Analysis Checkpoint Efficacy Should Be Reviewed

The attack on an IDF checkpoint west of Ramallah, apparently by a squad of Tanzim activists, that left six conscripts dead, one seriously wounded and another unharmed last night, raises serious questions not only at the tactical operational level, but also about the very existence of the checkpoints and about the need for an overall strategy.

Ze'ev Schiff
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Ze'ev Schiff

The attack on an IDF checkpoint west of Ramallah, apparently by a squad of Tanzim activists, that left six conscripts dead, one seriously wounded and another unharmed last night, raises serious questions not only at the tactical operational level, but also about the very existence of the checkpoints and about the need for an overall strategy.

During the long months of conflict, the IDF has managed to maintain a relatively low level of casualties considering the enormous number of armed engagements and attacks. The forces were well prepared for the first stages of the conflict, but as it went on, the decision was made to place top priority on the safety of troops in the field. That dictated occasional slow operations at the expense of surprise attacks, and other military achievements, and has been one of the main reasons for the massive use of tanks in the conflict.

Yesterday's attack was conducted by a relatively small Palestinian squad of around four people. They apparently were Tanzim activists who also attacked another checkpoint last week north of Ramallah. In the past few weeks, there has been a significant increase in the number of IDF casualties in the territories. The incidents are not necessarily similar. For example, last week's attack in which three tank crew members were killed when the Merkava they were in hit a landmine and Monday's deaths of a major and his communications man who charged a suicide attacker shooting at cars near the Kissufim junction varied greatly.

Was there advance warning of the Palestinian focus on IDF checkpoints in the territories? Presumably, it was possible to spot the warning in last week's attack on the Surda checkpoint north of Ramallah. There, too, a small squad of armed Tanzim men arrived by car in the fog. First they shot a soldier at close range, and then approached a second soldier with an electrical shocker that was sufficient to confiscate his weapon. The attackers escaped without injury. It was an invitation to last night's attack.

How were eight soldiers at a checkpoint so thoroughly surprised? The preliminary inquiry shows the attackers arrived from a dirt path on high ground above the checkpoint in two separate two-man squads and opened fire from close range. They managed to eliminate the checkpoint completely. That also explains how they managed to get away so quickly.

What operational need is there for so many checkpoints when it is clear that they are not effective against people carrying weapons and explosives? There are dozens of such permanent checkpoints in the territories. A special committee headed by Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, head of IDF operations, is finalizing a report on checkpoints. The panel was mainly interested in how to man the checkpoints and how to prevent unnecessary harm to Palestinian civilians passing through them. The committee should now examine the question whether all the checkpoints are necessary when perhaps only those on the Green Line are necessary.

It is doubtful whether it is possible to deal with these questions without addressing the overall strategic question and the Sharon government's goals in the military confrontation with the Palestinians other than its meaningless statement that the intent is to achieve a cease-fire.

The strategic discussion has been postponed over and over again. Meanwhile, of course, the IDF will respond with the old spiraling method of Palestinian attack and a more intense Israeli reaction followed by another Palestinian attack. The air force will be sent to attack various targets and headquarters that have already been targeted in the past, and today the security cabinet will convene to make what are certain to be the same decisions as in the past.

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