Mired in the Muqata

If an action is to succeed, it must have a `low signature' - a military trait that makes it possible to evade detection and not create the kind of noise that attracts attention and thus assists the target under attack.

The British diplomat turned so red he seemed to be having a stroke. "You have to get out of there," he shouted, waving a finger at the nose of Aharon Yaakov, the deputy to the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. "You have to get out of there immediately." There was a palpable sense of embarrassment among the occupants of the elevator in the UN building in New York. The members of the legal team that Israel sent to New York to try to moderate the powers being granted to the commission that was to investigate the events of the Jenin refugee camp looked at each other and said nothing.

That was half a year ago, in the midst of the battle over the mooted UN commission of inquiry into the Israeli army's actions in Jenin - a battle that had to be fought due to a blunder by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and which ended with a one-man show by a major general of the Israeli army. He pulled some strings in Washington and persuaded Terje Larsen, the Middle East envoy of Secretary- General Kofi Annan, to explain the facts to his boss. In that affair, too, there was a strange disconnection between the political level and the army, though what began badly ended reasonably well - the opposite of what happened at the Muqata, the headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in Ramallah, which the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) invaded and then hastily left under American pressure.

The chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon, frequently tells officers that they have to learn "to live with frustration": Not everything succeeds, not every wanted individual is apprehended, not every terrorist attack is prevented. Sharon is incapable of living with frustration; Arafat drives him up the wall.

Even though Major General Aharon Farkash Ze'evi, the director of Military Intelligence, devoted nearly 30 years to learning the mistakes made by Eli Zeira - who headed MI in 1973 during the period preceding the Yom Kippur War - to ensure that he would not repeat them, he still found himself cast in Zeira's role in the Muqata episode. It made no difference that Farkash-Ze'evi was out of the country when the decisions were made: He was blamed for misreading the adversary, in this case, U.S. President George W. Bush. The research division of MI, like the other bodies in the intelligence community, failed to give Washington's anticipated objections their proper weight in the equation.

The heads of MI, the General Staff Planning Branch and the Mossad espionage agency can give themselves a barely passing grade in the multiple-choice test - which, incidentally, in Hebrew is called, aptly in this instance, an "American test." (Actually, the correct choice - the administration's displeasure - was mentioned, but no one thought it would reach the intensity it did.) A retired senior officer has noted that "the person responsible in Baghdad for assessing whether Bush will attack is not the director of Military Intelligence, it is Saddam Hussein himself." In Israel, it is the prime minister who holds the American portfolio when it comes to dialogue and assessment; it is he - and his sidekick as the diplomatic evaluator, Shimon Peres - who is responsible for working out the equation that will produce an accurate evaluation of Bush's position.

Sharon, a graduate of the Jenin affair who in the past heard Bush say more than once that the IDF had to leave Palestinian areas "without delay," was too complacent this time. As one who is supposed to be personally coordinated with Bush ahead of the strike against Saddam, Sharon did not grasp how tenaciously the administration is preparing for the campaign and how insistent it is on brushing aside every nuisance factor.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, also very late, adopted the right metaphor when he spoke about the "countdown" having begun: The rocket is already on the launch pad, the astronauts are strapped into their seats, all systems are go, the effort is concentrated, and if there are no hitches that necessitate stopping the countdown, the world will be witness to the noisy blast-off within two weeks to two months.

The initial mistake - the leveling of the Muqata with highly photogenic bulldozers - wouldn't have been all that serious if the operation had been planned as a quick raid and not as an engineering settlement. That was the IDF's mistake, a mistake of which Sharon is the chief fomenter. Since he led the reprisal raids in the 1950s, the drill that the Paratroops instilled in the army hasn't changed: If contact is made - charge. That is an intelligent guideline for executing the mission and reducing the number of casualties, but it lacks the finishing touch: If you're stuck - back off. Neither the IDF nor the government that gives it orders has learned how to pull back before getting bogged down. And when that happens, the decisive factor is external: It is Washington that decides how much room for maneuver Israel has.

If Sharon had rammed through his position and brought about Arafat's expulsion a week ago, the Security Council, with American acceptance, would have humiliated him by forcing him to allow Arafat back. That is an entirely different matter from the issue of the targeted assassinations, most recently the attempt aimed at the bomb-builder Mohammed Def: Like a policeman writing a ticket for a traffic offense, the administration spokesmen no-noed "the use of heavy weapons in an urban area."

In a fascinating book that was published this week about the IDF's first "mista'aravim" units - the undercover men who disguise themselves as Arabs and mingle with the local Arab population in enemy territory - Gamliel Cohen, who was one of them, describes the planning of "personal" and serial liquidation, and also "mass liquidation." One of the ideas that was raised (and rejected, he says) involved poisoning wells in the Gaza Strip.

Operation "Zarzir," to assassinate Palestinian, Lebanese and other Arab leaders, was then on the fringes of the war against the Arab armies. Now the IDF has reached the conclusion that a massive campaign involving armored divisions, mainly against the Syrian army, is not so close and that the right thing to do is to concentrate on the war in the territories. This is not the trailer for the Syrian movie: This is the movie itself. Failure in the territories, as against Hezbollah in Lebanon, will encourage the Syrians, and not only them, to try their luck. So the thing to do is to direct resources to the present, which has implications for the future.

That is the situation in the land army, and to some degree in the air force, which is deploying for Iraq. In an internal memorandum for the air force, the head of its operations research branch, Lieutenant Colonel Eitan Yisraeli, wrote this month that if until recently Israel's air power has been built on the basis of heavy warfare scenarios, while in the territories "whatever is available" was used, it is now clear that force-building has to be tailored to the scale of the territories: data collection, especially from unmanned aircraft; precision munitions; rapid transition from collection of information to attack; and the diversified use of attack helicopters, which were originally intended to be use against tanks (though the development of new rockets for them, for attacking vehicles instead of destroying tanks, will also assist in attacks on rocket-launchers).

The civilian environment of the attack targets in the territories, Yisraeli emphasizes, obliges the development of "munitions of low risk for causing damage to the surrounding area and defining new indices for examining the precision and spray effect" of rockets and bombs. In regular warfare, it is enough to calculate the circle within which half the munitions will have an effect; in the territories, the military planner has to consider a circle in which nine out of 10 warheads will hit and only one will miss. In attacks in the territories, if the choice is "between Bomb A, which is generally accurate but with a fairly high percentage of large misses, and Bomb B, which is less accurate but never has large misses," Bomb B will usually be chosen.

If an action is to succeed, it must have a "low signature" - a military trait that makes it possible to evade detection and not create the kind of noise that attracts attention and thus assists the target under attack. Which is exactly what Sharon forgot on the way to Arafat.

Victory, the seed of failure

On September 13, 1973, the Israel Air Force lost a Mirage plane and downed 12 Syrian MiG-21s. This turned out to be not only the biggest dogfight ever outside a war framework, but also one of Israel's costliest victories. So impressive was it that it deceived ranking Israeli officials into believing that Syrian military moves opposite the Golan Heights front were intended only to prepare a response to defeat, as distinct from all-out war. Even when Jordan's King Hussein met secretly with Israel's prime minister at the time, Golda Meir, less than two weeks later, and told her that in his view, "the Syrian army is ready and prepared to open fire at any time" and was liable to attack, possibly with Egyptian cooperation - according to the official version in "The History of the Yom Kippur War" by the IDF's history department - the chief of staff, David Elazar, reassured defense minister Moshe Dayan: "There is no basic change in the situation appraisal: Syria will not attack alone, and there are signs that `no war is afoot' of Syria and Egypt together, though we cannot rule out the possibility of a local operation in reaction to the downing of the Syrian planes."

Now it turns out, according to the IAF's publication of a chapter from a book that was written for it by Major Motti Habakuk, that the entire course of events - instead of an "acceptable" Syrian loss, the infliction of a defeat that generated an illusion - was caused by the rashness of an Israeli pilot. Four Phantom aircraft were sent on an aerial photography mission (code-named "Don Juan 9") over northern Syria. They were escorted, in different sectors, by 14 interceptors: six Phantoms and eight Mirages. When the Syrians scrambled MiGs to shoot down the Phantoms on the mission, a dogfight developed in which five Syrian planes were downed.

However, contrary to instructions, the second plane in one of the Mirage foursomes, from the Ramat David base, immediately jettisoned his detachable fuel tank in order to maneuver better in combat. The pilot split off from the formation and set off full-blast in pursuit of a pair of MiGs, ignoring the warning light of an imminent fuel shortage. Finally, without speed, fuel or the cover of another plane, he was shot down by a rocket fired from a MiG-21. As a result, another three Syrian planes were shot down, bringing the total to eight. The pilot ejected safely and parachuted to the ground four kilometers south of the Syrian port city of Tartus. The Syrians tried to take him prisoner, sending a boat with cover provided by aircraft. They encountered Israeli Phantoms, which were sent to protect the rescue mission. Thus another four MiGs were shot down, bringing the total to an even dozen.

"The desire to down a MiG - at what price?" Habakuk asks. It's the kind of question that sometimes crops up through the veils of myths, a case in point being Gideon Dror, today a pilot in Boeing 777 aircraft of El Al, who was taken prisoner in Iraq after an IAF attack on the H-3 airfield in western Iraq, as related here two weeks ago.

A light rain of missiles

For more than a decade, Uzi Rubin was one of the major figures in the project to defend Israel against missiles, known as "Homa" (wall), which combines Arrow missiles with radar systems for detection, command and control, and interception. The State of Israel has not yet recognized the role played by Rubin and his colleagues in reducing the risks to the civilian population - so far, only foreigners, such as the reliable journal Aviation Week, have acknowledged this. At a time when skeptics were whining over the resources being diverted to the Homa project, Rubin was one of the prophets of its success.

The question posed by the poet - "Does the fisherman love fish?" - is especially complex in his connection. There are some missiles he likes, which are manufactured by Israel, among them those he believes will hit missiles that he doesn't like: those that will be launched from Iraq. Rubin is due to retire in less than two months. If Bush moves fast, Rubin will be able to observe how far his expectations will be realized, as Scuds explode in the air, at least one of every two, when hit by Arrows. That success will have a further implication: It will jolt other hostile states, which have invested heavily in systems of surface-to-surface missiles, and therefore will advance their forced acceptance of Israel's existence.

A few years ago, Rubin and his colleague in the defense establishment, Ariel Levite, published a comparative study on the lethal damage that missiles wreak. The average is about two people killed per missile, far less than the rate of victims in a suicide bombing in Israel. In World War II, the Germans rained down 1,115 rockets and V-2s on London, killing 2,700 people. In the Yom Kippur War, three Scud missiles that the Egyptians' Soviet advisers fired at an IDF outpost on the west bank of the Suez Canal killed six Israeli soldiers. Libya fired two similar missiles between Malta and Italy in response to the American bombing of Tripoli, in 1986, and missed. In 1991, Iraq fired 80 missiles at Israel, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. They caused 30 deaths, almost all of them American soldiers, who died when a missile struck their barracks. Three years later, in the civil war in Yemen, some 10 missiles killed 30 civilians.

The only deviation from these numbers, up to an average of 13 killed per missile, was recorded in a missile duel in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s: 150 Iraqi missiles killed about 2,000 residents of Tehran. Rubin and Levite therefore examined the differences between the different targets, in Israel and Iran, that were hit by Iraqi missiles. Their conclusion is consoling in terms of the next war, including the use of Iranian Shehab missiles. Tel Aviv and Haifa are problematic targets for missiles fired from the east, as they are built longitudinally and are less densely populated - metropolitan Tel Aviv about half, and Haifa even less - than the Iranian capital.

The U.S. Air Force did not destroy the missile-launchers in 1991, but did force them to operate at night, when the streets, schools and places of work were empty. Thanks to satellites, Israel had a three-minute warning from the time the missiles were launched - there will now be a six-minute warning - enabling public places to be emptied and giving people time to take shelter and put on protective gear. And if there are no casualties, there will not necessarily be escalation (even though one can doubt the seriousness of Sharon's declaration that Israel will not respond if Iraqi missiles cause no deaths: That statement was commissioned by Washington, but in wartime, the instinct for reprisal and the desire to repair Israeli deterrence will mount).

So we can expect only a light shower of missiles, a weak and passing trickle - not a flood. But the flood metaphor characterizes the home-based systems most in demand today as protection against chemical and biological warfare in the rooms that are qualified to serve as a protected space. They are manufactured by Beit-El Industries in Zichron Yaakov; the owners are Germans who support Israel, seeking to atone for the sins of their forbears. The marketing firm is called Noah's Ark and the filter system to keep out chemical and biological agents is dubbed "Rainbow." All that's missing is the dove, which is supposed to take wing after it's all over and jiggle the olive branch in the mouths of Sharon and Arafat.

The list of Noah's Ark's clients, in pairs, include the IDF and the Defense Ministry, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Biological Research Institute, hospitals and airports, and others.

This is the open list, which is encouraging in itself. More intriguing, however, is the classified list, which exists due to commercial obligations to privacy: public figures and the wealthy, who have bought themselves protection to be installed in the basements of their villas, against Saddam's germs. According to an informed conjecture, they include ministers with a declared ambition to become prime minister and also one or more of the club of former prime ministers (a bet: not Yitzhak Shamir). They adore the public, love to mingle with the people - at weddings of party functionaries, in the Moroccans' Mimouna celebrations and the Kurds' Saharana festivities. And you can be sure they will be delighted to host every guest who shows up at their private sukka bunker. Personal invitations will not be sent.

Son of `bolt out of the blue'

The Shai (acronym for Samaria and Judea) police district was established eight years ago in order to increase the number of ranking officers in the force. Anyone who thinks that a general is ousted after a failure doesn't know security organizations: The right response on their part is to add another general. Nor is failure a necessary prelude to this; it can be done without any apparent reason (a strange initiative to award a personal rank to the deputy military advocate general, Colonel Ilan Katz, recently caused a flap in the IDF and was temporarily halted). However, the more serious the hitch, the easier it becomes to cite reasons for a reorganization that entails promotions. After the disturbances on the Temple Mount in 1990, it was found that the police had performed so poorly that they needed two new officers with the rank of major general, one for the Jerusalem District (which until then had a police brigadier general as its chief) and another for the "operational headquarters" of the minister of police. Later, an intelligence branch was added, also under the command of a police major general. The success of the new headquarters and the intelligence branch was proved over and over, especially in the riots of October 2000.

The creation of the Shai District was obligated by the report of the commission of inquiry, headed by the president of the Supreme Court, Meir Shamgar, that investigated the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein in the mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, in February 1994, in which 20 Muslim worshipers were killed. Until the Shamgar report, Hebron was part of the Judea region in the Negev District. The Shai District is divided into the Hebron region (which is responsible also for the Gush Etzion settlement bloc), the Samaria region, and autonomous police stations in the Binyamin region and in the West Bank urban settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim.

There are about 250 policemen in Hebron, about a fifth of whom are stationed at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in sentry and patrol duty - also in the Jewish Quarter of Hebron - and as "keepers of the tomb." The commander of the tomb site is Superintendent Uri Yoren, the chief of the region is Commander Eli Zamir, and the chief of the Border Police in Hebron is Commander Sayah Azi. In Central Command, the Border Police units are subordinate to the army and not the police.

These are data that should be filed for a sky-blue day. Because it was on just such a day that Goldstein, a physician and officer wearing an IDF uniform, cut down the Muslim worshipers. The chief of staff at the time, Ehud Barak, explained that it was a "bolt" out of the blue that was so unexpected that no one should be held responsible for the consequences.

Next week, the police of the Hebron region will start to prepare for another sky-blue day. The circumstances are potential revenge acts by settlers for murderous attacks by Palestinians. The venue, again, is the Tomb of the Patriarchs; the time, at high risk, is next month, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Shin Bet is already aware of the threat, while sources in the Shai District said this week that Commander Zamir and the commander of the IDF's Hebron Brigade, Colonel Dror Weinberg, are scheduled to meet to consider the concern about a possible new Goldstein. Something of that concern has already been made known to Weinberg, and perhaps also to his superiors in the IDF.

Awareness of a potential attack being plotted by Israelis is not a guarantee that it can be successfully thwarted - after all, the Shin Bet's analysis of the method of operation of the squad that places bombs in Palestinian schools has not prevented the perpetrators from eluding that security service. The squad is thought to use a vehicle, possibly a commercial vehicle, with Israeli license plates (which may be switched to Palestinian plates just before the target is reached, but which are then switched back for the withdrawal), which easily gets through IDF checkpoints on the way back into Israel. For some reason, no one has bothered to order the soldiers at the checkpoints to take down the license numbers of all the vehicles leaving the territories in the predawn hours when traffic is very light.

If a Palestinian had murdered dozens of Israelis and was then killed by other Israelis on the scene, the Shin Bet would not allow his son to enter Israel for work, for fear he might want to emulate his father or avenge his death. Such caution is necessary only in the Palestinian context and not on the other side, because in Israel the state is subject to Basic Laws that ensure equality. The chief of staff's advocacy of the principle of equality does not extend to calling up those who shirk military service on religious pretexts (Moshe Ya'alon makes do with a utilitarian explanation about the manpower distress in the army) - but in the name of the sacrosanct equality principle, Baruch Goldstein's son was admitted to a pilots training course in the air force. The IDF is ready to invest $2.5 million in him - the cost of training a combat pilot - and in another three-and-a-half or four years, if he excels, he will be able to fly an F-15-I, known as "Bolt" in the air force, and head into the clear blue sky on a bombing mission.