Israel's Military Conundrum

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MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP

Israeli tanks leave the West Bank town of Bethlehem late October 28

Lt.Gen. Shaul Mofaz sat before a closed-door meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week to brief lawmakers on Israel's military operations deep inside six West Bank towns that are supposed to be under the control of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Unlike the strong condemnation of Israel's violent incursions voiced by the Bush administration, Mofaz found some at the Knesset secret hearing urging him to take the army he heads further into the Palestinian towns.

"Finally we've gone on the offensive," said Yuval Steinitz, a committee member from the Likud Party, "but it's a mistake to have this operation limited by political considerations." Mofaz sat quietly. He knew many of his officers felt the same way.

Within Israel's army, just as on the right-wing of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet, there's a substantial body of opinion that believes the tanks and troops that spent last week deep in Palestinian territory won't halt terrorist attacks against Israelis. Under pressure from the U.S., which wants quiet in the West Bank so it can preserve some degree of cooperation from Muslim states in its Afghanistan campaign, Israel said it would pull out of the towns as soon as Arafat's security forces would agree to fill the void. But the army doesn't believe Arafat truly will do that, no matter what he promises. Meanwhile, the army has been limited to heavy-handed operations that have left a lot of destruction, but failed precisely to target suspected terrorists, for the most part.

"Withdrawal from the cities will definitely return the situation to the way it was, namely, more attacks," said Amos Malka, the head of military intelligence. "I have to say that the next terror attacks are on the way."

Army sources say that Malka's criticism of the cabinet's plans for a gradual withdrawal from the Palestinian towns was probably coordinated with Mofaz and was intended to pressure Sharon not to pull the troops out. The chief of staff can't make a statement like that right now; two weeks ago, he was dressed down by Sharon for criticizing the government's instructions to the army in a press release. But army discontent with the politicians is growing. Sharon's circle believe Mofaz, whose terms as army chief ends next summer, is buffing his tough guy image for an entry into politics. But senior army officers say there's genuine concern that Sharon and his cabinet are forcing the army into an impossible situation.

Sharon needs to show Israelis that he's hitting back at the Palestinians, after the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi two weeks ago by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But truly cutting the power of the Palestinian militias would require putting special units in harm's way. So far, Sharon has been reluctant to risk casualties, preferring to keep his men largely encased in armor. In any case, he's conducting a military campaign with an eye on Washington and his own dovish Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Some in the army would like to hit the Palestinians harder. Others, who don't, fear that they'll end up having to do so, just because ineffective operations like last week's incursions fritter away the Palestinian awe for Israel's military might. By using tanks last week, Israeli officers say, the next time Israel goes into the Palestinian towns it'll have to do so with even more force. That's an ugly prospect: in the last week, 29 Palestinian civilians and 13 policemen died either in gunfights with Israeli soldiers or when they were caught by loose rounds. "The whole operation was dictated from above, but we'll start to pay the price of being inside these towns," says a senior Israeli officer. "We'll make mistakes in protecting ourselves and mistakes by killing civilians."

The only successes Israel could point to last week didn't come thanks to the tanks that rolled almost as far as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and fought gunbattles with Palestinian militiamen. Instead, it was small undercover units that made a series of successful snatches. Sources in the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service tell Time that officers from the Jerusalem police's "Gidonim" undercover unit nabbed Mahmed Rimawi, one of the gang that killed Ze'evi, from a hideout in the hostile Kalandia refugee camp. Another undercover team found a second member of the hit squad, Salah Alawi, hiding under a car outside his house in Azzariyeh, on the edge of Jerusalem. And in the West Bank village of Doura, the "Yamas Ayosh" undercover unit of the Border Police snatched Yusef Tabeishi, an Islamic Jihad activist Israel says was involved in several terror attacks. In all three cases, senior officers say they'll be able to extract valuable intelligence under interrogation.

These are also the kinds of operations that usually don't rub the Bush administration the wrong way. When Israel tries to nab suspects with a larger force, it doesn't look so good from Washington's viewpoint. In fact, it looks little different from the big operations in the major Palestinian towns. Israel sent tanks and troops to the village of Beit Rima, north of Ramallah, last week, because it believed one of Ze'evi's killers may have taken refuge with his relatives there. Palestinian gunmen resisted and five were killed. In the end, neither of the two assassins still on the run were found. At least one of them fled to Bethlehem, the Shin Bet now believes. But an angry Secretary of State Colin Powell demanded Israel's immediate withdrawal from Beit Rima and has pressed Sharon not to push into any more Palestinian towns.

The Bush administration's concern is that pictures of Israeli tanks on Arab satellite television stations will only inflame opinions already simmering after more than a year of the Aqsa Intifadeh. The U.S. is already seen by Arabs as a biased backer of Israel, so the tanks won't help ease the qualms Muslims feel about the bombing of Afghanistan. In fact, it may be too late. After Israeli troops first moved into the Palestinian towns, Ronald Schlicher, the U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem, went to Sheik Ikrima Sabri, the chief Muslim cleric in the city, to gauge public opinion on the Afghanistan airstrikes. "People are angry at America and they'll react against you," Sabri said. "America should stop being on the side of Israel."

At the Doha Mosque in Bethlehem last week, the imam broadcast a blaring message through the loudspeakers on the minaret: "We are all Osama bin Laden." Washington has a tough job to turn down the volume. — With Reporting by Aharon Klein/Jerusalem and Jamil Hamad/A-Ram