Defense: Pinpointing the problem

Some in MoD fear that only alternative to targeted killings is a ground incursion into Gaza.

peretz halutz press 88 (photo credit: Channel 1)
peretz halutz press 88
(photo credit: Channel 1)
Wednesday's botched Israel Air Force strike against terrorists in Gaza, in which two innocent Palestinians - a pregnant woman and her brother - were killed, might have caused no more than a minor stir had it not come in the immediate wake of two other such catastrophes. Within a 10-day period, a mere three terrorists were hit, while civilian casualties, among them young children, reached 13. How did this happen? Senior officers in charge of carrying out government policy according to which specific terrorists are targeted in preference to more major military operations, described this week's "miss" to The Jerusalem Post as follows: The mood in the IAF War Room in Tel Aviv was tense. The car packed with terrorists, on their way to launching a large-scale attack against Israelis, that Intelligence had been tracking for several hours made its way down a narrow road in Khan Younis in southern Gaza. The chief War Room commander - called the "controller" - had been waiting for the precise moment when the car would be within target range, yet out of the way of civilians. Suddenly, he announced "Permission granted" to the pilot hovering over the area. The pilot then fired two missiles on the car. The atmosphere in the room lightened briefly... until the dust settled. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle hovering over the target transmitted photos showing that one of the missiles completely missed its target. What it hit was a nearby building - with people inside. DOES THIS failure mean that the defense establishment has been taking for granted its expertise in locating, tracking and eliminating a target from the air without causing collateral damage? Not at all, according to senior officers, who say that IAF has come a long way since it first began implementing the "targeted-killing" policy during the second intifada. For example, it no longer drops one-ton bombs, as it did to kill Hamas leader Salah Shehada in 2002 - an event which led to the complete demolition of a building and the killing of 14 civilians, including children. Since that time, say officers, the IAF has developed four different weapons systems for use in targeted missile strikes, and is constantly on the lookout for new and more precise weapons. It is also in the process of developing a missile specially designed for use in urban areas which will drastically reduce the level of collateral damage. It would seem, then, that "targeted killings" - which have increased by 70 percent since 2004 - are still the preferred method of dealing with Palestinian terrorism. One of the reasons for this, according to officials, is the "bad-guy-good-guy" ratio when it comes to calculating casualties. In 2002, one civilian per terrorist was killed. In 2005, the ratio changed dramatically to only one civilian per 20 terrorists. This success rate, say defense officials, is made possible by advanced technology developed by Israeli defense industries through the high level of integration and communication between the various defense branches. In addition to the IAF War Room at the Kirya Military Headquarters in Tel Aviv, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the Southern Command in Beersheba have similar set-ups, all of which are in 24-hour-a-day contact with each other. The green light for a strike is given by the chief-of-staff and the defense minister, and under certain circumstances, authorization by the prime minister is required. The officers who man the IAF War Room are handpicked by the air force commander. The War Room in Beersheba, fairly new, is the brainchild of OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant, previously prime minister Ariel Sharon's military attach . Here, officers gather and analyze bits and pieces of intelligence and distribute the information to the other military branches with which they are in constant touch. SINCE DISENGAGEMENT 11 months ago, targeted killings have had another major goal, as well: to keep the IDF out of Gaza. Air Force Commander Eliezer Shkedy told the Post this week that the alternative is a massive ground incursion into Gaza - something he is reluctant to order. "We need to do everything we can to prevent it," he said carefully, as one calculating his next move in a game of chess, reportedly his favorite pastime. "But the possibility exists, and the other side knows it." Defense Minister Amir Peretz, too, opposes a ground incursion, but goes a step further. At the Caesaria Conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Peretz demonstrated his distress at the news of the botched IAF strike by putting his head in his hands and declaring that as a "peace-minded defense minister," he believes dialogue with the Palestinians, not military force, is the only way to achieve quiet. Indeed, if the missile strikes continue to miss their targets, Peretz is liable to stop approving them. He already suspended artillery fire on Gaza, despite the findings proving that the blast killing seven Palestinian family members on the beach two weeks ago was not from IDF artillery. And following Wednesday's incident, he met with Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz and ordered him to cancel future missions if they involve even a chance of innocent civilians being harmed. However, IAF officers reiterated that - with Kassam rockets still hitting Sderot and other places in the Negev - the minute an Israeli is killed, the whole game will change.