In an address at Haifa University on Tuesday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya'alon told his audience, "The dilemma regarding targeted killings [of terrorists] takes into account how the action will impact the public debate. As the chief of staff I have a dilemma: to wait for a terrorist attack in order to be just, or to attack in order to prevent casualties."
Contrast Ya'alon's statement with one made by Mrs. Hagit Mendellevich in a Haifa courtroom on Sunday. Mendellevich's 13-year-old son Yuval was murdered in the suicide attack on bus 37 on Moriah Boulevard in Haifa last March 5. The occasion of her remarks was a petition by the parents of the 17 murdered Israelis to the court to cancel a plea bargain reached by the district attorney with one of the conspirators to the attack. The plea bargain, which the court upheld, erased the charges of conspiracy to murder from his indictment.
In her court testimony Mendellevich said: "Many buses have blown up in recent years in Israel. How many of you remember the attack on Moriah Boulevard? If you don't remember, it is because we have learned to be slaughtered and murdered without a sound. What is the difference between the bus on which my son was murdered and the crematoria where my grandfather and grandmother were murdered? Buses are moving crematoria for those who have no choice but to travel by public transportation. I feel that I have been abandoned by the state and that Israel is the only country that judges crimes against humanity as if they are criminal offenses."
Also in his address on Tuesday, Ya'alon restated his position that the lack of consensus in Israeli society about the nature of the conflict with the Palestinians "makes it difficult to agree on the response; impedes the legitimacy of the application of force and the support for the IDF and its actions."
Colonel (res.), Yehuda Wegman believes that Ya'alon's statements are the result of professional confusion. "The COS gets paid to protect Israeli citizens, not to worry about what people will say about what the IDF does. He is 'just' when he defends Israelis, not when he waits for a massacre in order to justify providing this defense."
Wegman, who commands a reserve armored brigade, caused waves in the defense establishment when in September 2002 he published an article in the defense journal Ma'arachot under the title, "The limited conflict trap." Wegman argued that the major cause for the IDF's failure to end the Palestinian terror onslaught is the refusal of the General Staff to define the current state of armed conflict as a war.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post this week, Wegman explained, "A decision was made by former Deputy COS Major Gen. Uzi Dayan at the outset of the conflict that Israel would view Palestinian terror as a limited conflict rather than as a war. From that point on, the IDF was left without direction. Its entire war fighting doctrine was unceremoniously discarded.
"Terror and guerrilla wars are a type of actual war and the IDF's fighting doctrine applies equally to these types of warfare as to conventional warfare between armored divisions. The purpose is to defeat the enemy. But when the commanders on the ground are told that this isn't a war, what are they supposed to do? How are they supposed to fight? What is the job of the army here?"
Wegman makes a clear distinction between the IDF's tactical commanders in the field and its strategic leadership on the General Staff. "Israel's tactical command is the best in the world. After a relatively long period of limited engagements with the Palestinians, the field commanders understood that the piecemeal policy of dealing with the terrorists as if they were not waging a war against Israel didn't work. It was the field commanders – the brigade and battalion commanders – who convinced the General Staff to allow IDF forces to go into the refugee camps. The officers in the General Staff insisted that going into the camps would involve hundreds of casualties, that they were unconquerable. It was the tactical forces on the ground that convinced them otherwise and their operations were a world-class success."
The difference between the tactics and strategy are clear when one looks at what is actually being accomplished. The day after Ya'alon gave his address in Haifa, IDF forces killed three terrorists and arrested 30 terror suspects in operations in five refugee camps in Samaria. Among the terror suspects rounded up was Mutaser Abu Aliyoun, a senior Fatah terrorist from Jenin who was involved in numerous attacks, including the murder of three Israelis.
The effectiveness of the IDF's tactical operations was brought home on Thursday with the IDF's publication of comparative statistics on the war from 2001-2003. 2003 saw a 30 percent drop in the number of terror attacks from 2002 (3,831 vs. 5,301) and a 50% drop in fatalities – 213 in 2003 vs. 451 in 2002.
At the same time, the report points to the fact that the Palestinians are developing new tactics for fighting. These include the increased use of women as bombers and bombing accomplices; the use of foreign terrorists to conduct operations in Israel; a rise in the involvement of Israeli Arabs in terrorist attacks; attacks against American targets; attempted assassination of Israeli leaders; use of Palestinians with foreign passports to attack Israeli and Jewish targets abroad; utilization of underground tunnels to bomb IDF outposts; the attachment of bombs to animals; and the use of ambulances to transport bombers and their accomplices.
Added to the Palestinian operational adjustments is the fact that the Palestinian leadership refuses to take any action against the terrorists and that Palestinian society still supports the terror war. The latter issue was made clear this week when a consortium of Palestinian NGOs refused to sign a US declaration that the aid they receive will not go to terrorists or terrorist organizations. And, so, as Wegman notes, "as we flit from operation to operation, the Palestinians remain committed to carrying out their war until they achieve their goal of defeating Israel."
Wegman rues the IDF's high command's misapprehension of the nature of the armed struggle. "The IDF high command's refusal to accept that Israel is fighting a war makes the ingenious fighting of the forces in the field strategically pointless." In his view, "If Israel continues along this path, we will see a Lebanonization of the war."
In Lebanon, the IDF's acceptance of the view that "there is no military solution" gave Hizbullah complete control over the level of hostilities. Every time that the IDF managed to cause Hizbullah painful losses, the terrorist organization sued for temporary cease-fires which allowed it to regroup and escalate its attacks. Israel surrendered the initiative. The location and intensity of the fighting was decided by the enemy.
In an interview with Yediot Aharonot two weeks ago, Ya'alon indicated that the IDF is indeed following a similar course with the Palestinians to the one it adopted so abysmally in South Lebanon. Speaking of targeted killing of Hamas commanders, Ya'alon opined, "Since our attack [in September 2003] against the Hamas leadership, they fear for their continued existence and are careful not to provide us a justification for attacking their leadership again," he said.
Wegman believes that the IDF's decision to stop targeting the leaders of Hamas this past fall was a strategic blunder of the first order. "The basis for reaching a decisive conclusion of war is the doctrinal principle of 'concentration of effort.'
The point is to concentrate your forces and resources in a manne
r that brings about the achievement of superiority that causes the defeat of your enemy."
"When we were conducting targeted killings once every couple of weeks, they had no effect. When, in September 2003, the IDF conducted these attacks everyday, Hamas sued for a cease-fire. This showed that the concentration of effort was succeeding. But the war fighting doctrine is also based on the principle of continuous engagement. Rather than continuing the operations until Hamas was defeated, the IDF gave them a reprieve. Again, this is the direct result of the General Staff refusing to accept that this is a war."
In late November, there were a number of articles in the US press referring to assistance and coaching that Israel is providing for the US military forces in Iraq. In everything from erecting roadblocks to conducting arrests of terror suspects in urban areas, the reports noted, the Americans are emulating IDF operational tactics. When questioned about the issue, US Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez explained that the difference between US and Israeli actions is that the US forces in Iraq are engaged in a war.
Commenting from Baghdad on the progress of that war to The Washington Post last month, US Army Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling indicated that the decrease in attacks in December over November "might be due to us having significantly hurt the enemy during the operations; it could be that the thugs and criminals being paid to conduct the attacks are not up for fighting anymore. Or, it might mean the enemy is gearing up for another offensive. And that's why it's important that we keep the pressure on with offensive operations."
In his interview with Yediot Aharonot, Ya'alon stated that he looks forward to a Hizbullah-styled cease-fire being reached "within weeks," followed by years of low intensity fighting. In light of this, it would seem that while the US moves ahead towards victory over the terrorist and guerrilla fighters in Iraq in part by adopting IDF operational tactics, the IDF itself will continue to amaze with its tactical achievements while victory slips from its grasp.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.