Between Two Abductions / Nothing Has Changed

The head of the teleprocessing division in the Israel Defense Forces General Staff, Major General Udi Shani, has been appointed by Chief of Staff Dan Halutz to head the task force investigating the relationship between the General Staff and Northern Command during the Lebanon war.

Shani, who will shortly complete his term at the teleprocessing division, used to be a chief officer in the armored corps and a commander of Division 162, a position that GOC Northern Command Udi Adam has also filled.

In June, four weeks before reservist soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were kidnapped by Hezbollah, Shani conducted an exercise in which the Northern Command and Israel Air Force, among other divisions, simulated a conflict on the northern border in the wake of an abduction attempt. The exercise envisioned rockets falling on cities in the north and two weeks of IDF fire from the air and sea, as well as artillery fire, before the army sent a large contingent of ground troops - up to four divisions - into southern Lebanon.

In the exercise, both the IDF and Hezbollah's military force were out of the area south of the Lebanon's Litani River. In the war, the Northern Command only partly followed this script, although the exercise gave the air force much experience in operating aerial units, bases and headquarters.

The IDF, on the basis of Hezbollah's declared statements, assessed that abduction attempts were expected - but was insufficiently prepared for the prevention of such an attempt. The extent to which it failed is clear from the Hezbollah film shown last night on a Lebanese television station and on Channel 10. The conclusion one can draw from the film is that those responsible for what took place in July can be found in the senior ranks over the past five years - those who dismissed their subordinates and pretended to learn from the Har Dov abduction in October 2000, but failed to do so.

The IDF withdrawal from the security zone in southern Lebanon in May 2000 was spurred by good intentions but had disastrous consequences. That's because it was not accompanied by demilitarization of the area near the fence, as enforced by Israeli fire, or purposeful offensives in reaction to any provocation.

In the Gaza Strip, large parts of which were stripped of an IDF presence in 1994, military leaders in the south imposed a "special security zone": whoever came within a few hundred meters of the fence and appeared to be armed or was suspicious-looking was shot. This did not solve the problems of the tunnels or high-trajectory weapons, but neither did it allow terror organizations to lull the IDF to sleep - that is, until the disengagement and abduction of Gilad Shalit. On the Lebanese border, for some reason, Israel refrained from taking this step.

The lesson of all the abductions is that Israel cannot allow the existence of a point of contact on the Arab side of which lies a hostile entity openly striving to attack and abduct. There must be either a third party or a forced demilitarization separating Israel from such an entity.

"The operational reality that has been forced upon the Northern Command is nearly impossible," Major General (Res.) Yossi Peled said, and justifiably so, in submitting an inquiry committee report following the 2000 kidnapping. "Hezbollah is sitting on the fence, playing with the IDF, touching the fence, examining the directions of our arrival and our reaction times. This reality deprives us of the possibility of showing telltale signs, and leaves most of the advantages and initiative in Hezbollah's hands."

But the report was closely examined only by Hezbollah. The policy hasn't changed, the reality hasn't changed, and Hezbollah's ability to translate its operational and intelligence advantages into abduction attempts hasn't changed either.

The Peled report exempted the intelligence branch of responsibility for the failure, because it had issued a general warning about abductions. In effect, there was an ongoing intelligence failure. We didn't know about Hezbollah's practice abductions, which were shown in the film, or where, how or when an abduction might take place.

The chief of staff in 2000, Shaul Mofaz, said following the Peled report that, despite information that Hezbollah was planning an attack, "the appropriate operational suit was not sewn in the face of the threat." This is a serious self-indictment for someone who remained chief of staff for another year and a half after the abduction, and served for three and a half years as defense minister, until shortly before the second abduction.

What did Mofaz do in those years to prevent another abduction? How did he internalize the lessons of the first abduction? Did he ascertain that awareness of the threat was "translated into an operational structure in the field," as he said after the Peled report came out?

For Shani's report to have a greater impact than Peled's, it will have to deal with high-ranking officials, which Peled had not dared to do. Shani's challenge will be to analyze the relationship between the General Staff (including the chief of staff, operations division, and, perhaps, Military Intelligence) and the Northern Command before and during the war, without fearing to discuss the political level above the chief of staff as well.