Israel's Biggest Loss of All

Despite the unfortunate casualties in last week's terror attack, the most significant victim could be Israel's strategic relationship with its southern neighbor.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The terror attack near Eilat last Thursday and the fighting in Gaza suddenly transformed Sinai from the security establishment's drowsy backyard into the hottest front. Despite the turmoil over the eight Israelis killed in the attack, and the person killed in a Grad attack on Be'er Sheva, the main concern these days is for Israel's ties with Egypt - specifically, its ties with the country's temporary military regime.

If anything is threatening the Israel Defense Force's new five-year budgetary plan, it isn't the Finance Ministry or the social protest, but rather the risk of losing the strategic relationship with Egypt, which will mean a reactivation of army units and headquarters in the south.

Anti-Israel protests in Cairo.Credit: Agencies

Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, a former GOC Southern Command, said this week that we must not "lose a strategic asset because of one terror attack." Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that if Egypt asks to send thousands more soldiers into eastern Sinai in order to end the anarchy there - which enables advanced weaponry to be brought into the Gaza Strip - he would support such a move. He stated in no uncertain terms that supporting such a move would be "a clear Israel interest."

On the one hand, IDF generals and top Defense Ministry officials have had many meetings and telephone conversations with their counterparts in Cairo in recent weeks. On the other hand, as one senior security source says, "the Egyptian army's maneuvers are being aimed at 'a small country in the Middle East.' Why do they have 1,000 American M-1 tanks? Returning their military presence to eastern Sinai is Egypt's strategic interest."

For his part, GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Tal Russo wanted to keep his promise to the heads of local authorities surrounding Gaza and respond forcefully to every rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, but he accepted the politicians' decision to exercise restraint. He also did not respond when the media criticized him after he admitted that he had erred by allowing Highway 12 to open just hours before the terrorist cell crossed the border last Thursday morning.

Russo stands out for his experience in operations and special forces. He commanded an air force commandos company, was deputy commander of the Sayeret Matkal special operations force, and commanded the Maglan special ops unit. He came to the Southern Command after heading the Operations Directorate for four years. The operational failures exposed by Thursday's terror attack did not "fit" his super-operational image. Still, Russo has never been responsible for a large civilian population, as commander of a regional brigade or division.

Be'er Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich came to Russo's defense this week: "We had excellent relations with his predecessor, Yoav Galant, but Russo is trying harder than Galant did to share with us, to keep us briefed, to be involved."

Despite the media's sniping, in this case, Russo has the complete backing of Barak and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who, even before the completion of the operational inquiries, has made it clear he has no intention of firing officers over judgment errors.

Under fire

"We are no longer fighting, just sitting around in bunkers during bombardments," said a veteran Golani soldier this week. After three days under fire at the Gaza perimeter fence, he had left for a few hours of urgent medical treatment. "On patrols, too, we just go around in armored personnel carriers or armored Humvees and we hide. We certainly aren't getting out and firing."

The fighting in Gaza last weekend was carried out solely by the air force and intelligence units. For the rest of the IDF, defense was the order of the day.

Last December, with Hamas acquiring more advanced anti-tank weapons, the IDF stationed around Gaza an armored battalion of Merkava-4 tanks equipped with the Windbreaker protective system. The system had its first success in March, when it intercepted a rocket-propelled grenade fired at a tank, in mid-flight.

Meanwhile, after spending decades as air force tagalongs, the anti-aircraft units are starting to get accustomed to their new star status as operators of the Iron Dome missile-defense system. On Monday, Ashdod Mayor Yechiel Lasry declared, "By the end of September an Iron Dome system will be permanently positioned in Ashdod." A top defense official has promised him this, he added.

But a senior air force officer said, "Even the air force's commander doesn't know where the third battery will be positioned. These are General Staff decisions, authorized by the government. This is a mobile system that is still in the pre-operational phase and it moves around in accordance with operational, technical and training needs."

A highly placed Defense Ministry source commented, "No one has promised Lasry anything."

Special force

The British and French leaders who pushed for NATO to help the Libyan rebels five months ago took pride this week that they had toppled Muammar Gadhafi without sending in ground soldiers - their aerial bombardments were enough.

However, during the first months, the NATO bombardments sometimes claimed casualties among civilians and even rebel fighters due to mistaken intelligence. The situation changed over the past month, as the warplanes destroyed units loyal to Gadhafi that were blocking the rebels. What made the difference here were spotters, who moved ahead of the forces and sent the bombers precise coordinates for targets in real time. The spotters were English-speaking rebels who were secretly trained and equipped, and British and Canadian special forces personnel. Needless to say, there were "ground troops" involved - but they were Libyan rebel fighters, not NATO soldiers. Apparently Gadhafi could not be defeated only by aerial bombardments.

The same is bound to be the case for Israel in the next war, as it faces the threat of ground-to-ground missiles. Hamas and Hezbollah have carefully studied what happened during Operation Specific Gravity, the first night of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when in 35 minutes the air force destroyed more than 40 medium-range missile launchers hidden in Hezbollah activists' homes. As the militants re-equip with more accurate, longer-range missiles, they still hide them in civilian homes. However, now they are hiding them underground, in concrete-reinforced silos and shelters. Taking them out by aerial attack will necessitate very powerful bombs that could cause grave harm to civilians.

Last Thursday Brig. Gen. Moshe Sheli completed 27 years of service in the IDF. His last four were as chief combat engineering officer. "In order to address the challenge posed by the conflict states and the terror organizations with steep trajectory weapons, we cannot rely on aerial attacks," he explains. "We will need to be on the ground much more than in previous wars."

Sheli warns: "Everywhere a military infrastructure is deployed and they fire at Israel, there will be damage and casualties - and if there are civilians there, they will be in danger."

In Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli and international media emphasized the possibly excessive firepower used against Gaza, and the killing and destruction there, yet, says Sheli, "The army could not use the artillery or the air force to soften resistance everywhere. We were very sensitive to loss of civilian lives. The IDF did not use its full strength because the urban battlefield requires deplying force differently. The story is how much force was used, and we did not use force freely. We deployed in a very limited way. We did not use artillery to achieve 100 percent cover. We did not use armored forces extensively."

By way of explanation, Sheli notes, "in Gaza, more engineering platforms than tanks were used. We had 80 bulldozers, 75 Pumas (dedicated Engineering Corps armored vehicles ) and other special platforms like bridging tanks."

The relatively small number of IDF casualties in that campaign can largely be credited to engineering fighters, who defused bombs. They also protected soldiers by quickly building tunnels and dirt barriers to protect them from snipers and missiles, says Sheli.

In most cases where the IDF wanted to demolish buildings, Engineering Corps fighters went in with explosives, exposed to enemy fire.

Sheli still thinks the IDF's response was measured. "The orders were quite clear. We hit houses containing arms or that served as Hamas infrastructure. We tried to keep explosions from damaging homes. In places with civilian infrastructures, we tried to work with bulldozers, but we could not always endanger the bulldozer crews, because Hamas was deployed among civilians. You can't prevent harm to civilians. I don't know why the media focuses on this, and not Hamas' intentional damage within Israel. Every other democratic country whose civilians were targeted like this would have nipped it in the bud."



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