Security and Defense: An exercise in integration

While Southern Command defended itself from Kassams, media attack, its northern counterpart waged mock warfare on Syria, Lebanon.

tough idf soldiers 88 (photo credit: )
tough idf soldiers 88
(photo credit: )
At a press conference on Tuesday night, Defense Minister Amir Peretz sat with his arms folded across his chest, appearing contented and displeased simultaneously. On the one hand, his ultimatum to Hamas appeared to be working, with the number of Kassam rockets fired at Israel from Gaza dropping from around 20 on Monday to none on Tuesday. On the other hand, the killing of eight Palestinian civilians during an IDF air strike on a Katyusha rocket cell that day clearly made him uneasy as he took to the podium to declare Israel's innocence in the death of seven members of a Palestinian family caused by an explosion on Gaza beach last Friday. This paradoxical moment for Peretz - at which he apologized for Tuesday's killings and declared innocence for the previous Friday's - epitomized the complexity of the defense establishment's current campaign against Gaza-based terror. While much of the media lambasted the IAF this week for launching Tuesday's missile strike in a populated area, military officers went on a behind-the-scenes PR blitz to explain how the IDF was really one of the most humane armies in the world, and had in the past cancelled dozens of scheduled air strikes precisely to avoid harming innocent civilians. Since the air strike in 2002 - which leveled a building in Gaza and killed Hamas leader Salah Sheheda and 14 other people - the IDF has done its best to hold back from targeting terrorists in their homes or in the middle of major population centers. The majority of recent targeted killings have taken place in open areas, mostly near the Kassam launching sites in northern Gaza. At the helm - and in the midst of - this delicate situation sits Peretz, who, though inexperienced as a defense minister, is well aware of the international ramifications of his actions. Yet, Israel's image abroad was only one of the issues concerning Peretz this week. His hometown of Sderot was bombarded by Kassams; his Labor Party colleagues were breathing down his neck over the air strikes; and the IDF requested permission to launch a massive air raid on Hamas offices and officials. ONE HIGH-RANKING defense official attributed the relative calm this week to Peretz's policy of "tough diplomacy." While the IDF was pushing to escalate operations in Gaza, he said, Peretz opted instead to give the Palestinians an ultimatum. The warning, delivered to Hamas by third parties, was that if rocket attacks on the western Negev continued, the IDF would respond harshly - to the point, even, of targeting PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. According to the official, it was this threat that caused Hamas to curb its activity. "The idea was to convey an aggressive warning that we would unleash unprecedented military might," he said, "while at the same time offering them the chance to stop the attacks and be spared." According to IDF Operations Directorate head Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, though Peretz's tactic seems to have worked, the defense establishment does not consider this to be anything more than a temporary pause in Palestinian terror, which is expected to continue at different levels of intensity for years to come. SO MUCH for the Southern Command this week. Meanwhile, its counterpart in the north was busy waging a mock war against Syria and the Hizbullah. Though not an actual battle, it was nevertheless groundbreaking, since it was the first simulation of a concept in the art of warfare now under consideration by the General Staff. The concept is one of "branch integration" and minimizing links of command. The idea is to create a more effective battlefield by taking the chief-of-staff out of the picture and putting a regional commander in charge of what the IDF is now calling the "operation zone." According to senior officers, in the past, the chief-of-staff often made decisions without informing the regional commanders. In addition, regional commanders were only in charge of their own ground forces within a restricted section of the battle zone. Air and Navy forces came under the command of the chief of staff, as did decisions about incursions into enemy territory. The new concept is to make regional commanders in charge of practically everything, including the giving of orders to IAF fighter jets and Navy warships that will answer directly to them. Indeed, one of the revolutionary steps toward implementing the new concept is the integration of IAF and Navy officers into the regional command echelon. The officers will be involved in the decision-making process from within the regional command, as well as serve as mediators between the command and the respective military branches. THAT THE military exercise took place in the north, said officers this week, is not accidental. The chance for an all-out war, they claimed, is highest with the two countries that have yet to sign peace agreements with Israel: Syria and Lebanon. The scenario of the drill was a Hizbullah surface-to-surface missile attack on targets in northern Israel, the IDF response to which was a massive retaliatory strike, as well as a ground incursion into Lebanon. Prior to the exercise, the IDF notified Maj.-Gen. Alain Pellegrini, commander of the UNIFIL force in Southern Lebanon, whom it expected to pass on the information. "On the one hand, we wanted Hizbullah and the Lebanese government to know about the exercise so they wouldn't get startled," an officer explained. "And on the other, we wanted them to be scared." The new warfare concept used during the exercise was the brainchild of Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam who, since his appointment as OC Northern Command last October, has commanded several major battles with the Hizbullah in the north - including the clashes last month during which the IDF surprised the guerrilla group and destroyed most of its borderline outposts. Since then, a tense quiet has prevailed along the border, but according to senior officers in the Northern Command, the Hizbullah has begun returning to their outposts, making it only a matter of time before clashes resume. The sources said that Adam is aware he is currently guarding Israel's hottest border, and predicts it will flare up again, requiring harsh IDF retaliation. This is why, they said, that during Peretz's recent visit to the Northern Command, Adam urged the new defense minister to try and find a diplomatic solution vis-a-vis Hizbullah. They also said they believed that international pressure on the Lebanese government could have the desired effect of getting Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to lay down his weapons once and for all.