Security and Defense: Preparing for 'the day after'

Make no mistake: The real end-game is taking place not in Gaza or Israel, but in Cairo and Washington.

idf staging ground check caption 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
idf staging ground check caption 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The real work for the Foreign Ministry and IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu will start once Operation Cast Lead is officially over and the troops have returned to Israel from the Gaza Strip. It is then, when the Palestinians go back to their homes - or what is left of them - in northern Gaza that we will bear witness to the devastation this war has caused. The foreign media, which until now have been barred from entering the Strip, are expected then to be allowed inside. It is then that the world will be flooded with photos of Palestinians sifting through the ruins. The pictures will be difficult. Some are already making their way out via the media pools that the IDF has allowed inside for a brief glance at what it is doing there - and fighting against. The assessment in the IDF is that it will take Hamas several years to rebuild its infrastructure and recover from the Israeli offensive. But the IDF does not accept blame for the level of destruction on civilian buildings, as these are homes from which Hamas has opened fire at troops. Thus, it says, they were legitimately bombed from the air, just as D-9 bulldozers legitimately plowed through streets, ripping up asphalt, to make it difficult for Hamas suicide bombers on motorbikes to reach Israeli forces. "Hamas cynically uses civilian infrastructure to strike at Israel," a top officer commanding troops inside Gaza said this week. "They use mosques to fire at us, hide inside hospitals, plant booby-traps and dig tunnels at the entrance to homes and rig schools with explosives." One officer with Armored Brigade 401 gave another reason for the damage: "In some cases, when we blew up a tunnel discovered in the middle of a field, the explosion also destroyed the home it was connected to - even though we didn't know they were connected." A main reason for this is an IDF decision, made prior to the war, that when the life of a soldier is weighed against Israel's image abroad, the soldier's life comes first. DEFENSE MINISTER Ehud Barak is already preparing for the "day after," when international lawsuits are expected to abound. As a result, he has ordered the establishment of an "Incriminating Team" of intelligence and legal experts to collect evidence against Hamas and its military infrastructure. The group has received all footage filmed by IDF Combat Camera teams deployed inside the Strip, for it to review and decipher. The footage, much of which is being released to the media on a daily basis, shows clearly how Hamas booby traps schools and zoos, uses mosques to hide weapons and turns innocent civilians into human shields. There is also the issue of casualty figures. The United Nations has officially adopted the Palestinian Health Ministry's claims that among the close to 1,000 dead, more than half are innocent civilians, including 311 children and 76 women. The IDF and Israeli intelligence agencies have invested much time and effort in refuting these claims. They have managed to compile a list of 900 names of Palestinians killed in the fighting. Of those 900, the IDF says, 150 are women, children and elderly. According to IDF assesments, the highest number of civilian casualties is around 250; the other fatalities are terrorists. One source of this discrepancy is the way a "child" is defined. In the UN reports, 17-year-olds - such as Mohammed Jamal Yassin, killed during clashes with Israeli soldiers in northern Gaza - are classified as children. But, according to the IDF, Yassin was a Hamas operative. (The same kind of discrepancy emerged following the Second Lebanon War, when Israel was accused - then, too - of killing 1,000 Lebanese civilians. Since Hizbullah refused to release the number of its dead, the IDF and intelligence agencies compiled a list which showed that at least 600 out of the 1,000 were Hizbullah guerrilla fighters.) Take, as well, the case of the UNRWA school, which Israel shelled when Hamas terrorists used it as a base from which to fire mortars at troops. In its most recent report on humanitarian conditions in Gaza - released on Thursday - the UN repeated Palestinian claims that 43 civilians had been killed in the attack. In fact, the IDF discovered after examining the incident, that 21 Palestinians had been killed, among them several Hamas operatives, two of them known terrorists. BUT MAKE no mistake: The real end-game is taking place not in Gaza or Israel, but rather in Cairo and Washington DC. Egypt is working to broker a cease-fire between that will last longer than the six-month truce which began in June and collapsed in December. The United States is playing an equally important role, by helping to create a mechanism in Egypt and around the world that will stop the weapons smuggling under the Philadelphi Corridor and into Gaza. Israel's demand for a stop to the smuggling is based on the lessons it learned from Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War, but which did not put an end to the smuggling of weapons into Lebanon from Syria. Since then, Hizbullah is believed to have tripled its missile stockpile - from 15,000 to more than 40,000 - with longer ranges and larger warheads. The fear in Israel is that if the smuggling into Gaza is not stopped, Hamas will do as Hizbullah did. As was reported earlier this week in The Jerusalem Post, the IDF supports a plan, formulated five years ago by former National Security Council head Giora Eiland, which calls for the erection of a two-part barrier encompassing the Egyptian side of Rafah, to be manned by Egyptian soldiers preventing weapons smugglers into the area. The idea behind the plan is for the smuggling to be stopped before the weapons even reach Rafah - not after they are already inside the tunnels. Egypt is reluctant to adopt this plan, but says it is open to all sorts of proposals, including the building of a moat along the Philadelphi Corridor and assistance from the US and Germany, in the form of tunnel-detection technology. The US comes into play with the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that Israel is hoping to extract from the Bush administration before Tuesday, when Barack Obama is due to be sworn in as president. In addition to Egyptian action along the border, Israel wants the MOU to create an international mechanism to combat the smuggling well before any weaponry reaches the Sinai Peninsula. An example of such weaponry is the dozens of Grad-model Katyusha rockets that are currently being fired into Israel. These rockets have a 40-kilometer range, and are very similar to the 122-mm Soviet-made Katyusha rockets that were used by Hizbullah during the Second Lebanon War. Defense officials said that the rockets were smuggled across the Egyptian border in January 2008, after Hamas blew a hole in the border wall. The question remains as to how they got from China, where they are manufactured, to the Sinai Desert. Officials explained that, from China, the rockets make several stops before reaching Gaza. In many cases, they are purchased by Iran or Hizbullah, and then transferred to the Sinai. In other cases, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) has learned, weaponry that comes from Yemen and Eritrea is transferred to Sudan, then smuggled into Egypt and finally brought down into a tunnel to Gaza. Due to this intricate smuggling system, Israel is asking the US to enlist NATO, the European Union and other countries in Africa and the Middle East in the creation of a mechanism through which to share intelligence and stop the smuggling - not when it is being lowered into a tunnel along the Philadelphi Corridor, but when it is being loaded onto a ship or truck somewhere in Africa.