Analysis: Without artillery, IDF at loss

In Israelis' eyes, IDF appears weak, incompetent in face of Kassam downpour.

Maj.-Gen. Meir Kalifi has a meeting scheduled with Amir Peretz Tuesday night during which the deputy head of the IDF Ground Forces Command plans to present the defense minister with the conclusions and findings of the military probe that he has led into the explosion that killed seven innocent Palestinians on Friday in the Gaza Strip. But whatever the investigation reveals will no longer make a difference, since even while defense officials say there is a chance the probe will exonerate the IDF, for the military the damage has already been done. In the eyes of the world, the IDF has killed innocent people, but more importantly, in the eyes of the Israeli public, the IDF has this week appeared incompetent and weak in face of the massive downpour of Kassam rockets on the western Negev. Stopped from using artillery fire by Peretz until the completion of the investigation, the IDF has found itself at a loss of how to combat the non-stop rocket attacks. A few IAF missile strikes - some successful, others not - were not enough to retain the deterrence the daily artillery barrages had instilled within the Kassam operators, who had sometimes been too scared to venture out to the launch sites in the northern Gaza Strip. Some officers even went as far as to blame Peretz's decision to suspend artillery fire on the Gaza Strip as one of the reasons for the drastic increase in the number of Kassam attacks, claiming that there was no longer any such deterrence. But one positive aspect of the suspension of artillery fire was that it caused the IDF to think "out of the box" and to come up with new ways to combat the Kassam fire - something more innovative than the artillery attacks that had been the military's consistent course of action following each Kassam fired. This is how the IDF came up with the recommendation that Peretz rejected on Sunday: to escalate air strikes against terror infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, including Hamas officials and offices. Until now, the defense establishment has had a "hands-off" policy when it came to Hamas, which had mostly held to its self-declared 2005 cease-fire and refrained from perpetrating attacks against Israel. Now however, Hamas has once again become a target - firstly, because its operatives are involved in Kassam fire, but also because the IDF cannot sit idly by with its hands tied as dozens of rockets hit Israeli cities. Someone needs to be held responsible. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's week-long visit to Europe, IDF sources estimated Monday, served as one of the key factors in Peretz's decision to hold off on escalating the Gaza front. Olmert already needs to explain to Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair and France's President Jacques Chirac what happened in Gaza on Friday, and the last thing he needs is another case of "collateral damage," which would divert the focus of his talks from his realignment plan to the Gaza Strip. The one man who needs to get through this entire mess is Peretz himself, who has since Friday been taking hits from both sides: his hometown Sderot is being bombarded by Kassams and his left-wing cronies are breathing down his neck over Friday's Gaza incident. This is also his first leadership test - the IDF is asking for an escalation and he is keeping his foot on the brakes. The question is how long will he succeed in holding them off?