A reluctant general goes to America

IDF pullout commander Dan Harel never considered himself a career military man.

dan harel 88 (photo credit: )
dan harel 88
(photo credit: )
In a hastily arranged briefing for military reporters one sultry day last March, OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel was detailing just how the IDF withdrawal from the Gaza Strip would take place. Harel found himself at the heart of one of the biggest rifts the nation has ever known. Predictions were apocalyptic. In addition, Kassam rockets were hitting Israeli communities and the use of brute military force inside crowded Palestinian towns was the only solution for fighting back. Harel's military career seemed destined for an inglorious finish to say the least. "I've already lost. Before we have even started [the disengagement]. I've lost," Harel lamented then in a rare moment of candor. This was unusual because as Israeli generals go, Harel seemed the least concerned with his image or legacy. Faced with the formidable task of overall commander of the Gaza disengagement, Harel prepared for the worst. He spoke of a huge schism splitting the nation. He predicted gunfire with opponents of the disengagement and dozens of Israeli casualties. He said there would be a huge logistical headache with thousands of vehicles and tens of thousands of troops operating in limited space. And he foretold of large forces taking on Palestinian militants trying to chase Israel out of the Gaza Strip in a bloody firefight. Well it turned out that "Papa smurf" - as the settlers of Gush Katif called him because of his white beard - did not lose. He succeeded not only in carrying out his mission and withdrawing the Jewish settlers and IDF forces from the Gaza Strip without injury, but also in presenting to the world the rarely seen image of an empathetic IDF. Nevertheless, his tumultuous two years in command presented the stocky 50-yearold with a number of instances that could have tarred his leadership with failure: The killing of 20 Palestinian civilians in Rafah by a stray tank round; the deaths of Givati soldiers in tragic APC explosions, one in Zeitun and another along the tunnel-ridden Philadelphi corridor; numerous bloody incursions inside the Gaza Strip, the firing of Gaza Divisional commander Brig.-Gen. Shmuel Zakai, and the deployment of cannons again on the front for the first time since the 1967 war. Critics were also jarred by his military roots as an artillery officer: He wasn't a product of the elite infantry units or the armored corps. He also shied away from the media, preferring the limelight be given to his commanders in the field. The Jerusalem Post caught up with Harel during his last weeks as head of Southern Command - a post he is due to turn over to Maj.-Gen. Yoav Gallant next week. Although he is still ready for action, warning that in the Middle East anything could happen between now and the command handover, he was also ready to reflect back on his initial fears about the disengagement. "First of all I believe I was realistic," Harel says. "The chance of succeeding was very low. You have to understand the meaning of success. Contrary to other military terms, here the meaning was national success. I don't think there was any question of whether physically we could carryout the disengagement. In the end if you bring enough people or force you can do it. "It is really not a mechanical question, but one of how we as a society would emerge from this. It was an incident that sat on the rift between different political opinions. It was the first time in 38 years that the argument [came to a head] between those who hold fast to leaving the territories we captured in 1967 Netzarim, statements "succeed" at times. peppering his with the word least a dozen "We succeeded in avoiding casualties. We succeeded in maintaining the respect of those evacuated and we succeeded in this without causing irreparable damage," Harel said. "When we started this process we assumed we'd come out with either a scratch, a crack or a schism. I think we succeeded in coming out with only a scratch," Harel said. "And that means and those who believe they are our political or ideological homelands. It was the first time that we reached a crossing of this rift line. So my concern was huge. "In retrospect, Israeli society has apparently not been deeply harmed because of the way it was carried out. There are very many things that Israel society has to clarify for itself. There are many whose understanding of the world clashed with reality," Harel says. Several weeks ago, at dusk on the day his troops rounded up and removed the last Jewish settlers from the last settlement in the Gaza Strip, Harel spoke to i in this will heal." Harel was to have ended his 31 years of service after the disengagement, but was chosen, perhaps as a reward for a job well done, to be the IDF's military attach in Wa s h i n g t o n , the defense establishment's point man with its biggest strategic ally. He takes up the post from Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin this fall after a quick crash course for military attach s. Harel, while avoiding media interviews during his career, was able to adjust handsomely to the spotlight trained on him while leading the disengagement. Before the operation he was actually against too much media access. The media, in his eyes, were a bother and best controlled by pool reporting where the army could corral them in. When Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz intervened and sided with IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Miri Regev's view that the whole campaign be opened to the media, Harel took it in stride. He ended up appearing before the press daily, portraying the IDF in a refreshingly calm and informative voice. At the General Staff round table - made up of infantry, armor men and pilots - Harel has been a sort of odd man out. He is only the third artillery officer to become a member of the General Staff. The first two held desk jobs decades ago while Harel was the first to become the head of a regional command. Raised in the port city of Haifa, Harel was drafted into the pilots' course 31 years ago in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. He transferred to the artillery and rose through the ranks. He picked up his smooth and fluent English while attending the US Army artillery course at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. By 1995 he was named commander of the IDF artillery corps. It was during this period he began to get firsthand experience in the politics of war. During the 1996 Operations Grapes of Wrath against Hizbullah, IDF artillery shells smashed into a UN building in the Lebanese village of Kfar Kana killing over 100 civilians. The reaction forced Israel to cut short the incursion before its objectives were reach. Harel was sent to the United Nations in New York to explain Israel's case: That it had been drawn into a trap by Hizbullah's launching of Katyusha rockets from inside the UN compound. During his command, the artillery corps implemented a massive upgrade and introduced precision munitions and improved its manpower quality. After three years in command of the artillery, when his predecessors usually mustered out of the service, Harel was snatched by then defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai to become his military aide. By the time his two-year stint at the Defense Ministry was over he had served under Mordechai's successor Moshe Arens and later Ehud Barak. In this position he was instrumental in drafting the security arrangements with the Palestinians for the Wye Plantation agreement. He was also involved in the military side of peace talks with Syria during the same period. In 2000, the IDF wanted him back and he was appointed commander of an armored division. A year later he was promoted to major-general and took over as head of the Operations Directorate. It was while he held this position that the conflict with the Palestinians reached its height and the IDF carried out its largest mobilization since the Lebanon War, reoccupying the West Bank during Operation Defensive Shield in 2003. He also played a key role in Israeli planning ahead of the US invasion of Iraq. The skills honed here, coordinating between the ground forces, the air force and Shin Bet (Israel Security Service) were to come in handy as OC Southern Command. In July 2003, Harel took over this post, held by such legendary characters as Ariel Sharon, Assaf Simhoni, Yeshayahu Gavish, Shmuel Gordish and more recently Matan Vilna'i, Shaul Mofaz and Doron Almog. It is said that his style of leadership was no-nonsense; no chummy backslapping from him. He was more to the point with no room for cutting corners. Perhaps this is the legacy of being an artillery officer where they hurl tons of powerful destruction beyond the horizon at unseen enemies. Perfect accuracy is required. Ironically, Harel found himself facing the dilemma of using artillery amid civilians once again last month when the IDF fired 155 mm. self-propelled howitzers along the Gaza Strip border for the first time in 38 years in retaliation for Kassam rocket strikes on Sderot. "I felt kind of saddened that we had to continue fighting with the [Palestinians in the] Gaza Strip after we completed the withdrawal from there and returned the territory to the responsibility of the Palestinians," Harel says. But he Harel says the Palestinians have received the message - for now. "Everything in the eastern Mediterranean is limited by time. I fear that we will have to return and deal with this in the future. I only hope it will be as long from now as possible." "It could be that the Palestinians have conditioned us over the years to a situation [in which there is] a lack of control, that this is a situation which we accept as natural," Harel says. This isn't the only place where Harel sees control wanting. He is also critical of Egypt for not living up to its agreement to seal with Philadelphi corridor with its beefed up forces. "They are not preventing the smuggling on the border or within Egypt proper. A lot of ammunition and weapons are coming from Sinai. They are being stored in the Sinai and transferred to the Palestinian side. [The Egyptians] are not imposing their responsibility as a sovereign state. They didn't do it before and they aren't doing it now," says Harel. "This is Egypt deploy 750 troops along the Egypt-Gaza border, Harel says the Egyptians have refused to expand contacts with the IDF beyond liaison officers. "I'm sorry that the Egyptians believe that the links with the IDF have to be held through liaison officers. I think direct links between commanders could help. It all depends on the motivation of that state. If they decided to end the smuggling of so many terror weapons - I am talking of thousands of everything - then in my opinion there wouldn't be any smuggling. The way it looks now is very bad." "The problem is not one of a border, but a region. These weapons are coming from some place. They are traveling across the Sinai. They are coming from Egyptian citizens, and these Egyptians are selling them to the Palestinians. We expect them to impose their laws on these Egyptian citizens. This is what is needhave helped avoid another tragic incident under Harel's command two years ago in which Israel killed Egyptian soldiers for the first time in over 30 years when a tank fired at three of them by mistake. In light of the recent threat of arrest in London of his predecessor Maj.-Gen. Doron Almog for alleged war crimes, Harel considers momentarily whether he fears traveling to London. "No. The bottom line is that I am not afraid to go to London. I don't think I did anything illegal." Harel says the cynical attempt to use outdated rules of war against those fighting terror was "nothing more than harassment." "And why should they stop at generals?" he asks sardonically. "It can continue to colonels and lieutenant- colonels and even to the single soldier who had the fortune of being a sniper or demolitions man or dog operator. It doesn't matter. "More than anything, I am angered by the double standard of blames the Palestinian refusal to curb terror for forcing Israel's hand. "We were forced to deploy various weapons there," he says. "On the other hand it seemed very natural to me that in a situation where the State of Israel is being threatened, when rockets were landing in Sderot and in a lot of kibbutzim and communities in the area, that the army bring all the tools in its arsenal to face a territory which is under the sovereignty of another entity and demand from it to implement its responsibility." Harel confides that when he ordered the artillery deployed along the Gaza Strip he had pangs of concern that a repeat of the Kfar Kana debacle was possible. "But it was similar to the same concerns we have when we use the air force in such a crowded area like the Gaza Strip, or when we fire from a tank or carry out a ground operation." "That said, we understand the level of accuracy of every weapon "We have a lot to learn from the Americans," he says. "They have a sophisticated, modern army with advanced combat concepts." "I think," he adds, "that we can cooperate on a professional level and share with them some of the lessons we have learned, mainly due to our continuous war on terror for decades." Harel, who couldn't immediately recall the last time he read a book for pleasure, expects a slower pace of life - to put it mildly - once he gets to Washington. "I think the missions there are important, but I hope they don't require phone calls at 2 a.m.," he jokes. Harel was never considered part of any clique in the general staff. He was never a wagon that needed a horse to pull him along. In fact, he never even saw himself as a career military man. "I have been in the army for 31 years simply by chance. The fact is, I sign on year by year. At the end of every command I considered leaving the service. I think in the United States they have such a thing as a '20-year-man.' I was never a 20-year-man," he says. Harel said he couldn't recall any specific moment when he decided he would spend his life in uniform. Yet he and others of his generation were moved by the lessons learned at bitter cost in the Yom Kippur War, that the existence of the State of Israel was not to be taken for granted. "After I was the chief artillery officer I wanted to be discharged. And I was head of Operations and wanted to end my career after that. Now I was OC Southern Command and wanted to get released. But in ed." In the meantime, Harel has diverted some of the forces once deployed in the Gaza Strip to the 240-kilometer border with Egypt to halt smuggling. He said sophisticated technology is also being installed to control the border. Perhaps such equipment might an uncontrolled 'wild west' where tens of thousands of people have crossed to the Egyptian side. According to Egyptian figures, some 90,000 to 100,000 Palestinians have crossed to their side." Despite Israel's agreement to let the British where they define their combat one way and everything beyond that as something immoral." "I hope the British and the rest of the world will understand that they have to adjust their legal system for a different kind of warfare." Harel also believes a global network needs to be developed to share operational and professional information on combating terror. Harel does not see his role in Washington as an arms salesman as military attach s in other countries do. He sees an opportunity for increasing the cooperation with US armed forces, including expanding not only weapons development but also joint cooperation. With Israel receiving over $2 billion in US military aid annually, one of Harel's jobs will be to follow up on the host of weapons deals the IDF has made the end I think this is the story of the IDF. We are not soldiers because we choose it as a way of life. We are soldiers out of necessity. "I participated in hundreds of operations and a number of wars including this one of the past five years that has no name. I didn't like it. But it was clear to me why I stayed in. I don't regret it. Still, I would have been happier if Israel had been in a position that would have allowed me to have been a civilian where I could have tried my potential in different fields." But beyond that he will oversee and cultivate the sharing of military expertise between the US military and the IDF. This includes joint weapons development as well as integrating Israeli military expertise with US technological advances and we restrict them accordingly. We try very, very hard - perhaps more than any other army in the world - to make sure that there are no civilian casualties. And I am delighted to say that after five days of battle, after hundreds of sorties by the air force and firing dozens of artillery rounds etc., we hit only the areas we targeted."