(photo credit: AP [file])
The IDF's Central Command operates amid permanent concern over two extreme scenarios. The first refers to a radical Jewish settler who carries out a Baruch Goldstein-style attack, killing dozens of Palestinians, like the American-born doctor did at Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994. The second takes into account an external catalyst, something that happens outside the West Bank but succeeds in inciting the Palestinians against the IDF.
These two scenarios, it is believed, have the potential to spark a third intifada and set off an unprecedented wave of suicide bombers marching toward Israeli cities. For the time being, however, this is not happening.
On the one hand, another Goldstein has not arisen, and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) is said to be doing an effective job in clamping down on Jewish extremism. On the other hand, the Palestinians in the West Bank, a high-ranking Central Command officer said recently, were becoming slightly apathetic about what happens on the outside.
One example was the recent public outcry over the Israeli renovations at the Mugrabi Gate near the Temple Mount, which barely got the Palestinians in the West Bank to even blink. Another example was last June, when seven Palestinians from the same family were killed on a beach in the Gaza Strip. Then, too, the Palestinians in the West Bank remained silent.
ON THE ground, however, the situation is far from quiet. Terror attacks are noted daily, from shootings and stonings of cars to attempted stabbings of troops and border policemen at checkpoints. Military Intelligence believes that without a diplomatic process, there is only so long that the status quo in the West Bank can be maintained before the Palestinians hit the streets in massive protests, reminiscent of the way the second intifada started in October 2000.
What is keeping terror down to a minimum is the "freedom of operation" granted to the IDF in the West Bank. Under OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh, the IDF has succeeded in bringing the terror level down to its lowest in years due mostly to the fact that troops are allowed to operate daily inside terror capitals like Nablus, Kalkilya, Jenin and Tulkarm.
"Without our freedom of operations we would be facing a different enemy," explained the Central Command officer. "By operating freely in every Palestinian city, we are able to prevent a terror buildup and chop it down before it gets too high."
The same cannot be said for the Gaza Strip. There the IDF has barely any freedom of operation and, after four months of a cease-fire, was allowed only last month to resume preventive strikes against Kassam rocket cells.
While in Gaza, Hamas - under the leadership of military wing commander Ahmed Ja'abri - has succeeded in establishing a 10,000-strong army, the terror group's efforts to do the same in the West Bank have failed. While in Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have manufactured hundreds of Kassams, in the West Bank they can barely succeed in getting one off the ground.
This difference highlights the difficulties in facing the looming Hamas threat in the Gaza Strip, brought back to the top of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's agenda on Independence Day, when the terror group fired more than 30 Kassam rockets and mortar shells at the Negev in what was believed to have been a diversion for an attempt to kidnap an IDF soldier.
Besides proving Hamas's resolve, Tuesday's kidnapping attempt also demonstrated the close relationship it has developed with Hizbullah, which used similar tactics when kidnapping two IDF reservists on the Lebanese border on July 12, thus sparking the Second Lebanon War.
OC SOUTHERN Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant has a simple solution for what he calls the "Hamas menace": Send many troops into Gaza, and then go door-to-door, hunting down and destroying terrorist infrastructure.
Galant believes that a showdown with the terror group is inevitable. If Hamas's military buildup is not stopped, he says, Israel will very soon face an enemy in Gaza as strong as Hizbullah in Lebanon. But to stop Hamas, it will not be enough, senior officers said, to invade Gaza for a few weeks or even a couple of months.
The IDF, these officers said, would need to conquer large pieces of land inside the Strip and use them to launch raids into the more built-up areas over a longer period of time, possibly up to a year. Basically, the IDF would need to reconquer Gaza to obtain the same results as Naveh has achieved in the West Bank.
Not everyone in the defense establishment agrees with this line of thinking. Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin this week voiced opposition to a widespread operation, claiming that now was the time to focus on diplomatic efforts and trying to get Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to rein in the Kassams.
On Monday, Eliahu Winograd will walk straight into this mess as he heads to the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem to hand Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz a copy of his investigative report on the failures of the Second Lebanon War.
Since the beginning of its work, the committee has essentially paralyzed the political and defense echelons. On Monday, that paralysis will disappear, and a number of high-ranking officers - including Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and OC Home Front Command Maj.-Gen. Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon - will know if their careers are tainted or not.
Most anxious to receive the report is Olmert, who has the most to lose. If the report comes down hard on him, he may face calls from within Kadima and the general public to step down. Peretz is also seen as a potential victim, and while he has said that he no longer wants to serve as defense minister after the Labor Party primaries next month, a harsh Winograd report could spell the end of his political career.
This is why the timing of Tuesday's Hamas kidnapping attack was problematic. With the government and the IDF virtually paralyzed by fear of Winograd, there was no way that a large-scale operation in Gaza was going to be okayed.
After Monday, however, it's a whole new ball game.