Fire in Gaza: Either Now or Later

The operational plans of the Israel Defense Forces medical corps and the Southern Command for the Gaza pullout, which were approved recently by the General Staff's operations directorate, contain an unnerving figure: It turns out the IDF is preparing for hundreds of casualties in the friction between the evacuating forces and those refusing to leave and evacuation opponents arriving from the center of the country.

This may be preparation, as opposed to assessment, under circumstances that permit only a rough estimate, because the IDF has never been deployed in a single narrow sector in such a mixture of a certain internal front and a possible external one. The medical preparation does not deal with deaths, only the wounded of various degrees serious, moderate and light, but army doctors know that the difference between seriously and critically wounded; between critically wounded and dead, might depend on the speed of rescue and treatment.

Reinforcing the medical setup in the south with substantial forces - each community gets a team that includes, among others, a trauma specialist, gynecologist and pediatrician - and six specially earmarked helicopters is meant to help block the transition from wounded to killed, particularly if both Israeli sides refrain from using live fire. The number of casualties will depend on the length of time the evacuation takes. If it moves along ploddingly and takes about a month, there could be around 1,000 wounded, nearly a third of these with significant injuries.

And all this even before it becomes clear whether the escalation over the past few days - fire now (and preferably before Condoleezza Rice arrives) to prevent fire later - will lead the IDF to establish outposts on the ground, in a manner that will provide a certain degree of protection from Palestinian barrages during the pullout.

The circumstances of the IDF withdrawal from South Lebanon, without casualties, are not expected to recur here. Meanwhile, the hope that dispersing mass demonstrations and ousting barricaded protesters will culminate in scratched faces and sprained legs is an illusion. Rocks kill, as do billy clubs. And all these even before the "radical scenarios" the IDF hates to talk about: firing at soldiers and police (and returning fire), assassination of public figures, massacres in Palestinian villages, and everything that might happen in their aftermath.

The medical preparations are just one angle and, if implemented, the most costly of the IDF's problems ahead of the evacuation. Training has suffered: certain supplementary training for officers' courses has been slashed by around a quarter. On the naive assumption that the cadets do indeed need the full duration of the courses and their complete contents to become perfect second lieutenants, this means that the IDF will be getting only three-quarter officers.

Also disrupted are the lives of 18-year olds who were scheduled to begin their compulsory military service in the next few days in infantry units and were surprised last week to get an unsolicited draft deferral until November. The IDF's training system will be too busy in coming months to induct, sort and train them.

For too many years, the IDF was overly committed to the settlers and avoided enforcing the law on them; it is good the IDF finally has a chief of staff who, contrary to his four predecessors, did not serve in the territories as command GOC or a division commander. The recycling of the slogan "The IDF doesn't choose its missions" also conceals the IDF's failure to choose its own forces, to suit troops to tasks. The IDF brought upon itself the joint trouble of refusal and rabbinate, in conscripted service and the reserves. Last year, its top brass responded negatively, even contemptuously, to an outside proposal to use only career army personnel for the evacuation. Units composed of career army troops were built up after an expensive delay and sparingly.

The army habitually strives for "maneuverability," for "depth" and for "reserves." All these will not be available in Gaza. In the narrow funnel of the Strip's roads and outskirts, the IDF will have difficulty maneuvering, while being exposed to Palestinian fire and clashes with protesters. The front's handful of kilometers, which grew only a little by the closure of the adjacent territories belonging to western Negev kibbutzim, do not enable any depth for toeholds and movement. Reserves are also evidently pressed.

In recent weeks, the General Staff was forced to instruct the military branches land, air and sea to allocate additional officers and sergeants-major to three or more additional brigades. These will carry on routinely but will be on call to get ready, move and seal breaches, for instance, as a temporary substitute for Border Police forces in the Jerusalem district that will be called up for an emergency operation on the Temple Mount or the West Bank. One commander of these paper brigades is an officer from the antiaircraft deployment, Colonel Haim Moria, who was the first commander of the Herev Magen battalion the army's version of the Arrow. Instead of readiness to intercept Scud and Shihab missiles, Moria will on alert to oversee aircraft technicians, quartermasters and computer experts, should the evacuation become messy.

The Bush administration made tremendous efforts in recent months to coordinate a peaceful evacuation, but is now realizing that there is slim chance of a common and binding denominator among Mahmoud Abbas, Mohammed Dahlan, Nasser Yousef, Ramadan Shalah of Islamic Jihad, and Khaled Mashal of Hamas. That is the concern underlying the secretary of state's urgent mission. But even if she accomplishes something here, Rice will not be able to help Colonel Dr. Yitzhak Kreiss, chief medical officer of the Southern Command, who is in charge of caring for evacuation casualties.