Focus / 'Until It's Over, or We're Told to Leave'

The Israel Defense Forces' operation in the Balata refugee camp, dubbed 'The Colors Journey,' will continue today and could only be over next week, say reliable military sources.

The Israel Defense Forces' operation in the Balata refugee camp, dubbed "The Colors Journey," will continue today and could only be over next week, say reliable military sources. Last night, the IDF's General Staff and the political echelon were discussing whether to make do with the army operations on the outskirts of the Jenin refugee camp, or to go deeper into the camp. So far, the operation has been seen as a success, but every day that goes by raises the risk of increased casualties among IDF soldiers or Palestinian civilians.

The army believes that the Palestinians will continue their escalation irrespective of the operations, predicting, among other things, that there will be a wave of attacks on checkpoints that will come to an end only after a series of failures. The Palestinians are trying to achieve a deterrent, among other ways, by firing at Gilo; while mysterious failures are plaguing their Kassam rockets and preventing them from using the primitive devices to realize their threat of shooting at areas in and around Jerusalem.

The preparations for the operations in the refugee camps began two weeks ago, were halted, then resumed again last week, then stopped again by order of the political echelon, and then renewed after this week's attacks. As in many IDF operations, the purpose is to strike a blow at the Palestinian consciousness, more than at real assets.

In mid-February, the IDF suffered a series of failures, while the Palestinians' operational successes encouraged them. In response, the IDF went on the offensive - but it was stopped after 48 hours and the killing of dozens of Palestinians, by order of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, ahead of the U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian security coordination meeting.

Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz was furious. If the IDF had been allowed to bomb only a few more days it would have achieved a "decisive" victory in the conflict, he was said to have claimed. If he did say that, it was only for the rhetoric. He is supposed to know that no military victory will be achieved, or not on his watch at least. His statement was translated by the IDF into softer terms: If the military pressure were kept up on the Palestinians, they would have genuinely sought a cease-fire. The political echelon, some charged in the IDF, didn't keep up the pressure. It allowed the Palestinians to catch their breath and resulted in renewed fighting.

At the security meeting a week ago, the two sides agreed on a cease-fire for the holidays - Eid al Adha and Purim. The IDF, say its officers, kept its word, but the Palestinians meely took a lunch break. As soon as their holiday was over, and the Purim Megilla readings began, they renewed their attacks. The last in that series, a few hours before the IDF operation began, was the suicide bombing at the Maccabim checkpoint. But the decision to go ahead with the operation in the camps was made beforehand.

The risk in the operation planned for Balata is that it could yet be turned into a great Arab victory, or into a negative diplomatic episode for Israel, as happened at Karameh in 1968 and even before that, exactly 48 years ago on February 28, 1955, when then Lt. Col. Ariel Sharon commanded the Black Arrow operation in Gaza. That operation made Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser decide to seek military aid from the Soviets. Too large an operation in Balata, with too many Palestinian casualties, could result in international intervention against Israel.

IDF officers last night praised Paratroop Brigade commander Col. Aviv Kochavi, who led the operation in Balata. A few months ago, Kochavi was vehement - but polite - in response to Sharon's nostalgia for the paratroopers of the 1950s, compared to the current generation.

In Balata, Kochavi employed creative military thinking by taking two corners of the camp at the same time and then sweeping through the built-up area. Instead of heading down mine-strewn roads, the forces went from apartment to apartment by cutting through walls, using experts from the Home Front's Rescue School, skilled at using electric saws to cut open man-sized openings in the walls, through which the soldiers moved. One officer said that it would only take eight cinder blocks in each hole to repair the walls.

The brigade operation involving the 101st battalion and its reconnaissance companies, engineering troops, the Ravens of the paratroopers, a Nahal battalion, Armored Corps forces, and heavy engineering equipment (including one bulldozer that drove over 20 mines as it paved a way for the infantry) was not designed to capture top-level wanted men. Operations against such terrorist leaders are conducted differently, plucking them out of their beds while they are asleep.

Instead, "The Colors Journey" was meant to deliver the message that the Balata refugee camp, where the intifada began on the West Bank in 1987, and where the current hostilities began in the fall of 2000, is no longer immune. Nablus's wanted men used to hide out in Balata. Where will they hide out now?

The term "refugee camp" is slightly misleading. Balata is a town - poor and home to some 30,000 people who are crowded into an area about half a kilometer long by the same width. The alleys are so narrow that an adult can touch the walls on both sides; only a few of its roads are wide enough for an armored personnel carrier. The mines waiting for the army were placed at all levels - one, hanging in the air, killed Sergeant Haim Bachar, the only Israeli casualty in the operation as of last night.

Some 15 Palestinians had been killed by last night, and according to the IDF, all were armed men, including some known to the military as wanted men, though none particularly senior in the terrorist infrastructure. According to the IDF, weapons workshops were destroyed and will be continued to be destroyed in the operation, "until we finish, said one officer, "or until we are told to leave."