Security & Defense: Future Tense

A Shin Bet report providing terrorism statistics released this week does not bode well for 2008.

Hamas gunmen 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Hamas gunmen 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
It wasn't that terrorists didn't try last year; they simply didn't succeed. Take a look at the statistics: In 2007, Palestinians carried out 2,946 terror attacks against Israel, nine fewer than in 2006, and 127 fewer than in 2005. Kassam rocket attacks stayed around the same number, with one significant difference - the amount of mortar fire, which jumped from 55 shells last year to a whopping 1,511 in 2007. In spite of these attacks, a relatively low number of Israelis - 13, to be exact - were killed in them. This is due in part to the significant drop in suicide bombings; only one was successfully carried out in 2007, in comparison to six in 2006 and 60 four years earlier. These statistics and others were released on New Year's Eve by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) as part of a report titled "Palestinian Terrorism - Statistics and Trends in 2007." Though the report does not provide assessments or conclusions about the survivability of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for example, it does strongly hint at the likelihood that terrorism will increase in 2008, particularly in the absence of a diplomatic breakthrough. Defense officials have predicted that despite the ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the chances of reaching a deal by the end of the year, as the US is pushing for, are slim to nil. According to the report, the main source of Palestinian terrorism is in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is basically unimpeded in its military buildup. This is demonstrated in three ways. First is the continued smuggling of weapons from Egypt into Gaza. According to the Shin Bet, more than 130 tons of explosives have been smuggled into Gaza since Israel's 2005 unilateral withdrawal - more than 80 tons of which have entered since Hamas's violent takeover of the Strip in June. Because of this, the Air Force fears that Hamas has gotten its hands on anti-aircraft shoulder-to-air missiles. As a result - as was reported in The Jerusalem Post this week - only helicopters equipped with missile defense systems are being allowed to fly over Gaza. The second aspect of the Hamas military buildup is the tunnel and bunker system extending throughout Gaza. The third element has to do with the makeup of the Hamas military. No longer a medium-sized terrorist group responsible for suicide bombings and shooting attacks, Hamas has turned into a full-fledged army, with brigades, battalions and special forces. THE ASSESSMENT for the coming year is that not much will change in Gaza, particularly if it remains under Hamas control, and not that of Abbas. Meanwhile, the defense establishment is divided on the question of what needs to be done there. OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant and commander of the Gaza Division Brig.-Gen. Moshe "Chico" Tamir are the proponents of a large-scale operation aimed at destroying or weakening Hamas. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has also repeatedly said that it is only a "matter of time" before such an operation is launched. On the other side is IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.- Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who - contrary to popular belief - is not in favor of a massive invasion into Gaza. There are a number of reasons for hesitation, foremost among them the timing: It is a little over a month since the Annapolis peace summit, two weeks after the beginning of negotiations with the Palestinians and only days before US President George W. Bush makes his historic visit to Jerusalem. A large-scale operation in Gaza, officials say, would be unwise at this juncture. Another reason for caution is the risk involved in a large-scale operation. First of all, there is the question of the "day after." If Israel invades Gaza to cleanse it of Hamas while Abbas is still not capable of taking control, Israel would have to reoccupy Gaza, which is the last thing it wants. Secondly, though an operation in Gaza would be limited in scope and time, it would not be "in and out." To really hurt Hamas and impair its ability to launch attacks, IDF troops would have to enter deep into the densely populated and heavily built-up Palestinian territory to hunt down terrorist suspects, Kassam manufacturing plants and weapons caches. Troops would also most likely have to take up positions along the Philadelphi Corridor in southern Gaza, where dozens of tunnels are used for the smuggling of weapons and explosives. All of this would mean heavy casualties on the Israeli side. Some defense officials even predict that the number could surpass the 119 soldiers killed in the Second Lebanon War. As a result, Ashkenazi today prefers a different approach - a complete disengagement from the territory, including the closure of all the crossings, as well as a full stopping of the delivery of fuel and electricity. THE SITUATION in Judea and Samaria is slightly different. Though, according to defense establishment assessments, Hamas is just as strong in the West Bank as it is in Gaza - particularly when it comes to the social services it provides - the IDF's freedom of movement and operations there is serving as the sole obstacle to the terror group's ability to overthrow Abbas. And though Israelis have indeed been killed over the past year there - such as off-duty soldiers David Rubin and Ahikam Amihai, who were gunned down during a hike near Hebron last Friday - the IDF and the Shin Bet have basically prevented all attempts by terror groups to infiltrate Israeli cities and perpetrate suicide bombings. This is in comparison to five years ago, when 62 attacks in Israel originating in the West Bank claimed the lives of 234 Israelis. IDF units operate daily in West Bank cities. In Nablus alone during the past year, dozens of terror laboratories were uncovered, hundreds of suspects were arrested and the city's Islamic Jihad infrastructure was severely weakened through the killing of nine of its senior operatives and the arrest of an additional 11.