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In October 2000, a mere six months after Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon, prime minister Ehud Barak was faced with a quandary: Should he order the IDF back into Lebanon following the abduction of three soldiers, or focus on diplomatic efforts to retrieve the captives?
His decision was to exercise military restraint and allow the diplomats to try and do the job instead. The end result: The soldiers' corpses were returned to Israel in a prisoner-exchange deal with Hizbullah four years later.
This week, Ehud Olmert found himself facing a similar dilemma involving a soldier kidnapped to recently evacuated territory. This time, however, the prime minister waived diplomacy in favor of IDF action.
Operation Summer Rains was ostensibly launched to retrieve kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit, taken captive during a deadly attack on his outpost inside the southern Israeli border with Gaza on Sunday, during which two soldiers were also killed. But the operation has already progressed beyond a hostage retrieval mission. It has turned - officers admitted Thursday - into a war on all fronts.
Following months of incessant Kassam fire, Shalit's kidnapping provided Israel with the symbol and the excuse they needed to invade Gaza. Even now, troops and armored vehicles are amassed near Kibbutz Mifalsim, awaiting orders to take control of Kassam launch sites in the northern Gaza Strip in order to try and stop the rocket attacks on the western Negev once and for all.
The retrieval campaign has expanded to encompass the following: stopping the Kassam fire, sending threatening messages to Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Damascus and, possibly, working to topple the Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority, with the 64 political arrests of Hamas figures in the West Bank.
Taking control of the Dahaniyeh airport in southern Gaza was the first step of the campaign. The next step is an invasion of northern Gaza which will be led by the Givati Brigade. The incursion into the north will not only completely seal off Gaza and split it into three sections, but will also give the army the chance to try and curb the incessant anti-Israel rocket attacks. To do so, the IDF is once again shelling in Gaza, three weeks after Defense Minister Amir Peretz suspended artillery fire there following an explosion that killed seven Palestinians on a Gaza beach (IDF findings indicate Israeli fire was not responsible).
The idea is to cut off northern Gaza from the rest of the strip and to prevent the transfer of Shalit within or out of Gaza. Late Wednesday night, the military distributed flyers over Beit Hanoun in the north, calling on residents to evacuate their homes in advance of massive military operations. The warning is meant to turn the neighborhood into a ghost town, as the IDF claims it is prepared to fire missiles and artillery shells into urban areas, a move it had not taken during the past 10 months of Kassam rocket attacks.
The military operation in Gaza, officers stressed this week, was being carried out with the utmost sensitivity, since there was a possibility that a wrong move or a stray missile could push Shalit's kidnappers too far and lead them to kill the believed-to-be-alive soldier.
But the IAF has already destroyed three bridges that connected northern Gaza with the south and Navy warships are patrolling off the Gaza coast employing their cannons for precise targeting of Kassam launch sites.
The bottom line: Gaza is sealed.
HOW DO all of these operations assist in retrieving Shalit?
The IDF is employing an incarnation of its "pressure cooker" tactic, used frequently during arrest raids in the West Bank. There, troops surround a suspect's home and call on him to surrender. If he doesn't, they fire at the walls of the house and throw stun grenades inside. Most of the time the tactic results in the wanted men surrendering, sparing the troops the possibly fatal risk of entering the home to retrieve the suspect by force.
Currently in Gaza, soldiers are on the ground in the south, tanks (by press time) are poised to move into the north and fighter jets are continuously bombing open areas to place more heat on Shalit's Hamas kidnappers. In line with the "pressure cooker" tactic, the IDF is not revealing its exact plans, but according to officers involved in the planning of Operation Summer Rains, intends to escalate step-by-step, while watching to see the Palestinian response to each phase.
Israel does not plan on reoccupying Gaza, Peretz said this week. But senior officers said that the operation could continue as long as needed. Some have begun drawing comparisons to Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, which left an almost permanent military presence in parts of the West Bank.
The same thing, officials said, could happen in Gaza, with IDF troops staying out of the main cities but maintaining the right to launch frequent infantry incursions as deemed necessary.
The military, officers confirmed, is not overly eager to retake urban areas in Gaza such as Rafah or Beit Hanoun. The pictures of IDF troops scouring the sand along the Philidelphi Corridor in search of their dead comrades' body parts in May 2004 are still fresh in the minds of many IDF officers.
With past experience teaching that it is easy to enter areas with a security vacuum and difficult to leave them, the question will soon become: What is the IDF's exit strategy?
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