'We are at war," declares Maj.-Gen. Yitzhak "Haki" Harel, head of the IDF's Planning Directorate and a senior member of the IDF General Staff, who is retiring in a few months after 31 years of military service. The Palestinian Authority, he says in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, has been taken over by a group of Hamas terrorists and murderers, and the IDF's current operation against the Kassam rocket fire in the Gaza Strip is no different from a war.
But while the "war" is being fought right under our noses in cities like Nablus, Jenin and Gaza, Harel claims that Israel's security situation has never been better during its soon-to-be 58 years of statehood. Evidence of this, he says, can be seen in the results of last month's elections. "The fact that the government can talk about a social agenda is the result of having a strong defense establishment," he asserts.
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This is comforting coming from a man whose job it is to be a kind of military prophet - predicting the country's future challenges and making sure the army is up to meeting them. All the more so when one considers that these challenges include an invasion of Gaza, a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and a nuclear Iran.
The probability of a full-fledged war with Israel's neighbors, he says, is at an all-time low. Yet the IDF might be on the verge of launching a large-scale military operation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to curb the escalation of Palestinian terrorism. The incessant missile fire is intolerable, he says, and the army will continue its attacks on Gaza, which could culminate in a massive ground invasion into refugee camps like Jabalya.
He also says that Israel needs to sever all ties with the PA, including the transfer of humanitarian assistance.
"There was a decision on the Palestinian side to create a government of terror," he says of Hamas's recent rise to power. "The entire border with Gaza needs to be hermetically sealedâ€¦We should stay on our side, they on their side and that is it."
How much longer will the IDF put up with the Kassam rocket-fire? Will the army invade Gaza, and if so, when?
Eventually, there will be no Kassam fire. The question is how many steps we need to climb before we get there. But we need to remember that on the other side there is a terrorist government led by a terror organization that at this stage is not dong anything to stop it. And we need to shoot anyone who shoots at us. As the Talmudic saying goes: "Rise to kill those who get up to kill you."
In the end we might return to parts of the Gaza Strip, from where the rockets are being launched. The main question is, "When will the Palestinians decide that it is no longer worth it for them to continue firing the rockets while we are striking back?"
We will continue escalating our actionsâ€¦ and it is possible that eventually we will launch a ground operation in Gaza. The main issue, however, is that the other side needs to understand that even one launched rocket is not worth it for them. We are almost there.
Doesn't Israel look weak by not responding more harshly to the attacks?
This is a complicated issue. The IDF doesn't have a problem conquering the entire Gaza Strip, but we must remember that even when we were there, there was Kassam fire. We need to exercise our power wisely. We feel that we are succeeding at this, and will cause the other side to stop the attacks.
Should we be severing all ties with the Palestinians?
There was a decision on the other side to create a government of terror. They are in Gaza and we are on the other side. The entire border with them needs to be hermetically sealed. They should go to work in Egypt and live off of the other Arab countries, with humanitarian assistance coming in through Gaza's other borders. We should stay on our side, they on their side and that is it.
Then why does Israel keep opening the Karni crossing?
To enable humanitarian assistance. Since the international system does not yet allow for aid to enter from the other side. In the end, we need to follow through Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan according to which, as of the year 2008, Palestinians will no longer enter Israel from Gaza for work.
Even in the event of a humanitarian crisis?
What kind of humanitarian crisis? We aren't creating the crisis there. We give them milk, there is a crisis. We don't give them milk, there isn't a crisis. They make up stories. In Gaza there are a bunch of murderers who sit around and shoot at us. We don't shoot at them. They shoot at us. If they stopped shooting at us, we wouldn't fire even a single bullet.
The world doesn't see it that way.
I'm not so sure. The United States says they are not talking to Hamas. The Europeans say the same. And what do we say? That humanitarian assistance will continue. But we should not be giving the Palestinians humanitarian assistance if they are unwilling to recognize that there is a state [Israel] with the right to exist on the other side of the fence. And if they don't recognize this fact, then they can get goods from Egypt. We are not responsible for the Gaza Strip. Only the Palestinians are responsible for the Gaza Strip.
Are you in favor of allowing the Palestinians to build air and sea ports in Gaza?
I am in favor of Gaza being Gaza and Israel being Israel. Gaza should have everything it needs. But if there are terrorists there, we will kill them. If, on the other hand, it becomes part of a sovereign entity that aspires for peace, we will have contact with it.
So far, what do we have there except for a group of murderers who are only interested in creating more death for their own people?
Can Hamas change and accept Israel's conditions for talks and recognition?
Can a black man suddenly turn into a white man? I don't know what change means for them. Sharon's decision to disengage [from Gaza] unilaterally changed the way Israel dealt with the Palestinians. He took a stand and this became the declared position of the Israeli government.
I am afraid of remarks by people who say we should give into the Palestinians. Why should we give them anything? They kill our children. It is only by miracle that the Kassams aren't falling on people's heads. The suicide bomber intercepted [last month] on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway would have blown himself up if he had not been caught. We are talking about Arabs who want to kill us, and that is why the army is fighting for our survival.
Are we headed toward a new conflict with the Palestinians?
Certainly. We may even be on the verge of a large-scale ground operation in Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But remember: Gaza and the West Bank are different. The decision to launch the operation will be based on an understanding that our current combination of intelligence and targeted operations is no longer as effective as it was in the past. But first we need to change our way of thinking. Hamas is a government of terrorists and one day many years from now, when the Palestinians decide to return to their senses, they will know where to find us.
What leads you to conclude that Israel is on the verge of a new conflict with the Palestinians?
We are already in the midst of a conflict and we are at war with the Palestinians both in Gaza and in the West Bank. The real question is whether the level of conflict will change and require that we send more troops into the territories under a large-scale operation. For now, we feel we are being effective. But if tomorrow we feel that our operation in Nablus is not achieving its goal, we will escalate our actions and "mow the lawn" of terrorists by capturing and killing them.
On Election Day, a Katyusha rocket was fired at Israel. How many more Katyushas and other weapons do the Palestinians have in Gaza?
They have more Katyushas. And, though we have yet to find them, we could discover that they have also succeeded in smuggling anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons into Gaza.
What about reports of al-Qaida, Iranian and Syrian terrorists entering Gaza through the Rafah terminal?
All true. Anyone who wants to, gets in. It is very difficult to prevent terrorists in the Sinai from entering Egypt. The Egyptians are getting better at preventing it, but they are having a hard time.
Is the IDF deterred from entering Gaza due to the military buildup there and new weaponry?
We are not deterred from entering any place in the world. We will go anywhere needed to continue ensuring the security of the State of Israel. Once we make the decision to change the way we operate, we can be inside the entire Gaza Strip.
What is our current relationship with Egypt?
We have a very good relationship with the Egyptians that includes cooperation along the border. The relationship stems from the peace treaty; and every day that goes by, our relationship improves.
Why, then, is Egypt building such a strong and sophisticated army?
Why does the US, France and Britain have a strong army? Who attacks these countries? Countries want a strong army. The fact that the country next to us has a strong army shouldn't lead us to assume that tomorrow it will attack and destroy us. We need to understand that every independent country has the right to have an army to protect itself. They are building an army and they want to have the same technologies as there are in the West. We shouldn't be concerned with Egypt, but rather with other countries with which we don't have peace that are also developing militarily.
In the final analysis, Israel is strong in a way that gains it the respect of the world. This has to do with the wonderful soldiers, the advanced technology, the good friends and the strategic peace agreements we have with some of our neighbors. The fact that the government can talk about a social agenda is the result of having a strong defense establishment.
What is happening in Syria?
Syria is a blacklisted country that hosts most of the world's - and all of the Middle East's - terror organizations. It was kicked out of Lebanon. We should be happy that the world is taking care of Syria.
Does Syria need to undergo an Iraq-style regime change?
Time will do the work on its own. Dark regimes like Kosovo, Syria and others do not have a place in the modern world. Their day will come. The international community, led by the US, is doing a good job taking care of Syria. The issue is not to attack, but to cause the regime there to understand that it is not worth its while to be involved in terror.
Will our next war be along the northern border?
We may have a conflict there. But Hizbullah and Syria cannot on their own destroy Israel. We could have a war there, and we would deal with it. The probability of this, however, is low. What is more likely is that Hizbullah will try to attack us and kidnap a soldier. This is a threat, but not an existential one. We have peace with Jordan and Egypt. Lebanon and Syria are both overflowing with hot lava. We need to let them sit in it, and wait patiently to see how things there develop.
If your assessments are correct, maybe the government is right in asking the army to cut its budget.
The real issue regarding the budget is what type of insurance policy the country wants. This is a decision for the political echelon, not the military. From 1998 until 2005, the IDF fired some 7,000 people, which cut the annual budget by around NIS 5 billion. The question of whether we can cut more is irrelevant, since you can always cut. The question for our elected officials is what type of army they want. The new government will decide, and we will act accordingly.
The government needs to decide how many fighter jets, tanks, submarines and soldiers they want.
The fact that there is stability in the Middle East is due to the IDF's superiority over other armies in the region. The other countries have also realized that we are not going anywhere. If the government tells us to cut half a billion, we will show them how doing so will affect us. If they decide to go ahead with the cut, we will salute and obey the order.
Will the IDF ever become a voluntary, rather than mandatory, army?
I don't think the Israeli public wants the army to become voluntary. There is something important about the fact that the IDF is part of the nation, takes from the nation and returns to the nation. If you serve in the army, you know there is value to your service. This has significance regarding the character of the army. There might be parts of the IDF that become professional, but the main core of the army will be made up of the mandatory recruits.
What constitutes Israel's "point of no return" where Iran is concerned?
Forget about this point or that point. Today, Iran has a leader who wants to destroy Israel with nuclear bombs. The free world and Israel together need to ensure that he does not obtain that capability.
Is the international diplomatic front against Iran effective?
I think it can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear power. We need to be patient. The sanctions can also be effective. There is a worldwide diplomatic process in the works, and we should let it take its course.
What is your professional opinion of Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert's "convergence plan" to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank?
Military officers should not express political opinions. The new PM will present his plan and the army will provide the military solutions.
The IDF has the ability to carry out any plan of any prime minister. The big test is whether Israel remains a strong country in the Middle East. If the path we are on now is any indication, it will.
Will the next withdrawal be strictly civilian, or will the military also pull out?
I don't know what a military evacuation is in Judea and Samaria. The IDF cannot leave the West Bank. The IDF will need to control every corner there to provide security for the Israeli people. The difference between the West Bank and Gaza is that Gaza is Palestinian territory, while in the West Bank we control the territory so terror won't flow into Israel. Gaza has one solution and the West Bank requires a different one. But as long as there isn't someone on the other side to take the reins, we need to be in control to prevent the firing of Katyushas or mortars from Kalkilya to Netanya - something that cannot be allowed to happen.