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Army Faces Criticism After Foray in Gaza

TEL AVIV — Looking back on Operation Days of Repentance, the massive incursion into northern Gaza that ended with a troop pullback last weekend, Israel field commanders called the 17-day foray a resounding operational success. New and advanced techniques for fighting terrorists were shown off, and an efficient, newly unified system of command was implemented. There was virtually no interference from the international community, and the forces enjoyed almost wall-to-wall support inside Israel itself.

And yet, as the tanks and armored personnel carriers made their way back to their old lines, the prevalent feeling in the ranks was not of achievement but frustration. The stated goal of the operation was to end the firing of Qassam rockets on Israeli towns, yet the rockets continued to fall throughout the operation. And if the show of force was meant to pressure Palestinians into demanding a more responsible leadership in advance of Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza next year, that hope was set back when fighting broke out this week — the fiercest in memory — between rival Palestinian security forces under Musa Arafat and Muhammad Dahlan.

The chaos left many Israelis feeling as though nothing had been accomplished. “We’ll definitely be back here soon,” one soldier told Israel Radio as the troops pulled out.

In a way, the operation’s score-sheet is indicative of the complex situation in which the Israeli military finds itself after four years of war. It has developed new means of fighting under very difficult circumstances. Its use of intelligence, aerial forces and advanced technology in a so-called asymmetrical situation — facing a nonmilitary foe that uses civilian population for cover — is the most advanced the world ever has known. “I can honestly say no one in the world is doing what we’re doing in this situation,” a ranking air force officer told the Forward.

But the toll exacted by continuous fighting among civilians — both in deaths of Palestinians and in damage to Israel’s image — seemed to rise with each new day and each new disclosure about what the Israeli forces did in Gaza, intentionally or as collateral damage. One hundred and ten Palestinians were killed in the fighting, nearly half of them civilians by most estimates. The operation was launched in response to a September 29 rocket attack that killed two Israeli children in the Negev town of Sderot.

The fighting has given rise to a host of embarrassing revelations. Once of the most damaging was a report issued this week at a Jerusalem press conference by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Titled “Razing Rafah: Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip,” the report said that 298 Palestinian homes had been destroyed just in the month of May in Rafah, during Operation Rainbow in the Cloud. Since 2000, the report said, Israeli activities have left more than 16,000 Gaza Palestinians homeless, many with no discernable military justification. International law permits home demolitions only in the case of immediate military necessity. The evidence in Gaza, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth told the Forward, seems to point toward a deliberate policy, which “may eventually destroy a third of Rafah.”

Criticism also has been voiced from within. Four officers of the elite Shaldag unit, the special operations unit of the Israel Air Force, recently sent a stinging letter to the military chief of staff and the commander of the air force, decrying home demolitions and unnecessary targeting of civilians. The letter, reported this week in Maariv, condemned the military’s easing of the rules of engagement, the “quick trigger finger” shown in house demolitions and other acts that they saw as violations of the army’s code of ethics.

The four, all active duty unit commanders, indicated that they did not intend to refuse to serve in the territories, as previous groups of protesting air force pilots and elite unit fighters have done. However, they described the acts they had seen as a serious danger to the army’s moral stature. The four were not expected to face disciplinary action, and some senior officers told the press that the four had “done the right thing” in voicing their complaints.

In some recent incidents, the army’s response to criticism has prompted even more alarm than the initial charges themselves. Such was the case of a company commander in the Givati infantry brigade who was accused by his troops early this month of performing a “kill assertion” — firing at a presumed dead body to make sure that the person is indeed dead — on an unarmed 13-year-old Palestinian girl. The officer, some soldiers claimed, fired more than 20 rounds into the girl’s corpse, even though it was obvious that she presented no danger to his troops.

After the initial debriefing and an investigation by the chief of Southern Command, General Dan Harel, Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon issued a baffling statement. Among other things, he said he found the officer’s version of events, according to which he failed to determine who was firing on him, and therefore responded by firing a burst “into the ground” which hit the girl — to be credible. This raised widespread skepticism in the public and the press, since the soldiers’ charges had been reported widely. No such behavior had ever been reported before in any Israeli combat unit.

The credibility of the army, always a sensitive issue for Israelis, has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks because of the troops’ expected role in the evacuation of settlers from Gaza, if and when Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement plan is carried out. Growing numbers of rabbis of increasing stature have called on soldiers to disobey orders to dismantle settlements. The latest was a former chief rabbi, Abraham Shapira, who now heads the prestigious Mercaz Harav Yeshiva. The statements have prompted a furor among politicians and soldiers. Ya’alon, the chief of staff, declared in a speech in Ashkelon this week that refusal to obey military orders was “a danger to Zionism.”

Meanwhile, mounting pressure on Sharon raised questions as to his ability to implement the disengagement, currently the only plan on the table for Gaza’s future. A majority within the ruling Likud party favors submitting Sharon’s plan to a national referendum, which Sharon refuses to do. Dissenters forced him this week to accept a party task force to “study” the referendum idea, though it probably will not report back until after the plan comes before the Knesset on October 25. Still, the ability of the anti-disengagement rebels to impose the task force on Sharon was a humiliation that showed his growing isolation. His narrow victory in two no-confidence votes in the Knesset this week — one of them a 54-54 draw — only highlighted his vulnerability.

With the army stronger than ever and yet ever more frustrated, with the world community disengaged and more and more Israelis questioning their army’s tactics, Sharon enters the most crucial month of his reign. Few expected the wily old fox to lose, but nobody could offer a clear idea of how he would win.


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