Behind the Lines: Strip Search

Gaza has always had a way of pulling Israel's leaders back in.

fatah rally in gaza 298  (photo credit: AP [file])
fatah rally in gaza 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
"We're going home," joked Captain Kobi, standing by his company's Ahzarit armored fighting vehicles at the concentration point near Kibbutz Mefalsim. "I don't even have to learn the map; I know all the routes into Gaza backwards." The soldiers of Givati's Shaked battalion were among the last to leave the area last summer, their AFVs lining the route out of the last Gush Katif settlement evacuated, Netzarim. And now, as the efforts to stem the steady flow of Kassam fire and retrieve kidnapped Corporal Gilad Shalit continue, they're returning to an area they thought they had left for good. Still, none of the soldiers who loaded hand grenades and ammunition boxes into the AFVs seemed upset by their new orders. Although one complained of the heat he knew he would re-experience, "cooped up in those Ahzarits" and longing for the cooler summers of the Golan, the general attitude reflected acceptance of the necessity of the mission. As Captain Kobi commented, "I am not surprised to be going back in - that's the Middle East." But there is some concern in official circles that this resigned response to redeployment is not universally shared. "We have always had an incredibly well-behaved and disciplined army," said a former senior security official this week, "but if I were in the government, I would start worrying about how the young soldiers are beginning to feel now that they're being sent back into Gaza." That may be just one of the reasons that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stressed the impermanent nature of the military operations in Gaza, stating on Wednesday, "We are not reoccupying Gaza and we have no intention in staying there. Our only objective is to return Gilad Shavit to his home and family." This time at least, there's no difficulty in believing that Olmert, the head cheerleader of Ariel Sharon's disengagement, is the last person who wants to see the IDF reestablish its bases between Rafah and Jabaliah. That's why, despite the threatening rhetoric, ground forces had penetrated only a few kilometers into uninhabited areas of the Strip as of Thursday afternoon. Unfortunately, it's highly doubtful that Olmert can succeed where his predecessors failed. As much as Israel's leaders might have wanted to stay out of Gaza, it has always had a way of pulling them back in. THE URGENCY of this week's events obscured a number of historical ironies of the situation. On Tuesday, at the height of the crisis, veterans of the Paratroopers Brigade reconstructed their historic jump of 50 years ago over the Mitla Pass at the start of the 1956 Kadesh Campaign by jumping out of a Hercules plane above Tel Aviv beach (the actual anniversary of the event is in October). Some of those paratroopers also participated in the series of reprisals against the Gaza Strip in the mid-1950s after Fedayeen terrorists, organized and equipped by Egyptian intelligence, killed hundreds of civilians in raids on southern Israel. Those reprisals and the Israeli soldiers who were killed in them are commemorated at the "Black Arrow" memorial next to Kibbutz Mefalsim, just across the fence from Northern Gaza. This week, the field next to the memorial was the concentration area for part of the forces preparing to re-invade. Fifty years, and only the equipment seems to have changed. While 1950s Israeli might was represented by Ariel Sharon's rag-tag Unit 101 with a few rickety jeeps and trucks, the IDF is now advancing into battle with armored columns of Merkava Mk.4 tanks and the most cutting-edge, unmanned aerial vehicles hovering above. But Palestinian terrorists are still mounting raids and killing and kidnapping Israelis. The IDF is still launching reprisals. Egyptian intelligence still has its own shady role in these affairs. In fact, at a conference held this week at Tel Aviv University on the "Defining of Israel's Permanent Borders," Professor Gideon Biger commented that the Strip under Egyptian rule was the original "occupied territories." Gaza might be one of the world's most ancient cities, but the Gaza Strip in its geographical form is a relatively modern creation, carved out by the Egyptian army in the Independence War, from the area originally intended as the Arab state in the United Nation's partition resolution from November 1947. The Strip had quadrupled in population when Palestinian refugees fled there from Israel's victorious forces. It was then that the Egyptians intentionally forced the refugees into the sordid squalor they live in to this day, by prohibiting them from entering the country and from moving elsewhere. One of the objectives of the Kadesh Campaign was to eradicate the terrorist threat emanating from the Strip which was occupied then, along with the rest of the Sinai Peninsula, for five months. But the job wasn't finished in 1948, nor the next time Gaza was captured in 1967. It was only four years later that a period of relative peace was achieved. In 1971, OC Southern Command Ariel Sharon ordered Sayeret Rimon, a small unit commanded by Meir Dagan (now the head of the Mossad), to eradicate terror cells in the Strip by any means necessary. The result, although short-lived, was positive. The Palestinian terror organizations went into exile and Israelis spent their weekends shopping in Gaza. In the mid 1980s, however, a new Islamic power - Hamas- arose in the Strip. Even before the terrorist organization resorted to the all-too-familiar suicide attacks within Israel's cities, one of its specialties was the kidnapping and murder of IDF soldiers. This week's attack on Kerem Shalom proved that Hamas members haven't forgot their old tactics, and that they're capable of executing them even when disengagement was supposed to have effectively shut them out. And so Kobi and his soldiers are re-engaging, retracing their steps into the Strip, however temporarily. BUT THE Gaza vortex threatens to suck Israel in for reasons other than terror, another one of the speakers at the university conference revealed this week. Professor Arieh Shahar, one of Israel's foremost experts on planning policy, said that city development might cause the merger of Israeli and Palestinian cities into joint urban areas. Chief among these threats is the possibility of a continuous urban bloc between Beersheba and Gaza. Almost 40 kilometers divide the two cities, but Shahar believes that ongoing construction around Jewish, Beduin and Palestinian towns like Ofakim, Rahat, Netivot, Sderot and Beit Hanoun could create this bloc in a few decades. The northern suburbs of Gaza are also encroaching on rapidly expanding Ashkelon. While Shahar doesn't believe that the current Israeli solution of hermetically sealing the Strip with border fences is a desirable or even possible long-term policy, he is urging that the government guarantee that a wide agricultural area is maintained to ensure against the eventuality he describes. Shahar's concerns emphasize an underlying reality: Israel is inextricably tied to Gaza, and not solely by security issues. Take the question of labor, for instance. Industry, Trade and Employment Minister Eli Yishai is determined to get rid of most of the estimated 200,000 foreign workers currently in the country. Since nobody seriously believes Israelis will take on such "menial" jobs, workers will have to be come from somewhere in order to prevent the collapse of the construction industry and thousands of factories and farms. The obvious answer is to open the floodgates to hundreds of thousands Palestinian workers, mostly languishing unemployed in Gaza. Only a trickle of Palestinian workers has been allowed into Israel over the last five years for obvious reasons. The influx of workers was the easiest way to infiltrate terrorists into city centers. If Yishai and his cabinet colleagues are serious about not allowing entire neighborhoods to be taken over by foreign workers, their only option is to find a way of bringing back those workers who can go home at end of the day, even if that home is in Gaza. Experts have toyed with a number of possible initiatives to defuse the Gaza population time-bomb. One solution, the Sinai option, could alleviate Palestinian over-crowding and unemployment by allowing Gazans to expand into under-populated Egyptian Sinai where suitable towns and farms could be built. That way the Gazans' problems would not be solved at Israel's expense. The plan has drawn support from a number of people, including former head of the National Security Council, Maj. Gen. (res) Giora Eiland. The only problem with the scheme is that no one who is familiar with the Mubarak regime believes that the Egyptians will ever agree to it. Eiland once broached the idea in high-level talks with the Bush administration, only to suffer a quick put-down by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who told him that "there is more chance of the US giving up one of its states than Egypt giving the Palestinians part of Sinai." Which brings us to a last, ironic historical parallel. This week marked 30 years to the Entebbe operation, in which prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and defense minister Shimon Peres took a huge risk and sent Israeli forces 3,800 kilometers to Uganda. The experiences of Rabin and Peres can't be compared to that of Olmert and Peretz today, nor can their respective situations. Rabin and Peres were tasked with rescuing 98 hostages in darkest Africa. Olmert and Peretz are trying to save one soldier - and an entire nation - held hostage by neighboring Gaza. [email protected]