On Wednesday, the IDF carried out a successful operation in damage control.
By spiriting Intissar and Kifah Ajouri into the Gaza Strip at Netzarim rather than having them pass through at the Erez checkpoint, where the international press corps was waiting to photograph the first targets of the government's new policy of punishing relatives of terrorists, the IDF prevented a media onslaught. For as Ms. Ajouri, the explosive-belt seamstress from Nablus, later told a sympathetic cameraman in Gaza, she had planned to cause a ruckus at the checkpoint.
The IDF's operation was an unvarnished success. The only problem is that it is meaningless. Clamping down on terrorism, we are told, the government has ordered the IDF to go after terrorists' families.
But, as the High Court of Justice rightly judged, the two were not sent to Gaza for a two-year stay because they are the siblings of a Fatah bomber dispatcher. They were sent to Gaza because they are themselves terrorists. Why sending the two to Gaza is more effective in fighting terrorism than trying them in court for aiding and abetting terrorism and sentencing them to prolonged prison terms for their crimes is a mystery.
Indeed, an even larger mystery is why the IDF is not told to round up, charge, and try all the thousands upon thousands of Palestinians who, like the Ajouri siblings, aid and abet terrorism.
A visit with the forces in the northern Gaza Strip provides an opportunity to observe firsthand just how smart and effective a fighting force the IDF is. Every day the IDF foils terror attacks, catching terrorists who hide like needles in haystacks or attack like thieves in the night. The precision of IDF operations is impressive. From April to August, the IDF killed 141 terrorists in Gaza and, aside from its hit on Salah Shehadeh, has killed only eight civilians.
At the headquarters of the northern brigade, senior officers show visiting journalists videotapes of recent battles between soldiers and terrorists. In one, shot from the deck of a ship, the camera bobs with the waves. The movie was taken with night-vision equipment at 3 a. m. Because of the undulating camera lens, it takes a moment to focus on the action taking place on the shore.
Two dots are Palestinian terrorists. The flashes emanating from the dots are shots at IDF forces. The Palestinians, who swam more than a kilometer to reach the shore near Dugit, wound two soldiers — two more dots. The soldiers kill one terrorist, but the second keeps shooting away until a new dot emerges. It is the soldiers' commander. In an act of heart-stopping heroism, the commander, whose ammunition had run out, runs directly into the terrorist and fights him hand to hand until he kills him.
In many respects, the IDF's actions in Gaza call to mind the trench warfare of World War I. Topographically, there are no commanding heights in the sand dunes of the Gaza Strip. The terrorists try to break through the lines, and the IDF pushes them back. The terrorists cannot penetrate the IDF's encampments, so they try to lure the IDF into ambushes or pick off soldiers on the roads.
The Palestinian military strategy does not involve military victory. Rather, like Hizbullah, they seek simply to cause enough casualties to exhaust Israel, while leaving the bulk of their terrorist infrastructure intact.
The security situation on the ground in Gaza is daunting. From the beginning of April until the end of August, the Palestinians carried out 1,452 attacks against IDF and civilian targets: 682 shootings, 320 grenade attacks, 284 mortar attacks, 52 anti-tank missile attacks, 23 rocket attacks, 47 attempted infiltrations, five of which were successful, 64 roadside bombs, and three booby-trapped vehicles. But in all these attacks the terrorists caused no civilian casualties.
Their lack of success has not deterred the terror groups. "They are constantly working to change their tactics. Today, for instance, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and a new terror organization are working hard on developing capabilities for underwater attacks," a senior officer in Gaza explains.
And the terror groups are not alone. They receive training, munitions, and financing from Hizbullah and Iran. Hamas, which developed the Kassam mortar and the Banaa anti-tank missile, is supported and assisted by the Palestinian Authority.
While the IDF's killing of Hamas commander Salah Shehadeh was a harsh blow to the group's command structure, the IDF knows that Muhammad Deif, Shehadeh's successor, is working around the clock to carry out a successful mega-attack.
Standing at a ridge outside at an observation tower by Nisanit, I am struck by the strategic importance of the much-maligned settlements. They are quite simply Israel's forward defense. Located just a few kilometers from Gaza City and directly across the street from the Green Line, Nisanit, Elei Sinai, and Dugit are all that separate Gaza City from Yad Mordechai and Ashkelon, whose power plant, belching smoke into the sky just 12 kilometers away, is plain to see.
To secure military and civilian traffic on the exposed roads, the IDF decided to strengthen fortifications. In addition to the electronic fences around each settlement, the army is now constructing a new fence that will encompass the brigade headquarters, Nisanit, Elei Sinai, Dugit, and the roads connecting them. Lt. Malik Grifat was killed on Thursday while securing construction of the new fence.
An officer carefully explains, "The new fence is being constructed wholly in the area left under Israeli control by the Oslo Accords."
"Why?" I ask him.
"Because eventually we'll go back to the way things were," he says knowingly.
"But then why should the Palestinians stop fighting if they are losing nothing?"
"Heh, you're asking a political question," he shies away.
His statement blends with the words of the senior officer: "We didn't go into Gaza during Operation Defensive Shield, because it was decided to leave the PA intact in Gaza to see if it is capable of fighting terror."
Since the government decided to transfer security power back to Yasser Arafat's forces in Gaza and Bethlehem, the IDF redeployed from certain areas it was holding in the Gaza Strip and has allowed the PA's forces to operate more or less freely in them. Now back in the driver's seat, those Palestinian forces have done next to nothing to combat terrorism.
"While the Palestinians have stopped some terrorists en route to attacks, they have taken no active role in thwarting terrorism. They have conducted no raids or arrests," the senior officer dryly notes.
In the meantime, over the past two weeks, there have been seven attempted infiltrations, a series of booby-trap attacks, daily shooting incidents, repeated mortar attacks on homes in Gush Katif, and a half dozen anti-tank missiles fired.
In addition to transferring territory back to PA security control, the IDF has taken actions to ease the economic suffering of Gazans. "We have issued 7,000 work permits to Gazans and hope to issue more shortly," the officer proclaims proudly.
But rather than distributing the work permits directly to the Palestinians, a move that would show them that Israel rewards those who do not participate in terrorism, in accordance with the government's policy of maintaining the PA, the IDF gives the permits to the PA, whose officials are responsible for divvying them out.
One comes away from a visit to Gaza with an enduring respect for the army and an overriding sense of frustration with the government that issues its marching orders.
Quite simply, the IDF's forces can be likened to firefighters battling an arson in a multi-story bu
ilding, who are told by headquarters to only put out the fire on the top floor, while at the same time providing the arsonists with more kerosene.
The IDF's orders are plain: Fight and sustain the PA. The fact that these orders are contradictory to the point of absurdity — rendering all of the IDF's good work a pointless, Sisyphean task — is completely beside the point.
And just as certainly as that metaphoric building will eventually burn to the ground, the PA is winning its war. It has proven it can breach all its signed commitments, wage a war, and lose nothing at all. When the IDF carefully builds its new fence outside land given to Arafat in exchange for peace, the Palestinians are made to understand that there is absolutely no price to pay for conducting their war — in fact they are rewarded. They can and do attack with impunity, and the government sustains them, while loudly proclaiming to the public that it is so serious about fighting terror that it is moving to the draconian step of punishing relatives of terrorists.
And really, as to those relatives, one must ask, what lesson is being learned as a result of the Ajouri siblings' temporary relocation to Gaza? If tomorrow a Palestinian terrorist comes home and tells his sister that he is planning an attack, what will she do? If she tells Israel, she faces certain murder as a collaborator. If she helps him, there is 99 percent certainty that nothing will happen to her and but a 1 percent chance that she will have to move to Gaza for a couple of years. There, she knows, she will be supported by the PA or Hamas or some international human rights organization that views her presence in Gaza as an Israeli war crime.
As for the army — it has proven that it can do anything the government tells it to do. The problem is, the government is telling the IDF to minimize casualties as it loses the war in accordance with the government's wishes.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post