The Wrong Way to Fight Terrorism

The IDF is held captive by empty rhetoric, and no one is willing to stand up and shout that this rhetoric is false. To paraphrase the words of Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, perhaps it is necessary to sear the understanding into the chief of staff's consciousness that this is not the way.

The army is trapped in a fossilized way of thinking as it wages an inappropriate campaign - one that has not only brought dubious achievements, but that is heading for disaster. Nothing demonstrates it more clearly than an Israel Defense Forces unit, backed by tanks, bulldozers and assault helicopters, blundering into a crowded refugee camp for the sole purpose of arresting one wanted man and destroying his family's home.

Saturday night's IDF operation in the Al-Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip predictably ran into complications and led to heavy fighting that ended with a missile once again being fired from a helicopter, killing 10 Palestinians and wounding 20. It was simply one more proof of the folly of trying to attempt to "vanquish" terror with large forces - a tactic destined for failure from the start.

This is especially true when military operations take place in the heart of heavily populated areas. That is what happened in Al-Bureij, and it is what happened in October in Khan Yunis when a large IDF force entered a heavily populated area to arrest two wanted Hamas terrorists. The two eluded arrest, but 16 Palestinians were killed and about 100 were wounded when the soldiers came under fire and their commander requested support from a helicopter. It fired a missile at a large crowd of Palestinians standing in the plaza outside the neighborhood mosque.

Wanted men do not sit at home and wait for the IDF. Thus in most operations of this sort, the only result is the death of yet more Palestinian civilians. One sometimes gets the impression that the IDF is not disturbed by the death of innocent civilians, or by the long-term effect that a policy that leads to such deaths has on support for terrorism.

The deaths of women and children during IDF operations against wanted men has become routine, to the point that not only has the army ceased to apologize for such deaths, but this week a senior officer was even quoted, in response to the civilian deaths in Al-Bureij, as saying that "a large number of casualties has deterrent value."

Nothing could be either more immoral or farther from the truth. And in this manner, teenage boys hit by IDF fire become "people of an age to be fighters," and therefore deserving of death, while known Hamas activists become legitimate targets even if they are unarmed.

No less serious is the fact that the IDF has begun to send distorted messages, creating the danger that commanders will start to believe that the fighting actually is putting an end to terror.

Thus immediately after the operation in Khan Yunis, the commander of the IDF forces in the Gaza Strip, Brigadier General Yisrael Ziv, declared that it was "definitely successful ... We knew that an operation inside a Hamas bastion would entail fighting and casualties, and our assessment was that the crowded conditions were liable to lead to the possibility of innocents being hurt as well."

Anyone who wants to understand the conceptual basis for IDF operations in the territories should peruse a slim booklet published last year under the title "Limited Wars." Written by a reserve colonel named Shmuel Nir, it has become the IDF's bible. The book is certainly an interesting attempt to define the nature of limited war against irregular forces by examining similar conflicts in other countries.

The problem is that the IDF is trying to translate general theoretical principles into operational language without examining the degree of correlation between the theory and the experiences of the United States, or Britain or France, on the one hand, and the conditions relevant to the fight against Palestinian terror on the other.

Thus we are witnessing the frequent use of expressions taken from this book - but sometimes devoid of real content. Among others, senior officers speak of "fatigue," "fundamental asymmetry," "deflecting the asymmetry," "the battle over public awareness," "victory in the realm of public awareness" and "moving the battle into the realm of public awareness."

Most worrying of all is that the operations in Khan Yunis and Al-Bureij are only the beginning. Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon has already made it clear that there will be no choice but to effect a conquest of the Gaza Strip, similar to what the IDF has done in the West Bank.

Senior officers say that "a major operation in Gaza is only a matter of time." One can assume that had Israel not concluded that such an operation would spark criticism, and perhaps worse, from the U.S., this conquest would already have happened some time ago. It must be understood that compared to invading Gaza, the many operations involving heavy casualties that the IDF has conducted there to date will seem like a stroll by the seaside. And all for the sake of achieving what?

The IDF conquered the West Bank eight months ago. Its presence there has not decreased the number of terror attacks and warnings of planned attacks, but it has significantly worsened the conflict with the Palestinian public. Curfews, numerous casualties and the wholesale destruction of houses do not vanquish terror.

And after the IDF conquers the Gaza Strip, what next? It is highly doubtful that anyone in the top ranks of the army truly believes that IDF soldiers sitting in Gaza City or Khan Yunis will put an end to terror. But the IDF is held captive by empty rhetoric, and no one is willing to stand up and shout that this rhetoric is false. To paraphrase the words of Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, perhaps it is necessary to sear the understanding into the chief of staff's consciousness that this is not the way.