IDF tank 88.
(photo credit: )
Defense Minister Amir Peretz spent almost the same amount of time in the air on Wednesday as he did on the ground.
Starting his day in his Kassam-battered hometown of Sderot, he was flown by helicopter to Northern Command headquarters in Safed early in the morning, continued on to Home Front Command in Ramle, then to Southern Command in Beersheba and finally to the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem.
The day marked two important events for the defense establishment. It was the third - and most important - day of the war games that had started on Monday to test the performance of all the various military command posts and their interaction during the simulation of an all-out regional war. It also marked the beginning of Hamas's Kassam onslaught on Sderot, which continued on Thursday and led the IDF to finally take off its gloves and begin responding.
During his visit in Beersheba, Peretz was taken to Southern Command's underground bunker, where he watched Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant run the war games. Sitting at the main conference table, Peretz faced several computer screens, two of which were showing data from the exercise, while a third was broadcasting live footage from the Gaza Strip.
As they discussed the exercise, Galant and Peretz were forced to take a break. The air force, which was getting ready to bomb a Hamas military outpost in Rafah, needed orders. Peretz left and flew to Jerusalem. By the time he landed, the IAF had struck and four Hamas operatives were killed.
THIS IS the IDF in 2007 - still recuperating from the Second Lebanon War but without a single moment of grace as it prepares for the possibility of another war this summer.
The war games that took place this week were hardly noticeable. There weren't any soldiers running up hills or tanks leaving dust storms in their wake. The exercise - dubbed "Brimstone" - only involved high-ranking commanders who were drilled on their decision-making capabilities. The General Staff convened at the recently-renovated underground bunker under military headquarters in Tel Aviv and held imaginary security assessments, came up with operational recommendations and brought them to Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh - who impersonated the political echelon - for approval.
The games focused on the Syrian border and took into account a simultaneous flare-up in the Gaza Strip as well as with Hizbullah in Lebanon. While it was only a matter of time before it happened, conflict with the Palestinians in Gaza quickly transformed from a game into reality.
On Wednesday, the IDF - frustrated after months of restraint - was finally unleashed by the government. While a ground operation was still not being launched, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision to permit targeted killings and pinpointed strikes on Hamas and Kassam targets was eagerly received at Southern Command headquarters.
Olmert's decision, however, did not come easily. It is clear that the firing of close to 80 Kassams this week was an outgrowth of the Hamas-Fatah fighting in Gaza and was an attempt to provoke a massive response that would unite the Palestinians against their common enemy and divert international attention from their internal chaos. But Olmert could not hold back anymore. As more and more rockets started slamming into Sderot and residents were wounded, the government had to act to defend its civilians.
If it were up to Galant and Gaza Division commander Brig.-Gen. Moshe (Chico) Tamir, infantry and tank brigades would have already been on the ground inside the Gaza Strip for months. They have been pushing the hard-line approach at cabinet meetings on Gaza, urging Olmert and Peretz to give the green light for an invasion which they claim is necessary to stop the Hamas military buildup.
On the other side is Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin who says an invasion into Gaza will only serve the Palestinians' interest. He believes that while Fatah and Hamas are fighting one another, Israel can only lose by joining the fray in a large-scale fashion.
At the end of the day, however, no one in Gaza really has anything to gain from the continued Kassam attacks or the clashes between Hamas and Fatah, which have already killed more than 50 people. The inability to create a viable cease-fire demonstrates just how weak the national unity government - established in Mecca two months ago between Hamas and Fatah - really is.
THE ONE man coming out on top is Khaled Mashaal, Hamas's Damascus-based political leader. There is no doubt within the Shin Bet that, like the Independence Day kidnapping attempt, the past two days of incessant Kassam attacks and the infighting are all being orchestrated by Mashaal, whose main goal is to destabilize the Palestinian Authority and weaken Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to the point that he will be able to take over the reins.
Mashaal's involvement in events in Gaza has been felt by the defense establishment for years, but only recently has the possibility of his taking over of the PLO, and as a result the PA, become a clear and present danger.
Following Hamas's victory in the 2005 PA elections, Abbas made efforts to "localize" Palestinian politics, and by joining arms with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, he hoped he would succeed in taking Mashaal out of the equation and ultimately making him irrelevant.
That has not happened, and Mashaal basically took control of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by holding the key to kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Schalit's release. If he lets Schalit go, Israel can restart negotiations with Abbas. As long as Schalit is in captivity, so is the diplomatic process.
Mashaal's status is further enhanced by Abbas's weakness. According to the latest intelligence assessments, Israel is not even sure that Abbas would defeat Haniyeh if an election for PA president were held today.
So while the war games ended on Thursday, the real thing is only getting started.