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On Monday at noon, three Givati Brigade soldiers were resting in the shade of their armored personnel carrier at an outpost next to Sufa, the kibbutz a couple of kilometers away from the Kerem Shalom outpost where, the morning before, two soldiers had been killed in a Palestinian raid and Cpl. Gilad Shalit had been captured and carried away into the Gaza Strip.
They had heard on the news of a massive military buildup in preparation for a large-scale operation in the Rafah area, but there were no visible signs of preparation near them.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that he had given the army orders to prepare for a long-term incursion, but apart from a Military Police roadblock at the entrance to the scene of Sunday's action, the IDF hadn't amassed forces near the area where Shalit is reportedly being held.
At a gas station, five well-built officers with red boots, M-16 rifles and handguns sat munching bamba and drinking Coke. They could just as well have put a sign above their heads saying "special forces," but they didn't seem to be in a hurry.
The IDF Spokesman wasn't arranging interviews with senior officers yesterday. "It's all on the political level," was the recurring answer. "Oh, and by the way, you might like to go and see the forces at the staging area next to Kibbutz Mefalsim."
The local and world media were being directed to an elaborate photo-op in a parking lot nearer the other end of the Gaza Strip, where the IDF had been concentrating an impressive show of military hardware since the night before. Neat rows of Merkava tanks, Ahzarit AFVs (armored fighting vehicles) and D9 bulldozers were just waiting there to be filmed by camera crews from around the world.
Unusually, there were no military press-minders on hand to shepherd the journalists, who were allowed to roam freely between the armored vehicles and talk at will with the soldiers. Field Security had nothing to worry about; they had no operational secrets to divulge.
"We don't know anything and neither do our officers," a Givati sergeant cheerfully admitted. "We got back from our weekend leave to our base in the Golan Heights yesterday and they told us we've got to get down here. That's all we know. All we've been told is what's been on the news."
Four years ago, when the IDF launched Operation Defensive Shield on Palestinian cities in the West Bank, the forces assembled in similar staging areas, but the atmosphere was totally different. There was a sense of urgency in the air; tank teams and infantry squads were dispatched hastily and their vehicles, weapons and equipment weren't always fully ready.
Yesterday afternoon, there was no rushing at Mefalsim. Most of the soldiers seemed just to be hanging around, some were carrying out minor maintenance work on the tanks, others were being taken to weaponry lessons and quick refresher courses on AFV safety procedures. Meanwhile, there were plenty of hands ready to help TV reporters and cameramen clamber atop tanks in order to get the best possible action shots.
The deputy commander of a Givati battalion didn't seem perturbed over the slow pace. "We'll be battle-ready by tonight," he said, "but I think that at the earliest we will need to be ready by tomorrow night, if at all."
One of the soldiers who was listening said, "We've been through these alerts three times before, I reckon that there's only a one in 10 chance that we'll actually go in."
At the entrance to the parking area, a bunch of colonels gathered around a silver-haired brigadier, but it turned out that none of them were commanders of combat units. They were all logistics officers, on the scene to ensure that all the materiel was ship-shape. There were no officers poring over maps or battle-plans, only lists of equipment being ticked off.
Some of the AFVs didn't even have soldiers allocated to them yet. "We've just brought them from the emergency storage," said a logistics officer. "We need to make up the numbers." A couple of the Ahzarits were still freshly painted, and the plastic covers hadn't even been taken off the machine gun mountings.
Official statements had said that the entire Givati and Golani Brigades had been rushed to the area, but meanwhile only the Shaked battalion of Givati and another tank battalion had arrived. The only representatives of Golani were some instructors who had arrived from the southern base that teaches soldiers how to use AFVs.
The position of the main IDF force, near Gaza City and not closer to the Rafah area where Sunday's raid took place, can only mean that if the army does eventually go in it will be to attack the center of the Hamas government, not to carry out reprisals or assist in Shalit's rescue. If at all, that will be the job of special forces.
But the way in which the tanks were virtually put on parade for the media was meant to prove to the Palestinians, the Israeli public and to the international community (not necessarily in that order) that the government means business.
Meanwhile, while Olmert says that he has given the army orders to prepare for an operation, the IDF is mainly providing the requisite scenery by carrying out the standard procedure of "massing forces." Behind the staging area at Mefalsim stands the "Black Arrow" monument in memory of the soldiers and civilian killed in the 1950s by Fedayeen terror attacks from Gaza and in the reprisal operations spearheaded by Ariel Sharon's fabled 101 unit.
Fifty years later, it doesn't seem like Sharon's successor is very eager to re-enter Gaza. The rescuing of Gilad Shalit is currently the duty of diplomats and intelligence gatherers. Despite the rhetoric, the IDF seems mainly busy with producing an exciting backdrop for the eight o'clock news.
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