Focus / Spinning Stories, Spinning Wheels

Yesterday's assassination of Raed Karmi is all about the difference between "last" and "final." It was only the last link, and not the final one, in a long chain of events that began with Tul Karm dentist Thabet Thabet's orders more than a year ago to start shooting.

Yesterday's assassination of Raed Karmi is all about the difference between "last" and "final." It was only the last link, and not the final one, in a long chain of events that began with Tul Karm dentist Thabet Thabet's orders more than a year ago to start shooting. It continued with fatal attacks in which Karmi either actually took part in or was involved as a commander - until the killing of Karmi - and on to the next link, the retaliatory attack for his death on the Haruv patrol near the Kuchin junction last night.

The assassination was primarily a matter of exploiting an intelligence and operational opportunity to strike at him (and only him). Only a little less than that it was a political opportunity that appeared when U.S. peace envoy Anthony Zinni postponed his return to the region. This is until after the cabinet conducts its strategic assessment of relations with the Palestinian Authority, and Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz makes his trip to Washington immediately afterward.

If no houses are demolished until then in the territories, it won't be because any order to cease demolishing houses has come out of the meeting between the prime minister and the foreign and defense ministers. In Benjamin Ben-Eliezer's office they deny there was any decision to issue such an order. In IDF general headquarters no such order was received - and in any case no such order went out to the Southern Command and the Gaza division.

One of Ben-Eliezer's aides wondered aloud in a conversation with a senior officer why the IDF insisted on destroying so many buildings in a large-scale operation instead of one by one when nobody was looking. The partial answer is that such an operation, if it is to be done without IDF casualties, requires a large concentration of tanks and engineering equipment.

Another answer is that the army has grown used to such operations not raising any ruckus. This was approximately the 16th such operation in the last six months, in an area of military installations along the Israeli-Egyptian border. Buildings used for hostile activity were already demolished back in October 2000, after a pair of apartment buildings, known locally as the "Twin Towers" (before the September 11 attacks in America) were taken down because they gave Palestinian gunmen a controlling view of the Netzarim junction outpost.

In all previous cases, the residents were evacuated, either weeks and months before or close to the date of the demolition. Only this time did it turn into a scandal, and not because of the weather.

Experts in international law at the defense ministry have been telling the commanders, both political and military, that in this case the talk about "war crimes" is nonsense, because there was no eviction of local residents in order to take their place with Israelis or to change the demography. International law allows a military commander to order buildings demolished if it is for purely military reasons, and in that area, because of all the shooting, there were military reasons. Furthermore, the existence of tunnels used to smuggle arms in the area require a 300 meter strip along the road, to make it difficult to dig such tunnels and easy to discover them.

The approval for the operation went through all the ranks, including the political ranks. Those who gave the order can obviously also rescind it, but the generals got the public message and will refrain, at least in the coming days, from demolitions - unless there's an absolute need to take action. That's a confession only of a clumsy operation, inured to the propaganda advantage it gave the other side, which was desperate to change the subject from Palestinian behavior (Karine A weapons ship) to Israeli behavior (house demolitions).

So while Karim's death was part of a long-spinning wheel from which what comes around goes around, the house demolitions turned into a Palestinian spin on a story that began with Israel's spin on the weapons ship saga.

The IDF was still checking yesterday with all the soldiers who took part in the operation, asking them all if anyone saw any residents fleeing the houses as the bulldozers rolled in. They may not have reached the last of the soldiers, but so far, there's no reason for Southern Command Maj. Gen. Doron Almog and Brig. Gen. Yisrael Ziv to eat their red berets.

While the war against the smuggling along the Philadelphia line in the area adds up to about half the incidents in the area, it's still the side show, the territorial parallel to the naval efforts against ships like the Santori and the Karine A.

The real campaign is characterized by "pinpoint prevention" and in that campaign, GHQ and Ben-Eliezer refuse to count any days of quiet or to confirm that Karmi's killing broke, and was meant to break, the relative quiet. Karmi routinely managed to escape the Shin Bet, the Border Patrol's Anti-Terror units, and the IDF, even when the paratroopers took over a neighborhood in Tul Karm last October. After the siege of the city was lifted, as in other cities in the territories, as a way to ease conditions for the Palestinians and to assist Zinni in his efforts, the risk of new attacks began to rise.

Last night in the defense establishment, without officially admitting they were responsible for Karmi's death, they were saying he was recently working on a new infrastructure for attacks and "the clock was ticking." Karmi was considered unusually adept, both in life and death.

Presumably, those who made the decision to hit him knew that the reaction to his assassination would be quick and costly, since killing a suicide bomber only prevents that single attack, but killing their commander not only encourages the suicide bomber but also others to take revenge. Those of a conspiratorial bent will say that's exactly why he was assassinated. A simpler, more accurate explanation is that lacking any other way to do it - and in recent weeks the security forces have acted quietly, with arrests, not assassinations, to avoid provoking the other side - the noisy way was the only way to prevent Karmi from eluding his captors once again.

Since Arafat's cease-fire speech, a month ago tomorrow, Arafat has demonstrated impressive control over the field, without needing to use massive force against rebellious forces. In the IDF, where they believe he has absolute control in the territories, as opposed to the Shin Bet where they say he does not, they say Arafat has woven webs of agreement with the various elements and they - even if some disagree with him - prefer not to tear the web lest it ends up wrapped around their necks.

Arafat's interpretation of Palestinian national interests nowadays was accepted as requiring a lull, even though, say Israeli security officials, it is nothing more than a thin skin above a boiling lava core. Information about plans and preparations for attacks forces the security services and through them the political leadership to take action to prevent attacks now, even if the future price is expensive.

It's a matter of responsibility, and the criticism swings between two poles, as can be remembered from the case of the death of Madhat Yusuf in Joseph's tomb in Nablus. Presumably one can guess what would have been said about demolishing buildings in that town on the way to rescuing him, and what will be said the next time if an Israeli casualty lies bleeding to death and his rescue is delayed because of the need to bypass local homes.