Three Times Lucky

Northern Command this week chalked up its third success in clashes with Hezbollah but there will be a fourth.

There is no need to wait for the votes of the members of Israel's merchant fleet to be counted to know who will be the big winner in the upcoming elections: the Shin Bet. No matter who is elected prime minister, the security service will be represented in the Knesset by a reinforced squad: two former chiefs, two deputy chiefs and a division head, in a multiparty deployment. Avi Dichter and Gideon Ezra with Ariel Sharon, Ami Ayalon in Labor, Yisrael Hasson with Avigdor Lieberman and Ehud Yatom in the Likud. In the political stock exchange of security pensioners, the shares of former IDF officers are on the decline and the shares of former Shin Bet personnel are on the rise, especially those of Dichter, even though he has yet to announce a final decision between business and politics.

If the present version of the "cooling-off" law remains in force − only a six-month period for former members of the security forces before they can enter politics − and if Sharon becomes the next prime minister and gives the defense portfolio to Dichter, we can expect a security policy whose defensive half bows to the separation fence and whose offensive half advocates a sharp response to every provocation. If someone breaks your tooth, Dr. Dichter recommends not the tooth-for-a-tooth policy, but breaking all the assailant's teeth, a sure way to preempt future bites.

In the Vietnam War the Americans, under president Lyndon B. Johnson and secretary of defense Robert McNamara, tried the method of gradual escalation. To their chagrin, they found that their enemies, those in the north and the Vietcong, were also gradually getting used to the escalation and improving their capability to absorb attacks and launch counter-assaults. Dichter learned a similar lesson from the failure of the Ehud Barak government to suppress Palestinian violence in the immediate aftermath of its eruption in September 2000. In a talk he delivered in Washington two months ago, Dichter said that Israel, along with the United States, Britain and other countries, had erred in believing that a tough reaction to terrorism would heighten suicide bombings and other attacks.

The determining variable, according to Dichter, is intelligence. In the absence of good intelligence, terror will strike first. If the reaction to the first terrorist attack is flaccid, the next attack will be even more vicious. In order to cripple the infrastructure and forge deterrence, Dichter believes, there must be no recoil from the use of massive means, including warplanes. Hamas' agreement to a cease-fire was obtained after its leaders were targeted in a no-holds-barred fashion, using all available methods; states under attack must not make do with declicate rules of balance and "fair play."

Dan Halutz, who became commander of the Israel Air Force in the spring of 2000, at the same time that Dichter was appointed Shin Bet chief, shared this school of thought and implemented it as chief of staff as well, in the form of Operation First Rain, which restrained Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.

But this week, as the spearhead of Israeli policy ?(Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who are busy politicking) approved his recommendations?, Halutz used a different, more subdued approach, which refused to be blown in the wind − like the civilian who glided across the skies of Galilee on Wednesday, to his nightmarish pleasure, into a near kidnapping in Lebanon.

Lessons of the evacuationThe Hezbollah attack on northern Israel was launched on Monday, while Halutz and General Staff officers were visiting a workshop of aerial equipment at Tsrifin base near Ramle. Their interest did not lie in wings and bolts: they were there for the last chapter in a series of discussions to sum up the forgotten operation of last August - the evacuation of the settlements in Gaza and northern Samaria. Also in attendance were Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi and the senior police officers who took part in the evacuation.

Even before that meeting, Karadi huddled with the chief of Central Command, Major General Yair Naveh, in the presence of the police chief of the Samaria and Judea District, Yisrael Yitzhak. Karadi's request − to which Naveh did not object − was that in the operations to evacuate settler outposts, the participating IDF units be subordinate to the police command posts, which had proved their capability in Gaza.

To enhance their mutual work ability, the police suggested their units be equipped with the army's communications systems ?(code-named "Vered Harim"?). The police logistics network, which was revealed in all its shoddiness during the siege of Kfar Maimon, had to overcome a 50-year-gap in five days. A joint team of logistics officers recommended that henceforth the police use its means when the range of the operation is short, and those of the Israel Defense Forces ?(IDF?) if the range of the operation is extended and is beyond the control of the police.

In a similar spirit, the chief of Home Front Command, Gershon Yitzhak, proposed that its units operate in conjunction with the police during routine times and with the army in emergencies. The deputies of Halutz and Karadi − IDF Major General Moshe Kaplinsky and police Major General Benny Kaniak − will be the big hand and little hand, as it were, in the "Hourglass," the heightened cooperation to block terrorist and criminal infiltration routes from the Egyptian border.

Karadi has decided not to dismantle the intelligence net the police created ahead of the evacuation in Gaza, to warn against public disturbances inside Israel. The intelligence activity, one of whose goals was to thwart attempts to block roads, will continue even when the background to such disruptions is "bread and work," as one officer put it. The IDF, in its efforts to abstain from spying on Israelis but also to receive information about who is planning to harm it and disrupt its activity, put forward a proposal that was thought up by the chief intelligence officer, Brigadier General Yuval Halamish, to create an integrated triple net of Shin Bet-Israel Police-Military Intelligence. The proposal was opposed by the Shin Bet.

Hill and ValleyWhile the officers wearing uniforms of all shades were concentrating on the previous and coming missions, the present forced itself on the Tsrifin hall. The event they had been preparing these past few weeks − "Hill and Valley," in the language of the officers − moved from potential to practice. Halutz and the operations officers of the General Staff and the chief of Northern Command, Major General Udi Adam, gathered to discuss the situation. Karadi went on his way, and soon after a helicopter was summoned for Adam, too, and he flew north.

There, in Galilee, the battle was being waged by Brigadier General Gal Hirsh, the commander of the 19th Division. Hirsh became the divisional commander about eight months ago, after heading the Officers School at Training Base 1 and holding three successive posts in the territories − operations officer of the Judea-Samaria Division, commander of the Binyamin Brigade ?(Ramallah?) and Central Command operations officer, including the feverish period of Operation Defensive Shield ?(spring 2002?).

Major General Benny Gantz, until recently the chief of Northern Command, was the commander of the West Bank division and Hirsh's commanding officer ?(Hirsh was also his deputy in Shildag, the elite unit of the air force?). The new chief of Northern Command, Udi Adam, was commander of the 162nd Division in the Jordan Rift Valley when Hirsh was operations officer of Central Command ?(which includes the Rift Valley?). All of them have experience working together and a declared aspiration to overcome personal and organizational desires. The keywords are "dialogue," "atmosphere," "pleasantness," "operational community," "flexibility." The division is not a rebelling teenager against command headquarters; it is its operational arm.

In the territories, Hirsh applied the experience he gleaned in Lebanon, which included a stint as commander of Shildag in the mid-1990s during the period of the IDF's Operation Grapes of Wrath, when Halutz was head of an air group − his handler − in air force headquarters. Now, equipped with his up-to-date experience in combat in the territories, Hirsh set off in the opposite direction, carrying applicable lessons but also the knowledge that fighting Hezbollah is far more complex than fighting Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Like Dichter, who says that Hezbollah "is not a terrorist organization but an army, albeit an army of terrorists," Hirsh too is careful not to belittle the enemy across the Lebanon border. The IDF makes a point of noting the quality of Hezbollah's equipment, training and planning and its not-easily-cracked compartmentalization. Hezbollah's failure this week stems from the IDF's success in outwitting it and deploying to deal with it - a success the army is the first to warn will not necessarily repeat itself the next time.

The attribution of the success to intelligence was not accurate. The intelligence, commanders say, "was alright," not excellent, only alright, sufficient to draw the general contour lines but not to insert the small, fateful details. The gap was closed in the operational situation assessments and in the deployment undertaken in their wake. The battalions, the outposts and the tanks cannot remain in a strong, stable defensive mode for almost a month across the entire sector. A sophisticated assailant will find the weak points and strike at them with methods that characterize Hezbollah. Its most brazen attacks bear the fingerprints of Imad Mugniyah, the organization's operations officer, who is high on the FBI's "most wanted terrorists" list.

The workday in the Galilee Division begins at about 7 A.M. with the morning briefing, with the participation of Hirsh and his operations, intelligence and fire-power officers. Similar discussions, connected to the division by video conferences, are held simultaneously in the frontline brigades, under the command of Colonel Raviv Nir ?(Golani Brigade?) and Chen Livni ?(Nahal Brigade?). In the past few weeks the officers became convinced a Hezbollah operation was imminent. The soldiers were ordered to prepare for combat. On the evening before the attack, Hirsh, without having specific warning information, felt he should cancel a social event planned for the division's headquarters in Binyamina − "The songs of Ehud Manor." The officers stayed in the north and will schmooze and sing on some other occasion.

Hezbollah unscathedM/b>Some of the officers reread the policy guidelines of the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and formed the impression that Beirut would not lift a finger to impose its authority south of the Litani River, and saw Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, enjoying the support of Syria and Iran. The IDF's conclusion was that he would not pay a very high price if he acted against Israel.

The spirit of battle that imbued Security Council Resolution 1559, which decreed that Hezbollah must disarm, has faded. Hezbollah also emerged unscathed from the interim report of Detlev Mehlis, the United Nations investigator, into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and from the report of Terje Roed-Larsen on the Syrian involvement in Lebanon. Accordingly, Nasrallah signed off on a "movement order," according to an officer in Northern Command.

The main effort of Hirsh and his colleagues is to undermine Hezbollah's learning capability. The method is to avoid routine and to engage in "special" thinking − as in Special Forces − and in cunning. Without these it is difficult, or at least costly, to strike at a squad collecting intelligence for an operation ?(in April, in Wadi Mrar, a first encounter in hand-to-hand combat?) and to ambush raiding squads riding motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles. The Hezbollah fighters who tried to take the IDF by surprise and kidnap a soldier in Ghajar under cover of a barrage in other sectors, attacked a fake outlook and were themselves surprised from the flank from a real, improvised outlook disguised as a house.

The battle with the squad of Ibrahim Jaber in April − the death of that operational commander was a serious loss for Hezbollah − was the first success, then came a second and this week a third was chalked up. But the series of accomplishments have not made Northern Command arrogant. They hope for the effectiveness of the international lever and are readying vigilantly ahead of the fourth time.