In 2003, at the height of the IDF’s war against Palestinian terrorism in the
West Bank, clashes erupted between IDF and Syrian soldiers on the Golan
Two Syrian soldiers had accidentally descended from a military
outpost on their side of the border and crossed into Israel, right where a force
from the elite Egoz unit happened to be conducting an exercise.
Syrians opened fire and in the ensuing battle, one of the soldiers was killed
and the other was taken captive. Additional Syrian soldiers, in an elevated
position, fired at the Egoz troops below. Coming under heavy fire, the soldiers
asked Maj.-Gen. Avi Mizrahi, then commander of the Golan Division, for
permission to attack the Syrian military position with a nearby
Realizing that the use of tank fire could escalate the situation
into a larger conflict, Mizrahi refused. His instinct was right. Tank fire was
not needed and the clashes quickly came to an end.
Seven years later,
this ‘diplomatic’ sensitivity is something that continues to accompany Mizrahi,
today a major-general, in his post as OC Central Command.
His job is to
prevent Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank as well as inside the Green Line.
But it is also his job to maintain quiet and stability, desperately needed today
by the governments in Jerusalem and Ramallah as they consider launching direct
A wrong move by the IDF could have dramatic diplomatic
In October, Mizrahi, 53, was appointed OC Central Command
after having served as OC Ground Forces Command and head of the IDF’s
Technological and Logistics Directorate.
He has recently been listed as
one of the candidates to replace Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi as the next chief of
His appointment to Central Command was met by surprised
looks within the IDF and some officers questioned Mizrahi’s overall experience
in overseeing daily arrest operations in Palestinian cities, the IDF’s mainstay
in the West Bank.
While most of his career was spent in the Armored
Corps, Mizrahi actually clocked in significant time in the West Bank. During the
first intifada, he was a battalion commander there. In 1993, he was a brigade
commander there and in 2002 – during Operation Defensive Shield – even though he
was a division commander on the Golan Heights, he spent the duration of the
operation with the Golani Brigade in the West Bank.
Last week, Mizrahi
toured a number of West Bank cities, including Jenin and Jericho.
the first such visit by a top IDF officer in years.
During his visit to
Jenin, Mizrahi and Maj.- Gen. Yoav Mordechai, head of the Civil Administration,
entered in a regular IDF patrol jeep and, instead of an Israeli security detail,
were accompanied by armed Palestinian Authority security officers, some of whom
lined the streets. Mizrahi and Mordechai visited the local mall, a soccer field,
a few businesses and viewed a PA security exercise before sitting down with
their hosts for lunch.
Over lunch, one of the PA officials asked why
Mizrahi doesn’t allow Israelis to enter West Bank cities, a move that would give
a major boost to the local economy. “What are you afraid of?” the official
asked. Mizrahi responded that he would take the matter under consideration, as
reported last week in The Jerusalem Post.
WHILE HE HAS yet to make a
final decision, he appears open to the idea of allowing Israeli Jews into
Jericho, Jenin and Bethlehem, three cities known for their relative calm.
Israeli Arabs are already allowed into these cities and every Friday – market
day – the streets are lined with cars with yellow Israeli license
“This is something to consider,” a senior Central Command officer
said. “Building trust is part of the process.”
While the IDF cannot
guarantee that nothing will happen to Israelis who visit the West Bank, there is
no question that PA cities are safer today than they have been in the last 25
years, mainly because the PA has an interest in keeping things quiet.
change in the PA leadership, the wakeup call Fatah received from Hamas’s violent
takeover of the Gaza Strip and the continued IDF operations in PA cities have
led to anunprecedented drop in terror activity. Even when there is violence, the
close coordination between the sides is evident.
On Thursday for example,
hours after IDF troops shot and killed a Palestinian burglar who was trying to
infiltrate the settlement of Barkan, top Israeli and PA officers inspected the
scene and established a joint team to investigate the shooting.
Palestinians are different today,” the senior officer explained.
are different and the PA’s directives to security forces are different since
violence is against their interest as well.”
Building trust and fighting
terror are the Central Command’s main missions.
To do this, Mizrahi has
instructed his officers to fight ardently against terror but at the same time to
be sensitive to the new political reality.
As a result, for example,
Mizrahi approved sharpened open fire regulations in the West Bank, under which
soldiers cannot automatically shoot at Palestinians throwing stones or even
He also meets with every new brigade commander to stress the
need for continued coordination with the Palestinians.
With the September
26 expiration of the moratorium on settlement construction approaching, Mizrahi
has also instructed his command to prepare for a possible escalation in settler
violence if the government decides to extend the freeze. A Jewish attack against
Palestinians, the IDF fears, could inflame the entire area and derail the peace
SETTLER AND PALESTINIAN violence are linked.
months ago, a car traveling on Route 60 near the village of Sinjil was stoned.
The driver, according to testimonies of Palestinians, got out of his car, pulled
out a gun and shot the stone thrower, killing him. A few hours later, shots were
fired at a passing Israeli car.
Mizrahi is also not overly concerned with
the Fayyad plan – named for PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – which calls for the
establishment of a Palestinian state, even unilaterally, by the summer of
Some officers have warned that if the Palestinians do not achieve
statehood via negotiations by then, the PA may decide to turn to
it will have around 20,000 armed security officers and policemen,
battalions trained by the US in Jordan.
Unlike these officers, Mizrahi
believes that when next summer rolls around, the PA will not return to
but instead will turn to the international community and present its
security forces, the new education system, the reformed economy and the
newly-established judicial and prisons services.
“They will want to get
recognition that they have done everything and have all of the necessary
components for a state,” the senior IDF officer explained. “When [PA
Mahmoud] Abbas tells businessmen to come invest in Jenin this is a sign
they do not plan on returning to the path of violence.
They have a lot to
lose and they know that we will respond.”