Security and Defense: An officer and diplomat

OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Avi Mizrahi’s job is to maintain quiet in the West Bank.

By
July 22, 2010 21:59
Maj.-Gen Avi Mizrahi

Maj.-Gen Mizrahi 311. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)

 
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In 2003, at the height of the IDF’s war against Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank, clashes erupted between IDF and Syrian soldiers on the Golan Heights.

Two Syrian soldiers had accidentally descended from a military outpost on their side of the border and crossed into Israel, right where a force from the elite Egoz unit happened to be conducting an exercise.

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The Syrians opened fire and in the ensuing battle, one of the soldiers was killed and the other was taken captive. Additional Syrian soldiers, in an elevated position, fired at the Egoz troops below. Coming under heavy fire, the soldiers asked Maj.-Gen. Avi Mizrahi, then commander of the Golan Division, for permission to attack the Syrian military position with a nearby tank.

Realizing that the use of tank fire could escalate the situation into a larger conflict, Mizrahi refused. His instinct was right. Tank fire was not needed and the clashes quickly came to an end.

Seven years later, this ‘diplomatic’ sensitivity is something that continues to accompany Mizrahi, today a major-general, in his post as OC Central Command.

His job is to prevent Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank as well as inside the Green Line. But it is also his job to maintain quiet and stability, desperately needed today by the governments in Jerusalem and Ramallah as they consider launching direct peace talks.

A wrong move by the IDF could have dramatic diplomatic consequences.



In October, Mizrahi, 53, was appointed OC Central Command after having served as OC Ground Forces Command and head of the IDF’s Technological and Logistics Directorate.

He has recently been listed as one of the candidates to replace Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi as the next chief of General Staff.

His appointment to Central Command was met by surprised looks within the IDF and some officers questioned Mizrahi’s overall experience in overseeing daily arrest operations in Palestinian cities, the IDF’s mainstay in the West Bank.

While most of his career was spent in the Armored Corps, Mizrahi actually clocked in significant time in the West Bank. During the first intifada, he was a battalion commander there. In 1993, he was a brigade commander there and in 2002 – during Operation Defensive Shield – even though he was a division commander on the Golan Heights, he spent the duration of the operation with the Golani Brigade in the West Bank.

Last week, Mizrahi toured a number of West Bank cities, including Jenin and Jericho.

It was the first such visit by a top IDF officer in years.

During his visit to Jenin, Mizrahi and Maj.- Gen. Yoav Mordechai, head of the Civil Administration, entered in a regular IDF patrol jeep and, instead of an Israeli security detail, were accompanied by armed Palestinian Authority security officers, some of whom lined the streets. Mizrahi and Mordechai visited the local mall, a soccer field, a few businesses and viewed a PA security exercise before sitting down with their hosts for lunch.

Over lunch, one of the PA officials asked why Mizrahi doesn’t allow Israelis to enter West Bank cities, a move that would give a major boost to the local economy. “What are you afraid of?” the official asked. Mizrahi responded that he would take the matter under consideration, as reported last week in The Jerusalem Post.

WHILE HE HAS yet to make a final decision, he appears open to the idea of allowing Israeli Jews into Jericho, Jenin and Bethlehem, three cities known for their relative calm. Israeli Arabs are already allowed into these cities and every Friday – market day – the streets are lined with cars with yellow Israeli license plates.

“This is something to consider,” a senior Central Command officer said. “Building trust is part of the process.”

While the IDF cannot guarantee that nothing will happen to Israelis who visit the West Bank, there is no question that PA cities are safer today than they have been in the last 25 years, mainly because the PA has an interest in keeping things quiet.

The change in the PA leadership, the wakeup call Fatah received from Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip and the continued IDF operations in PA cities have led to anunprecedented drop in terror activity. Even when there is violence, the close coordination between the sides is evident.

On Thursday for example, hours after IDF troops shot and killed a Palestinian burglar who was trying to infiltrate the settlement of Barkan, top Israeli and PA officers inspected the scene and established a joint team to investigate the shooting.

“The Palestinians are different today,” the senior officer explained.

“They are different and the PA’s directives to security forces are different since violence is against their interest as well.”

Building trust and fighting terror are the Central Command’s main missions.

To do this, Mizrahi has instructed his officers to fight ardently against terror but at the same time to be sensitive to the new political reality.

As a result, for example, Mizrahi approved sharpened open fire regulations in the West Bank, under which soldiers cannot automatically shoot at Palestinians throwing stones or even firebombs.

He also meets with every new brigade commander to stress the need for continued coordination with the Palestinians.

With the September 26 expiration of the moratorium on settlement construction approaching, Mizrahi has also instructed his command to prepare for a possible escalation in settler violence if the government decides to extend the freeze. A Jewish attack against Palestinians, the IDF fears, could inflame the entire area and derail the peace process.

SETTLER AND PALESTINIAN violence are linked.

Several months ago, a car traveling on Route 60 near the village of Sinjil was stoned. The driver, according to testimonies of Palestinians, got out of his car, pulled out a gun and shot the stone thrower, killing him. A few hours later, shots were fired at a passing Israeli car.

Mizrahi is also not overly concerned with the Fayyad plan – named for PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state, even unilaterally, by the summer of 2011.

Some officers have warned that if the Palestinians do not achieve statehood via negotiations by then, the PA may decide to turn to violence since it will have around 20,000 armed security officers and policemen, including 10 battalions trained by the US in Jordan.

Unlike these officers, Mizrahi believes that when next summer rolls around, the PA will not return to violence but instead will turn to the international community and present its effective security forces, the new education system, the reformed economy and the newly-established judicial and prisons services.

“They will want to get recognition that they have done everything and have all of the necessary components for a state,” the senior IDF officer explained. “When [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas tells businessmen to come invest in Jenin this is a sign that they do not plan on returning to the path of violence.

They have a lot to lose and they know that we will respond.”

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