Security and Defense: Cause for pause

Generals differ on how to stop Syrian arms from reaching Hizbullah.

By
August 17, 2006 21:58
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Northern Command headquarters in Safed looks almost like a vacation village. Small colored brick buildings, offices with dark oak paneling and vast green lawns watered by electronic sprinkler systems are scattered throughout the base, perched on a hilltop overlooking the old city. But inside is the "bor" (bunker). Built in 1995, the fortified - and air-conditioned - underground command center is the newest in the IDF, equipped with the most advanced network and communication systems available on the market. Each department has an office there - intelligence, operations, logistics and communications. The chief of staff even has his own office right next to the regional commander. In one of the rooms, there is a wall covered from floor to ceiling in plasma screens, some showing live feeds from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) hovering above enemy territory, and others showing the picture that fighter pilots see from their cockpits as they aim their missiles on enemy targets. This is the room where all of the crucial operational decisions are made, and on Monday morning, the buzz that had filled the room since the abduction of reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev on July 12 suddenly turned silent. After 34 days of fighting, a UN-brokered cease-fire had gone into effect and the war in Lebanon was over. But for how long? The current assumption on the part of Military Intelligence is that Israel will find itself facing a rebuilt Hizbullah within the next two years. Thousands of IDF soldiers fought in fierce battles in Lebanon. Over 7,000 targets were struck by IAF aircraft that carried out an outstanding 15,500 sorties over Lebanon throughout the war. A total of 118 soldiers lost their lives in the fighting, some in clashes in Bint Jbail, Maroun a-Ras and Ayta Shab, villages the IDF failed to conquer despite a three-week presence inside Lebanon. On Wednesday, armed Hizbullah guerrillas were once again seen taking up surveillance positions along the northern border, and peering into telescopes at Israeli forces outside nearby villages. Their quick return, the fact that Hizbullah was not sufficiently weakened during the campaign, and Israel's lack of faith in the effectiveness of the soon-to-be-deployed multinational force, are the reasons behind the decision to send some reservists home armed with their rifles and ready to be called back at a moment's notice. And though the IDF believes that chances of war with Syria are slim - especially now that the fighting in Lebanon is over - it is concerned about President Bashar Assad's speech this week, in which he talked about redeeming the Golan. IN THE short-term, then, Israel has not defeated Hizbullah. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and the rest of the guerrilla group's leaders are all alive and have begun to emerge from their places of hiding. Thousands of Hizbullah fighters - armed to the teeth with thousands of anti-tank missiles and short-range Katyusha rockets (the IDF's worst nightmare during the month of fighting) - still remain in Lebanon. This means that the situation could easily flare up again in the not-so-distant future. On the other hand - high-ranking defense officials claimed this week - the cease-fire agreement and the deployment of the multinational force can only be judged in the long-term. It will take time before the effectiveness of the new UNIFIL force can be evaluated, and before determining whether the Lebanese army stands by its commitment to forbid armed militiamen to roam the streets. The IDF's goal in this operation, these officials insist, was never to totally exterminate Hizbullah (an impossible feat, they say) but was to weaken the group to the point that it would be possible to create a new diplomatic order in southern Lebanon. The deployment of the Lebanese army for the first time in the South is a realization of that "order." Time will tell, they repeat, whether it has the desired effect. The IDF hopes to be completely out of Lebanon by the end of next week. But in the meantime, due to the cease-fire, there is uncertainty among senior officers about what they can and cannot do on the ground in Lebanon. The clear instruction from the diplomatic echelon is that soldiers may open fire at Hizbullah guerrillas if they feel that their lives are in immediate danger. Less clear is what Israel will do if it sees Syrian trucks transporting weapons to Hizbullah fighters in Lebanon. IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz said this week that the IDF retained the right to strike at Syrian truck convoys entering Lebanon for the purpose of rearming Hizbullah. Failure to do so, he said, would undermine the work of the entire last month. Allowing Hizbullah to rebuild itself - as Israel did during the six years following the IDF withdrawal in 2000 - would nullify any achievements of this war. The problem is that this directive seems not to have been fully conveyed or accepted. When asked this week what the IDF would do if Syrian convoys entered Lebanon, two major-generals and two brigadier-generals each gave a different answer. One said Israel would attack; another said Israel would restrain itself and hold fire; a third said Israel would ask the Lebanese army to stop the trucks; and the fourth said he didn't know. THE END of a war is an unpleasant time. Knives are sharpened and alibis constructed to justify actions and decisions - and to place blame for errors on superiors or subordinates. Defense Minister Amir Peretz is no exception. After setting up an external inquiry committee - led by wartime confidante and adviser former chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Amnon Lipkin Shahak - Peretz claimed this week that the IDF had not properly briefed him on the threat Hizbullah posed. By creating a committee that only has a mandate to investigate the IDF (but not him or his friends in the diplomatic echelon), and by blaming the military for not accurately presenting the Hizbullah threat prior to the war, he is clearly setting up the IDF to take the fall for the war's failures. Another example is Halutz, who tried setting up OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam to take the fall for the IDF's failures by appointing Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky as the head of war operations in the North. Ironically, however, it is now Halutz who is under attack by the public and the media for finding and taking the time to liquidate his investment portfolio three hours after Goldwasser and Regev were kidnapped - when the IDF was entering into a war with Hizbullah. Halutz does not plan on resigning, but he's worried. If the reservists returning from Lebanon at the end of the week read the reports about the portfolio affair and decide to protest, that could spell the end of his career.

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