TEL AVIV — As Israeli soldiers battled through Gaza this week to retrieve the mutilated remains of six fallen comrades, politicians and field commanders quietly were saying the fighting would prove to be a turning point. As the killing continued for a third day, it was now just a matter of time before Israel was forced out of Gaza by its own public opinion.
Israelis reacted in horror and rage to the televised images of Hamas terrorists displaying body parts from a Givati Brigade unit blown to bits on Tuesday when their armored personnel carrier drove over an explosive charge. The images, broadcast on the Arabic-language Al-Jazeera cable network, touched off an outcry, with politicians on the left calling for Prime Minister Sharon to resign and those on the right demanding an all-out war on the Palestinian Authority.
But for many ordinary Israelis, both in and out of uniform, the images brought back bitter memories of Israel’s ill-fated “security zone” in southern Lebanon. In particular, Israelis recalled a 1997 naval commando raid that ended in disaster, leaving 12 soldiers dead. Afterward, as Israelis fumed, Hezbollah fighters boastfully displayed a soldier’s body parts on video. The incident is now seen as a turning point in Israeli public opinion toward Lebanon, beginning the groundswell of protest that culminated in Prime Minister Ehud Barak unilaterally withdrawing Israeli troops in 2000.
In private conversations this week, politicians from both sides of the aisle were making explicit analogies between Lebanon and Gaza. “This may bring about a new version of the Four Mothers,” one ranking political figure told the Forward, referring to the civilian protest movement that led the calls for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. A source close to Prime Minister Sharon made the same point, saying Gaza was now a “second Lebanon.”
Sharon convened a brief security cabinet meeting Tuesday evening, mainly to discuss the immediate crisis: the Hamas’ statement that bodies would be returned only if Israel negotiated for them. The Cabinet decided it would not negotiate and instead keep the army in Gaza’s Zeitun district until all bodies were returned, but by Wednesday Israeli media were reporting that a deal involving Egypt and the Palestinian Authority was in the works.
The Cabinet also vowed to exact revenge on those involved in the mutilation of bodies. “We will get to each of them,” said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, echoing a similar vow — carried out successfully — to apprehend the Palestinians deemed responsible for the November 2000 mob killing of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah.
The Cabinet scarcely discussed Israel’s response to the incident itself. Little enthusiasm greeted a call — almost routine by now — by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to exile Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat. “He will become the guest of honor at every capital,” retorted Justice Minister Yosef Lapid.
The original operation in Gaza was nothing out of the ordinary for the army and the elite Givati Brigade in particular. For two years Givati troops have regularly carried out similar raids, aimed either at destroying terrorist infrastructure or at forcing armed Palestinians out of hiding so they could be shot. “You have to act to get them out of their holes,” a senior Israeli officer had told the Forward a day earlier.
This time, though, the results were vastly different. After troops spotted and destroyed several workshops used for production of Kassam rockets — which are fired daily at the settlements in Gaza and across the border into Israel — a decision was made to withdraw at daybreak so as to avoid daylight fighting. As the forces made their way on a narrow road, a large explosive charge, detonated from afar, was set off under an armored personnel carrier.
As bad luck would have it, the vehicle belonged to the brigade’s combat engineering company and carried more than 250 pounds of explosives. The dual effect of the charges outside and inside the vehicle blew it to pieces, together with the six soldiers riding it. In a moment, a routine — and successful — military operation was turned into what senior officers now termed “a possible turning point” in the war.
For Israelis, the emotional impact of the attack, the deadliest in two years of fighting, was heightened by the images of Hamas fighters who gathered the scattered parts of the Israeli bodies into plastic bags and brandished them for film crews. Israeli troops responded by sweeping back into the impoverished Zeitun section to search for the soldiers’ remains, resulting in fierce fighting that left at least eight Palestinians and five Israeli soldiers dead by Wednesday.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed joint responsibility for the operation, calling it part of their revenge for the killing last month of the Hamas leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The Palestinian Authority urged Hamas to refrain from broadcasting the body-parts video and to return the remains, but few on either side took notice.
To illustrate the possible effect of six soldiers’ deaths on future Israeli plans in Gaza, political observers again cited the Lebanon analogy. In the final years of the Israeli military’s 18-year stay in the security zone — and especially after Barak’s 1999 statement that, if elected, he would withdraw by July 2000 — the army initiated an undeclared policy of restraint. “It is better to come out of a clash winning 2-to-0 than 10-to-2,” was the common phrase among army operations planners, referring to the number of casualties on both sides. Military strategists came to recognize that the number of dead Hezbollah fighters meant little to the Israeli public. Rather, the number of Israelis killed in action meant everything, even if the enemy suffered much heavier losses.
The growing opposition back home to Israel’s presence in Lebanon was echoed within the army in the phrase, “Nobody wants to be the last soldier killed in Lebanon.” Now, officers warn, a similar dynamic may be taking over in Gaza. Ever since Sharon declared his intention to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza, field officers have been warning among themselves of the approaching moment when similar phrases would be heard among their troops. The tragic events of the Zeitun raid may have brought that moment considerably closer.