armored carrier gaza 298.
(photo credit: AP)
In 1995, as part of the second Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority received permission from Israel to acquire 45 armored vehicles. Supplied by Russia, the four-wheeled light-armor vehicles became operational in the Gaza Strip a year later.
Six years after that, following the outbreak of the second intifada, all of the vehicles were destroyed in IAF air strikes.
This piece of history was recalled Wednesday as defense officials spoke about the news reports that said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had agreed to allow the Palestinians to receive 25 new armored vehicles this time for anti-Hamas operations in the West Bank.
"If needed, we can destroy them again just like we destroyed them in 2002," was how a senior defense official summed up the move. "It was the same with the Palestinian Navy. Everyone thought it would be a threat and then in one air strike we destroyed their navy."
Not everyone in the defense establishment views it this way. While the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) was not against the armored vehicle gesture, Military Intelligence and the IDF Planning Directorate voiced, in recent months, serious concerns that the vehicles would fall into Hamas hands and then be used against Israel. These military branches referred to the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip over the summer when the terror group overran Fatah in one day, taking over all of its weapons and ammunition.
From a strategic perspective, the transfer of armored vehicles to the West Bank is not what will tip the scales of power between Israel and the PA. In contrast, the transfer of even just 1,000 automatic rifles is far more dangerous for Israel. The armored vehicles are big and cannot be hidden. To find a rifle in densely populated cities like Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarm, however, is like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Israel has bigger problems to worry about. As demonstrated at Wednesday's security cabinet meeting, the defense establishment - including the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet - is extremely pessimistic of what will happen the day after the Annapolis peace summit.
Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin warned that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was too weak to implement an agreement after the summit. At the same time, he said, if Israel did not engage Abbas as a partner today, it might find itself without a partner tomorrow.
In practical terms, the defense chiefs warned the ministers that with a weak Abbas in power in the West Bank, the day after Annapolis Hamas would only grow stronger - not just in Gaza, which it already controls, but also in the West Bank.
According to recent intelligence assessments and contrary to public thinking, Hamas is just as strong in the West Bank as it is in the Gaza Strip. While in Gaza Hamas men walk around in the open with assault rifles and anti-tank missiles, in the West Bank the group's power core can be found in the mosques as well as the welfare and financial institutions. Defense officials fear that it will not be difficult to translate "social power" into "military power" when Hamas makes a decision to do so. This could happen if Annapolis fails.
The IDF is not waiting idly by for this to happen. Since the beginning of the week the IDF Central Command has been conducting its largest military exercise of the past decade, drilling soldiers ahead of a possible conquering of the West Bank.
While this seems like a far-off possibility, so did - not so long ago - a Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. And now, just over two years after Israel unilaterally withdrew from there, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is talking about a massive Gaza operation that grows closer with each day that passes.
If Annapolis fails and Abbas returns to Ramallah without a clear victory, Hamas might find itself facing an opportunity to do in the West Bank what it did in Gaza in June. Twenty-five armored vehicles will then be the least of Israel's problems.
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