TEL AVIV — Israel’s military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, has made no secret in the last year of his high regard for the newly installed chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. A little more than a year ago, Ya’alon went so far as to criticize his own government openly for failing to help Abbas during the Palestinian leader’s brief tenure as prime minister under Yasser Arafat.
And yet this week, just a few days into Abbas’s tenure as chairman, Ya’alon’s troops were poised to carry out a major operation in Gaza, one that could shake the feeble foundations of Abbas’s authority.
The reasons for the pending operation were painfully obvious as Ya’alon accompanied Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on an impromptu visit Tuesday to Israeli troops stationed in Gaza. Not far from the spot where Sharon and Mofaz were conferring with the troops, several hundred citizens of the Negev town of Sderot were staging a protest rally on a hill overlooking the border, demanding action against Palestinian attacks. Sderot lost three of its people in a suicide bombing at a border checkpoint the previous Thursday, a day-and-a-half before Abbas’s inauguration, and was suffering daily attacks by Qassam rockets launched from the northern Gaza village of Beit Hanun. The protesters, carrying a cardboard model of a Qassam, chanted, “How much longer must we bury our children?”
Their cry was made even more vivid by the news that Ella Abukasis, 17, wounded over the weekend by a Qassam rocket, had been pronounced brain dead hours earlier in a Beersheba hospital. The girl had been walking in Sderot with her 9-year-old brother Tamir on Saturday, when she heard a rocket coming and fell on him to protect him. She took shrapnel to the head.
Sharon’s visit, more photo op than study tour, reflected the prime minister’s aggressive mood these days — as well as his complicated circumstances. Defying army discipline, junior officers were openly facing television cameras to call for a massive bombardment of Palestinian towns whenever Israeli settlements are attacked, while reporters wondered aloud whether the army was planning what they called “Operation Defensive Shield II” — a reference to the massive operation in which the army reoccupied West Bank cities in April 2002.
As senior military sources were quick to note, however, Gaza is a totally different matter. It is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, making a major military operation an extremely sensitive matter. Even if an incursion went well, occupying Gaza for a prolonged period of time would be courting a humanitarian disaster.
Sharon, already accused by Gaza settlers of not responding strongly enough to the daily mortar attacks on their settlements — they claim he wants them to despair and give in to his disengagement plan — clearly felt he needed to take some sort of action. For the time being, he preferred talking: “You must do everything possible right now” to stop the Qassam rockets, he instructed the commanders, without specifying what “everything possible” actually entailed. Ya’alon laid out a list of options for Sharon, ranging from a major sweep to pinpoint actions. Officers told reporters afterward that the prime minister seemed inclined to delay major action for a few more days, apparently to give Abbas more time to act.
The Cabinet voted to confirm that approach Wednesday, ordering the army to prepare for large-scale operations if rocket fire continues.
Israel already has carried out several anti-Qassam operations, most notably last fall’s Operation Days of Penitence. The 18-day operation included taking over parts of Beit Hanun and other towns, and wholesale house demolitions. At the time, senior officers admitted that part of the damage was intended “to teach the Palestinians a lesson” and to spark anger among the local citizens toward the Qassam-firing terrorists. Three months later, the deterrence is seen as a failure. It is not yet clear whether the army has any new ideas.
Most military officials interviewed this week sounded less gung ho than before, at least privately. “This is a complicated situation, in which it is better not to give up to your emotions,” one officer told journalists on condition of anonymity. “The easiest thing to do is to launch massive operations, but wouldn’t we be doing exactly what the terrorists want us to do? After all, what we are seeking is the beginning of stability, not mass destruction.”
The differences in tone do not necessarily indicate, however, that Sharon is pushing the army to act and the officers are wary. Both sides are playing out familiar roles, honed over the past four years. The politicians want the public to know they are doing everything they can to protect them, while the generals don’t want to appear as though they are pushing Israel toward war. The problem for both sides is that nobody knows what to do next.
Meanwhile, the attackers themselves — Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives in Gaza — were perfectly plain about their intentions. A few hours after Sharon left, Abbas himself came to Gaza for talks with leaders of these organizations on his proposed cease-fire. The terrorists greeted him with an attack on an Israeli installation. Two hours after Abbas arrived, a suicide bomber attacked an Israeli checkpoint near Gush Katif settlement bloc, killing a Shin Bet agent and wounding six soldiers. If Hamas and Islamic Jihad do indeed want to draw Israel back into Gaza, they seem very close to achieving their goal — and with it the possible downfall of Abbas.