Background: The IDF is finally learning

The most striking detail of Operation Summer Rains: As yet no casualties on either side.

idf helicopter 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
idf helicopter 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The most striking detail that went almost uncommented-on during the first 24 hours of Operation Summer Rains is that the IDF entered the Gaza Strip in force and that so far, as of Wednesday night, there have been no casualties on either side. It's hard to believe that the next stages in the operation will be as bloodless, but the softly-softly careful-careful fashion in which the IDF began its first large-scale incursion into the Strip from which it retreated 10 months ago betrays the deep uncertainty bedeviling the Israeli leadership. This is not the major and severe reprisal operation that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been promising. During the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, Battalion 13 of the Golani Brigade together with tank detachments penetrated less than three kilometers into the Gaza Strip and stopped at the Dahaniya airfield, which has been inactive and deserted ever since the IDF destroyed the runway five and a half years ago at the start of the intifada. OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Gallant explained that the position had been taken because it overlooks the Rafah border crossing and therefore prevents Hamas from smuggling Cpl. Gilad Shalit out to Egypt. But that doesn't stop them taking him through any of the dozen tunnels underneath the border, and Gallant knows better than anyone that the only way to prevent smuggling is if the Egyptians decide to block their side of the border. Dahaniya is useful because it enables the army to say that the IDF is within the Strip without actually coming up against any locals, armed or otherwise. What's next? There's no possibility of reoccupying Rafah with a battalion-sized force. In Operation Defensive Shield, the IDF mobilized entire reserve brigades in addition to the standing forces to occupy the cities in the West Bank. Neither are there any plans of these armored behemoths taking part in a daring operation to rescue Gilad. That will be the job of a small team of special-operations experts. The same is true of the similar-sized force, consisting mainly of the Shaked Battalion, that was preparing last night to enter the northern part of the Strip. Gallant, in his short briefing to journalists on Wednesday, reiterated that "there are things that are hidden from the eye" and promised that the operation also had secret components - but the main thing that remains unseen is serious national leadership. The hesitant way in which this operation opened is typical of a highly capable military organization that has been buffeted over the last few days by severe criticism following the dismal results of the Kerem Shalom attack on Sunday, its failure in stopping Kassam missile attacks and the repeated killings of Palestinian civilians in the past weeks. But not only is the IDF acting safe out of concern for more fatal mistakes, it is covering all the bases while opening every possible option, because, for the first time, the army is dealing with a crisis under a totally inexperienced leadership. That's why the army has prepared itself for every eventuality, positioning forces within striking distance of the Palestinian headquarters, bombing an electric plant and bridges within the Strip, and stepping up the bombardment of Kassam launching areas. It also transported additional artillery batteries to the area yesterday, entered the more accessible Ramallah to arrest suspects in the kidnapping of 18-year-old Eliahu Asheri, and even buzzing Bashar Assad's palace in Latakia with combat planes. The IDF high command is offering the entire operational menu to the politicians, who only have to give the order, while making sure that if Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz lose their nerve they will be able to extricate the forces quickly. For once, the IDF has realized that it's working in a much wider framework and is taking political, diplomatic and media concerns into consideration. The General Staff is going to allow Peretz and Olmert to blame them for escalating the situation and have produced exactly the desired PR effect using the entire range of military hardware. However the kidnapping saga of Gilad Shalit ends - whether it ends at all in the next few days - the IDF has other delicate missions waiting. It's hard to see how the security forces are going to carry out the planned dismantling of four settler outposts in the West Bank next week while dealing with a dual hostage situation. The difficulties in dealing with hostilities originating in an area which the IDF evacuated less than a year ago will add more force to those arguing against Olmert's realignment plan, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's powerlessness will strengthen those who say that Israel has no choice but to act unilaterally. The military is treading extremely cautiously in the knowledge that the implications of this week's operation could be much more far-reaching than the fate of one soldier.