In March 2009, two months after Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip ended,
Maj.- Gen. Tal Russo, head of the IDF Operations Directorate, claimed that
Israel had defeated Palestinian terrorism. For a while.
“We are in a
state of victory today against Palestinian terrorism, although this type of
victory is always temporary,” Russo said according to the book Let the IDF Win,
published in 2010, on the second intifada. “This does not mean that the current
situation will last for another two years, since such victories need to be
achieved all the time.”
It is two years later and Russo was right. The
only change is that he is no longer head of the Operations Directorate. Today,
he is head of Southern Command, in charge of maintaining the temporary victory
against terrorism, in order to prevent, for as long as possible, another
largescale operation in the Gaza Strip.
Russo stands out among his
colleagues on the General Staff. He is the only bachelor and the only general in
IDF history to become an officer without going to Bahad 1, Officer’s Training
Russo grew up in Kibbutz Haluta in the North and remembers as a
teenager during the Yom Kippur War watching four Syrian MiGs get shot down by
the air force. In 1978, he was drafted and served in the special forces. He left
the army, traveled around South America and the US for about two years working
as a mover and a truck driver and then returned to the IDF, this time for
Russo is a no-nonsense general who tends to analyze situations in
what appear to be black-and-white terms. During his years as head of the
Operations Directorate, he was a lone, ignored voice within the top IDF command
who believed that more needed to be done to stop Hezbollah’s military buildup,
possibly to the point of taking preemptive action.
SINCE THE escalation
in the Gaza Strip, Russo has used the term “cannon talk” to describe the type of
dialogue Israel has with Hamas and to explain the Ping-Pong type of attacks
between terror groups in the Strip and the IDF.
This recent round of
hostilities has had several triggers which lead Hamas to claim that Israel is
actually the one escalating the situation. First, were the reports that Israel
had abducted Gaza engineer and alleged Hamas member Dirar Abu Sisi from Ukraine
and that he is in Israel undergoing interrogations.
Next, was Israel’s
decision last Wednesday – in a rare move – to strike a manned Hamas position in
the middle of the day in retaliation for an earlier rocket strike. Two Hamas
operatives were killed.
While Israel has struck at Hamas targets in Gaza
since Operation Cast Lead, it has rarely done so against manned positions. The
idea was to send a message to Hamas that Israel viewed it responsible even
though its operatives were not the ones firing the rockets, but not to kill its
men so it would not have a pretext to join the fighting.
Yet that is
exactly what the Wednesday strike did and on Saturday the Hamas response came
swiftly with a downpour of 50 mortar shells – about a quarter of the entire
amount fired last year – on bases and towns along the Gaza border.
IDF responded to the attack by bombing additional targets in Gaza, including a
tunnel being dug under the border, killing several more operatives.
this point, the path was paved to an all-out confrontation, with daily rocket
attacks from the Gaza Strip. Wednesday’s bombing in Jerusalem – while not yet
clear if directly connected to Gaza – was a demonstration this war is being
fought on multiple fronts simultaneously.
The situation, though, is far
While Hamas did fire mortar shells on Saturday, it has
refrained from firing rockets deep into the country. The Katyusha rockets that
slammed into Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon this week were fired by Islamic
While to some, there might not be a difference between mortar attacks near the
border and Katyusha attacks on cities, Hamas has reason to make a
Today it is a three-headed monster, with its leadership
split between the political echelon in the Gaza Strip led by Ismail Haniyeh, the
diplomatic echelon in Damascus led by Khaled Mashaal and the military forces in
the Gaza Strip led by Ahmed Jabari.
Hamas fighters are frustrated at not
being able to fight for two years, during which they have obtained new weaponry
– longrange rockets, antiaircraft missiles and antitank weapons. They are not
allowed to use them.
By allowing mortar fire, Jabari was letting his
fighters vent their frustration. By preventing them from firing long-range
missiles, he is sending a message that he does not yet want a full-fledged
WHILE THE investigation into the bus bombing in Jerusalem
continues, the IDF is already reviewing possible mistakes that might have led to
the attack. The quiet in the West Bank in recent years has led to the lifting of
close to 30 manned checkpoints, the withdrawal of some IDF forces from the
territories and a drop in the number of arrest operations in Palestinian towns
These are all calculated risks, taken in an effort to bolster
the Palestinian Authority and in recognition of its fight against Hamas and
But, at the same time, fewer operations mean less
intelligence. Without having boots on the ground inside the cities, the IDF and
Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) are going to have difficulty gathering
IDF ASSESSMENTS are that it is unlikely Hamas was directly
involved in the Jerusalem attack. It was more likely carried out by Islamic
Jihad, possibly with the assistance of Hamas infrastructure in places like
Hebron, where it is known to have a significant presence. Another possibility is
that the attack was carried out by east Jerusalem residents who could or could
not be connected to a more established terror group.
According to a
senior officer in the Southern Command, Hamas is not yet ready for another
operation like Cast Lead and is still working on improving its offensive
capabilities and command-and-control systems, a lesson from 2009 when its
fighters fled in the absence of clear instructions and
Israel’s claim that Hamas is responsible for everything that
happens in the Gaza Strip makes for good rhetoric but is not necessarily the
While Hamas has been using the time since Cast Lead to rehabilitate
its capabilities, Islamic Jihad has used the time to gain independence and to
hoard advanced weaponry that enables it to challenge Hamas’s
If during Cast Lead, Islamic Jihad fought mostly under Hamas
command, in a future conflict it will have its own units and field commanders.
It is already known to have an arsenal of long-range Grad-model Katyusha rockets
and it also might have some advanced antitank missiles.
The weaponry that
was captured aboard the Victoria by the navy last week was destined for
terrorist groups in Gaza, possibly Hamas and possibly Islamic
There is no question that Israel’s deterrence, which has
effectively staved off conflict since Cast Lead, is eroding. The challenge will
be for the IDF to restore it and stave off a larger-scale conflict – if that is
what the government wants.