Since Israel withdrew its citizens and military forces from the Gaza Strip last summer, a great deal has been written about the consequences of the destruction of the Jewish communities there for the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria. Much has also been said of the rising threats to Israel's security in the south as a result of the retreat from Gaza.
There is a third aspect of the Israeli retreat from Gaza and northern Samaria that to date has not garnered any significant public attention. That issue is the impact of the operation on the Israel Defense Forces. Given that the IDF is the national organization charged with ensuring Israel's survival, anything that happens to the IDF has direct consequences for Israel's national security. And so it is worth considering what impact, if any, the operation has had on the IDF.
Disturbingly, the military's organizational behavior since the withdrawal from Gaza, as manifested in operations on the ground and in statements by senior commanders, indicates that the withdrawal of IDF forces from Gaza has harmed the IDF's self-assessment and its understanding of its mission.
This troubling situation is most clearly evident in the Southern Command. That command devoted itself last year almost entirely to the non-military task of preparing and carrying out the uprooting of the Jewish communities from Gaza. Now it is contending with the new threats that have emerged along Israel's long border with Egypt and in the Gaza Strip since it completed that mission.
As the daily Kassam rocket and mortar strikes on Ashkelon, Sderot and the rest of the Israeli communities bordering Gaza have shown, since the withdrawal, the Southern Command has failed in its mission to provide security to southern Israel.
Last Thursday afternoon, CG Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant briefed military reporters in Tel Aviv. The day before the briefing, Ashkelon's industrial area – home to some of Israel's most vital national infrastructures – was struck by Kassam rockets. That attack on the industrial area was launched from Gaza right after the IDF declared the successful conclusion of "Operation Lightning Strike." That operation was supposed to prevent the shooting of Kassam rockets on southern Israel.
As well, last Thursday morning, soldiers from the Givati Brigade killed two terrorists who attacked them with rifle fire from the Erez crossing where Gazan workers enter Israel.
Addressing reporters, Galant declared that on the one hand, "Israeli bloodshed will not be met with silence." On the other hand, he said, "I can't say that we have a perfect response for the Kassam rockets, but our operations are effective. The Palestinians think twice before they shoot."
Galant brushed off the fact that the Palestinians are lobbing rockets and mortars at Israel on a daily basis in spite of the IDF's "effective" responses, by saying: "You have to look at the glass as half full. It could be better, it could be worse."
Finally, one week after the Palestinians voted Hamas into office, the commander who holds direct responsibility for the security of southern Israel said: "With our departure from the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians were given the chance to choose a new path. Instead of fighting, I hope that they will choose the path of hope and of fighting terror."
What Galant's statements make clear is that in its post-withdrawal operations against Palestinian attacks, the IDF is simply ignoring its duty to secure the country. Galant's basic message last Thursday was that rather than do its job or admit that in the absence of ground forces in Gaza it cannot do its job, the IDF excuses its failure to protect the country with hollow and pathetic political slogans. Most depressingly, the IDF does this with the full expectation that the Israeli public will not notice the fact that our army is unable or unwilling to uphold its basic obligation to the nation.
In an interview Wednesday with the Ynet Web site, a high-ranking officer in Central Command said that over the past year the IDF prevented 10 Palestinian shooting attacks on Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood. He also revealed that Palestinians in the Bethlehem district possess mortars.
The officer seemed to be using his interview as a way to beg the government and his commanders not to take away his forces' freedom of activity in the Bethlehem district. In his words, "There is a threat of gunfire attacks on Gilo, but we have an effective answer to that threat as long as we retain the freedom to act and collect intelligence in Bethlehem. Today we have freedom of action in the city, but there are mortars moving around in Bethlehem. There are attempts to transfer know-how, attempts to transfer missiles. We also see attempts to connect the area to northern Samaria and Gaza, and by that I mean in terms of weaponry, know-how and personnel."
Yet, in seeming disregard to this rising terror threat, the officer said the IDF's major activities in 2006 in the Bethlehem-Gush Etzion area would center around two issues: the construction of the security fence against the backdrop of both Arab and Jewish opposition to the project; and contending with the Hamas takeover of the Palestinian Authority.
It was difficult not to despair after reading that officer's interview. There are mortars at the gates of Jerusalem and the IDF has made guarding a fence its first priority for 2006. It seemed apparent from his remarks that this commander himself is aware of the absurdity of the IDF's operational priorities.
It is not the army's job to guard fences. The army's duty is to secure the state and its citizens. Against the emerging mortar and rocket threat to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv from Hamas-ruled Judea and Samaria – a threat that this officer claims finds its origins in the territories the IDF vacated last summer – what this officer most fears is that he will be ordered to retreat.
The officer's conflation of Israeli and Palestinian opponents of the security fence around Gush Etzion echoes the statements made by CG Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh after the violent clashes between police and civilians at Amona two weeks ago. There Naveh drew parallels between the Jewish protesters and Palestinian terrorists who fight IDF forces in Palestinian cities. Both officers' statements expose a deep confusion about the role of the IDF.
Last week, a US Army commander, who observed the events in Amona from afar, shared with me his deep concern for the future of the IDF. In his words, "The Israeli army will not be able to survive as an effective fighting force if it continues to place itself in the middle of the mainstream political debate in Israel. It cannot survive if it allows itself to confuse the Israeli public with Israel's enemies."
At the same time as they confuse the government's political opposition with Israel's enemies, IDF commanders also actively deny the threat Israel's enemies constitute for the country. On Tuesday, in his first appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, incoming CG Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin said Hamas is now trying to decide whether it will form a moderate or radical government. He added that the key question is whether Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will restrain Hamas by forming a dictatorial government, or whether he will attempt to reach agreements with Hamas as has been his wont until now.
In so relating to the Hamas takeover of the PA, Yadlin echoed statements by other IDF commanders and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz regarding the possibility of separating the Hamas government from Palestinian society. By framing Israel's strategic predicament in this fashion, IDF commanders are making it all but imp
ossible for the public to recognize the fact that it is not just terrorist organizations that are waging this war against the country. Palestinian society as a whole is warring against Israel. That was the message of the Palestinian elections, which brought Hamas to power. And so the question of what sort of government Hamas will form and what Abbas's relationship to that government will be is strategically irrelevant.
Perhaps the most remarkable recent example of the confusion that has plagued the IDF since the withdrawal from Gaza was the joint press conference Mofaz held with IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz on Monday. There, the two heads of Israel's defense establishment announced that they are cutting the length of compulsory military service for male IDF conscripts from 36 months to 28-32 months.
It should be recalled that in August 2000, as IDF chief of General Staff, Mofaz gave the same announcement at a press conference with then prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak. The next month the Palestinians launched their terror war. Given the precedent, the beginning of the next big round of the Palestinian terror war may well be set to begin next month.
The fact that the Palestinian war is a societal war that threatens the existence of Israel was given disturbing expression on Wednesday when the heads of the Israeli Arab political parties announced in a press conference that that they are unifying their Knesset candidates lists in an alliance against the "Zionist political parties."
Ibrahim Sarsour, the head of the Israeli Islamic Movement's southern branch, who now heads the unified list, declared unabashedly that the Israeli Arab public supports the Palestinian and global jihad forces working to destroy Israel and take over the Western world. In his words: "The entire Arab public, but especially the Muslim public, is in the crosshairs. It is the target of a global attack. As the Islamic Movement, we wish to see the establishment of the Islamic caliphate without borders, and this is what scares the West."
Sarsour applauded the Palestinians for electing Hamas, saying: "The Palestinian people did not choose the Hamas movement in order to add another tragedy to the tragedies it has already undergone, but in order to reap achievements."
The threats Israel faces, as a frontline state in the global jihad are exacerbated with every retreat and statement of defeatism by Israeli political leaders and military commanders. To surmount these threats, Israel needs an army that is capable of contending with the reality of war that characterizes our times.
Over the past year and a half, the government has forced the IDF to occupy itself with missions that are unrelated or counterproductive to its core duty of defending the country and its citizens. The removal of its forces from Gaza last summer has made the IDF's duty to secure southern Israel impossible to fulfill. But rather than admit that the limitations the government has placed on its operations have made it impossible for the military to defend the country, IDF commanders take sides in political disputes and make excuses for their failures.
There can be little doubt that the withdrawal from Gaza had a terrible impact on the IDF. It can only be hoped that the General Staff will pull itself together and face reality before the next round of war begins so that it can adequately prepare our soldiers and our society for the challenges that await us.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.