Everything is a matter of balance, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Doron Almog said on Monday.
We were sitting in his back garden, and the major-general, who held overall responsibility for Gaza as OC Southern Command from 2000 to 2003, was pronouncing himself generally satisfied with the range of actions Israel was taking in its efforts to bring home Cpl. Gilad Shalit and to put a stop to the Kassam fire on Sderot and Ashkelon.
"It may be that we should have moved to more aggressive action to thwart the Kassams before the Kerem Shalom attack [in which Shalit was kidnapped and two soldiers were killed]," Almog said. "But the government decided on a more moderate course of action. And there's no point in talking about 'if only.'
"Now, the fact that a soldier is being held complicates the dilemma. If the government doesn't act firmly, there is the danger that stems from it being perceived as weak. But if it uses a lot of force, there is the danger that those who are holding Shalit will kill him."
Overall, though, Almog said he felt the crisis was being handled properly, with the prime minister finding the right balance between the numerous options - military, economic, diplomatic, etc. - at his disposal.
That was on Monday.
On Wednesday afternoon, as Israeli ground forces punched into Lebanon in search of the two kidnapped soldiers, and before word of the killings of eight others had been cleared for publication by the military censor, I spoke to Almog a second time, by telephone. "Yes, David," he said, unsurprised, when he heard my voice. "You want to complete the interview?"
"Or start it over," I suggested.
AT FIRST glance, Almog is a typical IDF high-flier - squat, sharp, straight-talking, with a career that includes starring roles in the Entebbe rescue and a host of clandestine anti-terror operations, and an extraordinary unblemished record of having overseen the prevention of every single effort by Palestinian bombers to infiltrate into Israel from Gaza during his period as Southern Command chief.
First glances are misleading, however.
He has said in the past that having a son, Eran, who is autistic and mentally disabled, "made me a better human being." It has certainly colored many of his actions, including in the military sphere.
As Leora Eren Frucht reported in The Jerusalem Post last year, it prompted Almog, for instance, to devote unprecedented attention to the welfare of the Negev's most needy population sectors - starting a trend by employing mildly disabled men and women from a Negev home as volunteers for maintenance work at army bases; dispatching troops to clean up old-age homes; boosting educational opportunities for Negev Beduin, sending food to local soup kitchens, even launching a navigation competition for the blind.
The needs of his own son also saw Almog becoming ever more involved with a nonprofit group, Aleh, which cares for hundreds of physically and mentally disabled children nationwide. It was, ironically, when embarking on a fund-raising trip to London for Aleh last September that Almog was advised by the local Israeli military attach to stay on his El Al plane because a warrant for his arrest for war crimes - relating to the demolition of homes in Gaza in 2002 - was waiting for him if he disembarked. (He firmly rejects the allegations, insisting both that the "homes" in question, in Rafah, were not permanent structures and that concern for saving lives was the paramount consideration, and justified in international law.)
His challenges at home have also probably contributed to Almog's general temperance as a military analyst - his disinclination to unleash savage critiques or drastic calls for policy changes. Such moderation was amply evidenced in our long interview on Monday, when he couched concerns about the process by which Israel had left Gaza last summer in generally restrained language. When we spoke, more briefly, on Wednesday, however, he was far more strident. "This a whole new situation," he said of the aftermath of the Hizbullah attack, "and it requires us to change the rules of the game."
Below are excerpts of the two conversations:
What do you mean by "changing the rules of the game?"
Hizbullah is seeking to seize upon the momentum gained by Hamas. It has opened a second front, and exploited an Israeli vulnerability. Negotiating with Hizbullah over the kidnapped soldiers, in the way we had begun to do with Hamas, would be a mistake. First and foremost, we have to strike a heavy blow, a very heavy blow, to Hizbullah - from the very top of its leadership, all the way down to the field, to the infrastructure, the force they've built up. There is no escaping our need to do this.
The other side needs to understand that we will not accept years of attrition, where they determine the nature of the war. If, in a week or two from now, Hizbullah is left with only 10 percent of its forces, it will understand that. It needs to be thrown completely off balance.
Target Hizbullah, and not the sovereign government, the Lebanese government that allows it freedom of action?
The government in Beirut is weak. If we start hitting the generators in Beirut, we'll lose international support and the government there will just say it is helpless to act. This [Hizbullah attack] was a brutal action. Hizbullah is very extreme and very dominant in Lebanon. We need to strike Hizbullah - from the air, the sea, and with ground forces - over a matter of days, maximum weeks. Not months.
We are absolutely capable of taking the right military steps on both fronts - the north and Gaza - simultaneously. But the priority now is Lebanon. The priority now is Hizbullah.
Obviously, there is a very clear connection between what's been happening in Gaza and what's going on in the North. Hizbullah and Hamas are connected. They are sharing information. They share a non-reconciliation to the fact of Israel's existence.
In Gaza, the soldier [Shalit] isn't the only hostage. We have two whole towns held hostage - Sderot and Ashkelon. We have to put an end to that.
It's worth looking at the wider picture [with the Palestinians]. Our goal is to achieve calm - an end to the Kassams; no terror - some kind of long-term truce. But there are limitations to what can be achieved by force. Our army's strength can achieve a lot, but what we have today cannot completely halt the Kassam fire.
Even if we used immense force, even if we were to push the populations of northern Gaza south and clear the ground, even then there'd be no guarantee of a complete end to the Kassams. They could extend the range of the rockets. (They certainly will extend the range of the Kassams anyway.) And there would still be areas in which the Kassam crews could hide.
We have a constant air presence and surveillance. We have a range of ultra-sophisticated electro-optic networks along the whole Gaza perimeter fence, but still there are limitations - weather, topography, the frequency with which those monitoring the networks can sweep across each area. They can dig tunnels. There are houses...
When I was in charge of Gaza I decided on a buffer zone extending one kilometer into Gaza. But there are places, like at Kerem Shalom, where some of the buildings - homes and hothouses - are closer and we did not take them down.
Because of petitions to the Supreme Court?
Lots of reasons - including the Supreme Court. I appeared at the Supreme Court almost 200 times.
The tunnel used at Kerem Shalom, in your opinion, was begun in one of the buildings in that buffer zone?
Yes, in my opinion, they dug from inside a house. It was a major operation that took months. They managed to distribute tons of earth without the people in the area noticing. There are only three families in Gaza capable of having done it. It involves special digging equipment, lighting, phones...
Tell us a little more about the anatomy of a tunnel.
This one, I believe, was about 60-70 centimeters wide and a meter high. They go along it on a board with wheels or on tracks. It was probably about six or seven meters underground, to avoid detection and collapse. We've seen them 30 meters deep. They put "waiting rooms" along the route, and air pipes out to the surface which they camouflage with plants. It's real expertise.
I imagine there are more being dug right now.
To prevent them, you'd say Israel needs to completely clear the 1 km. buffer zone?
Absolutely. They won't agree, of course. They'll say "it's our land." But we need to make clear that they have to stay out or they'll be arrested or fired on, not to kill.
After a 1-km. zone was cleared, your successors would say, "the other side has adapted," and seek to clear a deeper zone.
Yes, the other side will always "design around."
In my time as OC Southern Command, they made 400 efforts to get out of Gaza and into Israel [to carry out attacks]. All the efforts to get through the fence failed. Because they kept getting stopped at the fence, they started developing the rockets. That's the nature of war - "designing around" to reshape the battlefield. If they can't get over a fence, they tunnel beneath it. If not tunnels, hang gliders...
So Israel needs to do what?
Israel needs good intelligence and the capacity to act upon it.
Israel is always confronting three major threats: One, the long-range missiles and non-conventional threat from Iran. Two, conventional armies and threats - from Syria, Hizbullah, even Egypt, where there's peace, but if the regime changes... Three, terror - which is taking a heavy price, impacting daily life and the economy, and distracting the army from the other two challenges.
Specifically, how can Israel stop the Kassams?
We need missiles that can stop them. We have a certain ability relating to long-range missiles - the Arrow and so on - but that's only one answer. The technical challenge is to find a 100% answer. That's what you need against the nuclear threat.
It sounds almost impossible.
We are making progress. It's an immense challenge for the defense of the world, and certainly for us.
In the absence of a 100% answer to the Kassams, we need an envelope of solutions. We need intelligence on those carrying out the attacks, a means to hit the preparations for launch, a means to hit the launch. The heat released by the launch gives that ability - we can detect the heat, and connect that to a weapon that can directly hit the person doing the launching within seconds. But you have to be sure that you're hitting them and not others.
And you need deterrence - so it won't be worth firing. The problem is who you are trying to deter, and that's a matter of rationality of leadership.
Is a suicide bomber rational, susceptible to deterrence? Is his dispatcher? These are questions without absolute answers. But there is an assumption that the leaders are rational and have something to lose and thus are susceptible...
What does Ismail Haniyeh have to lose?
His government could lose power. Some pretty clear signals have been sent: We've arrested many of his ministers; some of his friends have been killed - [Hamas leaders Abdel Aziz] Rantisi and [Sheikh] Yassin. He knows we can get to him, so he could be killed.
Does he really think he might lose power? The Palestinian public just voted Hamas into office.
The Palestinian street is divided. I think it's an issue for him, that possibility. There's a closure on Gaza; he's not getting money.
But he places all the blame for that on Israel, breeding hostility to Israel.
Yes, every escalation will always have them blaming us. But he still has to pay salaries to tens of thousands of people in the administration. They can revolt tomorrow morning and go elsewhere - to Jihad, to Fatah. There are no vacuums. They might not stay with him. He has the danger of losing the street. And he has a responsibility as prime minister to provide answers. He doesn't want to recognize Israel but he wants to give his people a better reality. How long can he hold onto the armed struggle, blood and fire? Until when? His people need food and education and health care.
And Israel is following the right path on this?
It's very complex. The local leadership has more control over the Kassams than it may have had on the kidnapping [of Shalit], which may have been under the influence of Khaled Mashaal and Hamas outside the territories. So the pressure needs to be on Hamas outside, Hamas here, the street, the gunmen, the neighboring countries, Western countries and the international community.
Ultimately, the crisis is being handled properly. It's finding a balance... trial and error... a targeted strike here, an air raid there, use of artillery, ground forces, special forces, economic pressure, a sonic boom over the palace of Assad, messages to Mubarak, contacts with the US, Europe and the rest of the international community, and so on.
Who sets that balance?
Ultimately, the prime minister. The chief of staff has a lot of influence. There's also the Mossad and other secret channels. The Foreign Ministry, diplomats, military attaches.
You don't urge more drastic action in Gaza - warning the residents to vacate, and then clearing out a neighborhood from where Kassams are fired?
If you ask me, we should have done that.
But you just said the balance of operations was appropriate?
The balance generally looks right to me. Generally. There are lots of elements. Part of the solution to the Kassams does require changing the topography of northern Gaza. My whole issue [with the war crimes accusation] in London relates to what the Palestinians claim was the destruction of 59 houses in Gaza. It wasn't 59 and it wasn't houses; it was unroofed kinds of storerooms/yards. Destroying houses, by the way, is legitimate according to international law; it talks of saving life and proportionality.
We try to be proportionate. Our policy is only to hit terrorists, not civilians. And when we hit civilians we apologize. Their policy is absolutely different: yes to hitting civilians.
It may be that one day the question of proportionality will arise, not in connection with whether to hit civilians, but how widely to hit the armed and to hit property. If there's a 9/11 here tomorrow, God forbid, and 5,000 fatalities, would you continue with the same rules you've followed to date? The Americans ultimately dropped the bomb [in World War II] on civilians. They'd paid so heavy a price and felt that was the only way...
Maybe our proportionality means more innocents die in the end?
And maybe [less proportionality] would have brought more attacks and more suicide bombers.
Is it possible to find a middle ground between stopping the bombers, on the one hand, and not creating fertile ground for the extremists to recruit, on the other, especially when the leadership is encouraging terror?
The most important factor is education. So long as in schools and mosques they are recruiting suicide bombers... Today the Palestinian street is full of hatred and demonization of Israel. It has nothing to do with what force we use. They exploit every incident.
And you have a leadership that strategically wants to encourage that mind-set?
So you try to put the elements together. Today, knocking out a few homes in Beit Hanun might stop a Kassam or two, but it would unite the international community against you, bolster Palestinian hostility, increase the suicide bombing efforts. And you have to look at the overall picture. To judge whether those few hundred extra meters of cleared land where you can now see everything is worth it.
It's the leadership that will decide whether to stop the Kassams and bring back [Shalit] - the local and the overseas leadership. And the leadership will determine what education is given.
Where does disengagement figure into that overall strategic picture?
It was possible to assess that disengagement would bolster their sense of victory: "Strong Israel pulled out after five years of us hitting them hard; our bombers are martyrs and they brought us victory." That sense of victory was exploited by the extremist camp and had a considerable influence on the change of power and Hamas's victory.
Israel's policymakers knew Hamas would seize on disengagement as proof of victory, but determined that Israel's other interests outweighed that concern?
Indeed, there was a concern to minimize the daily friction between Israelis and Palestinians - and that is at the basis of Ehud Olmert's realignment plan, too. The idea was to ensure a Jewish majority in the State of Israel and thus separate strategically. That was a prime consideration. Another was to bolster international legitimacy, to change the perception of Israel as occupier. Arafat always said "We're not terror fighters, we're freedom fighters, fighting an occupying power." The world bought that claim. So now along came Israel and said, "We're giving up 100% of the territory [in Gaza]" - and it did win Israel international support.
But if anyone thought it would yield complete calm, he was wrong. For them, disengagement was perceived as victory and helped Hamas to power and encouraged more armed struggle. It didn't encourage a perception of the need to negotiate, but rather that force could bear political fruit.
Did the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? And what of the repercussions for realignment?
The idea of strategic separation between the two peoples is a correct idea, to our benefit.
I have some tactical criticisms of disengagement. First, the Philadelphi corridor should have stayed in our hands, to prevent smuggling; the Strip is filling with arms.
Second, in the north of the Strip, I thought we should hold onto the Dugit, Nissanit, Elei Sinai enclave because of the fear of Kassams on Ashkelon and also because the territorial argument isn't over. That we were able to say we gave up 100% of Gaza is meaningless since they want 100% of it all.
Third, we should have reached an international understanding, with the US and Europe, that this is a strategic move of great significance so that when we uproot our residents, the Palestinian refugees should be moved out of their camps and into new neighborhoods. There is a refugee culture - they live in great density, poverty, amid incitement. A nakba [catastrophe] culture. They have eternalized their refugee issue. They could have knocked down these camps long ago and built neighborhoods. Before we moved on disengagement, the other side should have had a program for destroying the refugee camps and building modern neighborhoods. Jabalya refugee camp, where 100,000 people live -- they're firing from there - should have been torn down and new neighborhoods built in Netzarim or Gush Katif. The UN, UNRWA, Europe should have been there, with the money, building...
But the PA would not have agreed to that as a condition for an Israeli pullout.
It would have required some kind of agreement. Israel should have demanded an answer because they are manufacturing hatred there.
The last mistake was in the way we handled our uprooted citizens. On the day it was decided to disengage, they should have decided to replicate Gush Katif in the Negev. There's plenty of room, and plenty of moshavim in the South that could do with a boost. A farmer who had 100 dunams [in Gaza] should have gotten the same there.
What are the implications of all that for the West Bank?
Strategic separation between us and them is important. The 1967 border is not realistic for us - there's a different reality, there are the big settlement blocs. Israel needs to set its red lines. The prime minister has spoken of setting permanent borders. That's a big challenge, because I don't see an other side that would be prepared for the borders that our state would accept.
If we do go to such a [realignment] move, we need to learn the lessons [from Gaza] about how to produce a change on the other side - incentives and threats to advance regional stability; that it be worth it for them economically; educational programs; international support on one hand and on the other firm implementation of positions relating to terror; setting rules of the game relating to fire on Israeli cities...
Most importantly, though, I say separation, yes, but unilateral realignment, no. Not unilateral. Only move when there is someone to talk to on the other side. That's one of the lessons of Gaza.
Maybe that other side won't be forthcoming. Maybe they don't seek coexistence. Maybe they think they're winning.
They're not. The State of Israel is moving forward much faster than the Palestinians. Strategically, we're winning. Despite the pain. Despite the 1,000-plus terror victims - a terrible price. The Almog family in Haifa lost five members in the Maxim bombing. But the State of Israel is continuing to strengthen and the Palestinians are weakening.
Israel has to give maximal security to its citizens and create conditions for economic growth and stability and normal life, so that we can sit here without fear and go out in the evenings and do business. And in most places, that's been achieved. People are not terrified now, in the way they were three or four years ago, about getting on a bus or going to a hotel or going to a mall. That's an incredible achievement by the security establishment.
The number of terror alerts hasn't fallen, but the proportion of thwarted attacks has soared. And that's due to a range of factors. There are failures, like Kerem Shalom, but dozens upon dozens of successes. There have been close to 150 suicide bombings that "succeeded" and more than 800 that were thwarted.
But we have to find answers for Sderot and Ashkelon - the best answers we can.
The great advantage of disengagement is that it changed international attitudes to Israel for the better. It brought more international legitimacy and a recognition that Israel seeks separation and is ready to talk peace, and less sympathy for terror. Terror has hit New York and London and Madrid and is recognized as a threat to humanity. These suicide attacks are a kind of insanity and the international community cannot accept that.
[Former prime minister] Sharon knew exactly the disadvantages of leaving the Philadelphi route and the northern enclave. For him it was more important to accumulate more international points. I disagree because I think ultimately a government has to protect its people, and you have a city [Sderot] living in fear. So balancing legitimacy against that? He would have gotten international legitimacy, just a little less.
In Lebanon, Hizbullah has used the Shaba farms as a pretext to keep its terror going. There was a concern about something similar in Gaza if we didn't leave 100%. Well, they got 100% and still kept on. So that pretext isn't the issue.
The whole confrontation between us and them is over a readiness to compromise. Israel has said that it is ready to compromise. The other side says "No, we're not ready to compromise. Let's have another round."