Gaza Creeps in After Lebanon

A group of senior pilots in the reserves visited Israel Air Force headquarters last month for a briefing on IAF operations in the Second Lebanon War. The high point of their visit was a meeting with IAF Commander Major General Elyezer Shkedy. Anyone with high expectations from the encounter would have been disappointed. Shkedy, in the opinion of many of the veterans, is not performing the way the commander of the most important branch of Israel's military should; he has remained a wing commander, someone who plans operations - albeit very skillfully - and dispatches forces. He is a tactician, not a strategist. For him the air force is a kind of wing, with its squadrons and groups; several times larger than the norm, but still a wing.

"What did you do in the war, in addition to sending the force into operation, as the chief of staff's adviser?," inquired one of the visitors. He was referring to Shkedy's membership, together with the deputy chief of staff and the heads of intelligence and operations, in the chief of staff's small circle of consultants. Every member is expected to contribute his experience and insight, with no connection to his defined role. He is expected to act as a member of the board, not plant manager only. "I am the commander of the air force," Shkedy replied, as though that was sufficient, or as though he did not understand the question.

Another former pilot was more concerned about the future than the past. "Is it clear to you," he asked the IAF commander, "that Gaza is more important than Iran?" He was referring to the priorities of the air force in particular, but the question should really be addressed to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as a whole and to the government that commands it. They are fine-tuning the means, but it is not at all certain that these are the right means, that correct targets will be defined and that there will be a connection between them.

The IDF does not know on which of three different fronts it will be required to act, without the ability to isolate them from one another. The enemy has near-total control of both the timing and the triggers for action. If the IDF wants to minimize the use of reserve forces, it means stretching its resources to their limit. In some areas, allocating assets to one sector causes irreversible damage to another. The focus of intelligence attention on Lebanon last summer damaged efforts to locate Gilad Shalit, who was abducted to Gaza.

This does not mean there was something exceptional about the IDF's behavior in Lebanon. Contrary to myth, this is how it (almost) always is. This week marked the 39th anniversary of the Karameh operation, an incursion into Jordan that resulted in the deaths of 30 IDF soldiers in a single day and a blow to the military career of the GOC involved.

Colonel (ret.) Moshe "Muki" Betser, who was a first lieutenant in the paratroop special operations unit at Karameh, saw the operation not only as a reality check to the euphoria of the Six-Day War, but also as a kind of prelude to the Yom Kippur War. The only difference between Karameh in 1968 and Lebanon in 2006 is that the latter operation has been investigated. The rest is similar: After Karameh came the attrition at the Suez Canal; after Lebanon, Gaza is creeping in.

A military operation in the Gaza Strip, with a limited ground incursion as well as fire from the air, now appears inevitable. This message, which Israel has been voicing for months now, is neither propaganda nor intentional disclosure for the purpose of deterrence; it is hard to deter someone who wants to make good on a threat.

In the short period that Gabi Ashkenazi has been chief of staff, the only deterrence that Israel has achieved has been internal: the punishment of at least four colonels for prohibited contact with journalists is a blow to the echelon of brigade commanders. It follows the damage to division commanders as a result, not always justified, of their performance in the war. The punishments, which are not uniform, are interpreted by an officer cadre that is fed by rumors as arbitrary and as reflecting intervention from above in the battles over appointments.

Hamas, with the backing of Iran and Hezbollah, is keen to invite Israel into the powderkeg called the Gaza Strip for a series of battles that will shed a great deal of blood on both sides and bring Hamas military or diplomatic gains. Israel cannot prevent Hezbollah or Syria from opening another front while that campaign is underway. That is what happened last summer, when all eyes were looking southward in the wake of Shalit's abduction. The northern front opened up 17 days later.

Nine months after Shalit's abduction, it is hard to believe that the patient waiting for a prisoner exchange deal will continue beyond the anniversary of the abduction, on June 25. Without action to stop the Qassam missile fire, ongoing terror attacks and the digging of tunnels across the border, the IDF will not achieve the operational goal that was defined for it by former chief of staff Dan Halutz: "lowering the level of terror below the threshold of relevance."

An operation in Gaza, assuming that its defined mission is to destroy the terror organizations' combat infrastructure and to kill or arrest their militants, will be effective only if it is thorough; it will be thorough only if it is prolonged, so that it will take the organizations months to recover, at least. Considering Gaza's population density, such a campaign is liable to require taking control of populated areas for as many as six weeks. The price in Israeli casualties could be heavy: According to one unofficial estimate (based on U.S. operations in Iraq in similar conditions), perhaps 50 to 80 deaths and nine times that number of injuries. Most of the casualties are expected to come from regular army infantry units, but engineering, armored and special forces units could also expect injuries and losses.

Recent U.S. figures indicate that explosive charges and missiles have replaced artillery and mortar bombardments as the most deadly to soldiers. More than half the soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were hit by explosives.

Since Syria and Iran are permitting the passage of technology, personnel and munitions for the purpose of killing Americans in Iraq, they are in America's crosshairs. With the smuggling route from Egypt to Gaza wide open, and human movement even easier at the Rafah border crossing, this technology, some of which originates with Hezbollah, is available to Hamas and other organizations that are fortifying Gaza in advance of a clash with the IDF. In addition, there are missiles in the Gaza Strip.

Anti-tank weapons was Hezbollah's strong card in the Lebanon war; like roadside bombs, they have a strong deterrent effect in addition to their deadly capabilities. Officers were astonished to learn of the decision to eliminate the armored, vehicular part of the Northern Command's operational plans, whereby the provisions and maintenance forces would advance close to the assault ranks. They attributed the decision to the shock at the top levels of the command caused by the explosives that destroyed the tank sent on June 12 to pursue the abductors of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser and by the anti-tank missiles that hit the infantry forces. The decision was also partly responsible for the shortage of essential items that was felt in the forward units, the further they got from the border.

For a military achievement, time and a diplomatic context are required. IDF casualties erode the public support for the operation, even if it is triggered by a shocking terror attack or the landing of a Palestinian rocket north of Ashkelon. The Palestinian distress will start the international stopwatch going. For Hamas, it will be convenient to prevent the entry of food and other essentials into Gaza. That would force the IDF to make the transfers and hope that aid organizations will help with local distributions, but if they are attacked, then this task, too, will be delegated to the army, exposing its soldiers further.

Thus far the IDF has succeeded in maneuvering between military considerations and concern for the population. Last week the Coordination and Liaison Administration in for Gaza, headed by Colonel Nir Peres, received rare praise from the High Court of Justice. In rejecting the suit against the occasional closure of the Gaza crossing points because of terror alerts, the justices, headed by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, ruled that the policy is "balanced and reasonable and concords with Israeli and international law." This is under normal conditions. It may not be enough if there are new images of IDF troops in the midst of civilian suffering. In that event, the definitive ruling will be that of President George Bush, not Beinisch.

An operation in Gaza, assuming it is not pre-empted by a surprise in another sector, will put Ashkenazi to his first test. Soon after the start of the war in Lebanon, when it emerged that GOC Northern Command Udi Adam was struggling, Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Kaplinsky suggested appointing Ashkenazi (or Amiram Levine) to a senior position at the front. Halutz refused, and the outcome is known. Now Ashkenazi will have to decide whether to exercise restraint and control the operation from Tel Aviv, or to kibitz at the shoulder of GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant.

In order to achieve diplomatic gains, and not only a military aim, a government that is both strong and moderate must be in place on the Palestinian side. The Americans seek to create such a regime through a reliable foundation of unified security forces to support Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas. Later, perhaps, an authoritative military leader would emerge who would bypass the opponents of peace with Israel. This mission has been assigned to U.S. Security Coordinator Lieutenant General Keith Dayton. His chances of success are about as good as those of his mission to locate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

The commander of the invasion of Iraq, General Tommy Franks, said recently that it is true that they didn't find a smoking gun in Iraq, but the dismantled gun was on Saddam Hussein's desk; had he wanted to, he could have assembled it and fired it. Dayton has a negligible chance of finding the Palestinian parts from which to assemble the desired PA administration. Therefore, it is expected that the difficult battle in the coming months will be just another link in the chain of Israel's violent encounters with Gaza.