestinian government would act against organizations that refused to obey the logic of calm.
The new government has found itself in former U.S. president Bill Clinton's situation in the Balkans in 1999. Clinton needed the support of the European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in order to convince Serbia to cease its violence in Kosovo. In order to enlist the allies, Clinton announced that if NATO acted against Serbia it would do so only from the air and would avoid an invasion by land. This declaration tied NATO's hands and encouraged Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to run amok. Ultimately, the air power of NATO prevailed, but only in combination with a land force - "the Organization for the Liberation of Kosovo."
The IDF began planning its actions against Gaza when it was bound by two prohibitions: We are not going back to controlling Gaza and we are not invading with large ground forces. Two weeks ago, following the killing of the Ralia family on the Gaza beach, a third prohibition was added: We aren't bombarding. Two modes of action remained: commando raids and aerial attacks. Commando attacks can be effective, but not when it is necessary to close an intelligence-operational circle immediately.
Within the general constraints, there are also particular constraints on aerial operations. Unlike in the war of the cities between Saddam and Khomeini, in the Gaza-Sderot war only one side, the Palestinian side, is trying to sow fear in a population in the hope that this will serve as a political lever on the government. Israel, too, has played around with such ideas, which were tried unsuccessfully in Lebanon and focused on defined targets - leaders, activists, launchers, factories and warehouses. These targets are located in the midst of a population. An accurate hit on them is like an attempt to snipe from a distance at a turtle who sticks his head out of his shell for a second, without hitting the small creatures that stick to its neck.
The Iran-Iraq war of the cities was brought to an end, because even a revolutionary regime is attentive to the population's misery. This is the doctrine of the prophet of air power, the Italian general Giulio Douhet, who is one of the two favorite theorists of many pilots, among them air force commander Eliezer Shkedy. Air power, in its strategic sense, was not effective on fronts in Europe and Japan in World War II, although it did contribute to crushing the armies, to the slow progress to occupying Berlin and, in the nuclear context, to Japan's surrender. Current air power, which is much more precise, can influence a population to influence its government, but to this end, a situation is needed that does not exist in Gaza: an established middle class that has something to lose and that also has the power to apply pressure to the regime.
Shkedy has been backed into a difficult corner, because in addition to the scandals that have wracked the air force during the past year his superior is a chief of staff who was his commander and his predecessor in the air force, above whom there is a defense minister who is desperately aiming to show results without paying the price.
Shkedy's two competitors for the command of the air force, Amos Yadlin and Ido Nehushtan, have remained in the service and are close to Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, perhaps even more so than Shkedy, Yadlin is the head of Military Intelligence, and appears before the government 10 or 20 times more than Shkedy, although he would gladly trade with Shkedy. Nehushtan will soon take up the position of head of the Plans and Policy Directorate, which participates in the shaping of the army's strategic platform. All the signs indicate that Halutz is intending Nehushtan as the next commander of the air force, at the end of 2007, after less than four years of Shkedy. The other leading candidate, the head of air force headquarters, Brigadier General Amir Eshel, looks like he will be tapped head of the Operations Directorate at the General Staff or general of command.
The Sderot-Gaza war will end, or will at least wane into a truce with intervals, when the air force also has a friendly ground force. In the defense establishment there is also a name for the commander of this force: Mohammed Dahlan. With the pressures mounting on both sides, this has a chance of coming about, but not in the near future.
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