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When Victory Is No Victory at All

It is typical of the prolonged, ambiguous war between Israel and the Palestinians that no one can really say who prevails at a certain point in time. To some strategists, the important issue is who appears to be winning. “Let us project victory,” was the sound advice given once by Brigadier General Eival Gilady, former head of the strategic planning department of the Israeli army. But even this has turned out to be difficult.

Every observer seeking to pass judgment on this seemingly simple issue — after all, in wars there usually are winners and losers — does so not only at his or her own risk, but also based on his or her own political views. So it was that conservative pundits in Washington were declaring Israeli victory long before anyone in Israel was willing to do the same. And so it is now with Israeli journalists.

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit, in crowning Shin Bet security service chief Avi Dichter as man of the year, claimed that Israel’s victory over terrorism extends far beyond its borders. Dichter and the rest of Israel’s security establishment — army chief of staff General Moshe Ya’alon, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Prime Minister Sharon — “showed that a first-world country can withstand an all-out vicious suicide assault from a Third World country,” Shavit wrote.

Within a week, his pronouncement and others like it were sounding ridiculous, as Hamas mounted a series of deadly attacks and the Israeli army found itself dragged, once again, into the quagmire that is Gaza. Right now, just three weeks into the new Jewish year, Israeli victory over terrorism seems as distant as the withdrawal from Gaza that Sharon has vowed to implement right after the victory.

This is what victory for Israel looked like as the new year opened. Two children, aged 2 and 4, children of Ethiopian immigrants, died in the Negev town of Sderot on September 29 from the blast of a Qassam rocket, apparently a much-improved version of the near-harmless, homemade Palestinian projectiles of the past three years. A resident of Nisanit, a settlement in the northern part of Gaza, was gunned down the same day while jogging outside the settlement’s fence. And two Israeli soldiers were killed in Hamas attacks.

In response, the Israeli army launched a wide-scale operation in northern Gaza, entering Beit Hanoun and the teeming Jabalya refugee camp. Eighty Palestinians were killed in the first six days of the operation, the most extensive since Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002. B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, said 31 of the dead were innocent bystanders; the army said the number of noncombatant deaths was far lower, but they did not give a figure.

The aim of the operation, code-named “Days of Repentance,” was to take control of possible Qassam launch sites, eliminate terrorist cells and pressure the Palestinian population into shutting down the rocket launchers. But many Israelis saw it simply as an act of revenge, echoing a widely held view about last May’s Operation Rainbow Cloud in southern Gaza, which followed the deaths of 13 Israeli soldiers in two days.

Mofaz himself spoke out against such a view, publicly insisting that the Israeli army “isn’t an avenging force.” Ya’alon said the army’s plan was to operate “until there are no rockets in Sderot,” through “clean, surgical operations, hitting the terrorists and not those who are not involved.”

But the leaders’ words seemed to many Israelis to ring hollow in the face of the heavy fire, the mounting Palestinian casualties and most of all the continued rocket fire, which went on right under the army’s nose in the midst of the incursion.

Israel seemed implicitly to acknowledge the operation’s limited usefulness as a preventive measure when it was reported Tuesday to be negotiating with the Palestinian Authority — indirectly, through third parties — for a promise to end the rocket fire.

Of greater concern to most Israelis, the army’s need to push ever deeper into Gaza seemed to show the difficulties Israel will face as it prepares to implement Sharon’s disengagement plan. “The [Israeli army] would have to conquer the strip in order to evacuate it,” wrote Ha’aretz correspondent Amir Oren, echoing a sentiment that many in uniform feel but are reluctant to say out loud.

Sharon’s stated aim in disengagement from Gaza is, among other things, to create shorter, more defensible lines around the perimeter of the strip. But the steady improvement in the accuracy and destructiveness of the Qassam rockets strengthens the possibility that following the pullout, Hamas will be able to target towns even deeper inside Israel than it now targets. That would force Israel to send its troops back into Gaza again and again.

Some Israelis point hopefully to the precedent of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. The pullback left the Lebanese side of the border under the control of the Hezbollah militia, raising fears of increased vulnerability. But the border has been largely quiet for four years, suggesting that once Israel withdrew, the forces on the other side, however hostile, had a stake in keeping the peace. Backers of disengagement foresee the same process after withdrawal from Gaza.

Hamas has shown little inclination to play along. During the latest incursion, Hamas spokesmen threatened that they would continue to stretch their rockets’ range until they can reach major Israeli centers. “We will bomb Ashkelon,” one Hamas statement warned, referring to a large Israeli city about 10 miles north of the Gaza border. That is beyond their capacity right now, but it seems inevitable that without an agreement, they will be able to make good on their words not long after Israel withdraws.

Indeed, that prospect appeared to be on the Israeli defense establishment’s mind when it reportedly sought a Palestinian Authority pledge to stop the rockets. Sharon has insisted repeatedly that he has no partner on the other side and will plan all Israel’s moves unilaterally. As usual, however, life turns out to be more complicated.

Sharon’s stated timetable calls for the Knesset to ratify the plan and begin legislating its details within the next month. But with only weeks to go, and with the Israeli army deeper than ever inside Gaza, withdrawal — unilateral or otherwise — seems as distant as ever, perhaps even more.

Ofer Shelah, a military analyst for Yediot Aharonot, is the Forward’s chief Israel correspondent.

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