|The tightrope walker|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
The situation appears paradoxical. The Israeli government unilaterally withdraws in order to advance a peace process that does not exist, and at the same time the Arabs continue to carry out acts of terrorism by regularly attacking Jewish population centers in Israel. In this difficult context we met Major General Yair Naveh, who has just been appointed the commander of what the army calls Central Command, which covers all of Judea and Samaria, including the Jordan valley.
Yair Naveh is the only general to have reached the very highest rank in the army who is a practicing Jew who wears a kippa. Due to his very rich and varied military career (among other positions he has held, he has commanded the Israeli forces in Gaza), he has enormous experience, as well as the judgment and insight needed to hold such an important position. A tightrope walker, he has to successfully carry out his new task while avoiding the many pitfalls in this complex situation, since the consequences would be terrible.
General Naveh received us very warmly in Tel-Aviv, in the new buildings of the IDF General Staff and Ministry of Defense. It is worth noting as an aside that we were the very first foreign journalists authorized to enter this fortress-skyscraper, where you need a whole series of identifications and authorizations to get in.
What are the main tasks you will face in your new position?
Israel’s army is currently preparing to face a range of specific activities in Judea and Samaria, the region of which I have just taken over overall command. Our main concern is the fight against terrorism. Abu Mazen has been elected and says that he is against violence and its use as a political means. We know he is very weak; Hamas is well established and the Hizbullah is financing most of Fatah’s activities, so we are faced with serious threats and terrorist activity. Since the start of 2005 we have stopped a large number of Arabs with explosives, ready to blow themselves up in public places in Tel-Aviv, Haifa and Netanya. We must therefore do everything to prevent all acts of terrorism in any of Israel’s main urban centers, in the towns and settlements of Judea and Samaria, and of course against our soldiers. Having said that, if we assume that Abu Mazen will manage to stabilize his government and impose his authority, negotiations with Israel will inevitably result, of which the first item will be the release of prisoners. Even though we appreciate having a single party with which to speak, who represents a single, central authority, a single set of laws and a single military force, I am not convinced that this state of affairs corresponds to reality in the near future. Before freeing certain prisoners it is essential to satisfy ourselves that they do not constitute a basic security risk: we have to know who their political contacts are, who they are close to and who will control them. This is not an easy assessment but we cannot take rash security risks to give a chance to a political process that we do not know where it will lead us. At the same time, we cannot block a negotiations process that includes a chance of calming the situation. Abu Mazen is not Arafat. For the time being his statements are basically not belligerent. That having been said, we still need to assess what are his true intentions and his ability to act. We have learnt not to trust fine words, but to judge and act based on actions. Mr. Mazen appears to have good will but we must remain very vigilant, for his initiatives represent not just potential but also many dangers. Do not forget that Esau’s hatred and his wish to wipe out Jacob (whose other name was Israel) have not diminished and remain very deep-rooted, whatever forms they take. I will also have to carry out the government’s disengagement program, of which the main part will be taking place in Gaza. Nonetheless, the four Jewish villages in northern Samaria are my direct responsibility.
Do you think this is your biggest challenge?
It should be understood that this question goes far beyond the simple fact of evicting 12,000 Jews from their homes. It is a very sad development, that is causing a deep schism in the State and among its citizens, which definitely risks leading to a social conflict with many consequences that will mark the country and its inhabitants for a long time to come. I fully understand the pain of the Jewish population of Gaza, where I was commanding officer for three and a half years during the war that is still being waged. So I know personally most of the people who live there. Just like in Judea and Samaria, these are not people who have come to settle in Gush Katif in the last few years; these are families who have been living there over thirty years and where grandparents have seen their grandchildren born. We are not only going to destroy the work of a lifetime, but also the national vision and view of the future of a group of people who for almost three generations have constructed an infrastructure in a desert area while on the front line against Arab attacks. Beyond their efforts, these people have paid a heavy price in blood, at the individual, family and community level. For all these reasons we are going to act with an enormous amount of care and a heavy heart. However, we are the army of the State of Israel and as such we must carry out the decisions of the democratically elected government. Yet I fear that this situation may lead to conflict even within the army. We are already starting to see the first inklings, which for the time being involve just a few dozen soldiers, but which risk spreading. Such a process is extremely dangerous because when all is said and done it is not just a matter of destroying a few Jewish villages, but it could lead to an anarchic situation where anyone with a bit of authority will tell soldiers what to do. You should be aware that in Israel the army constitutes the physical expression of the national consensus. It is the organization where all political opinions are left at the doorstep, for every one to collect on their way out. Within there is just one law, a single command. If this loses its authority, it will open up the way for every form and excess of baseless, unfounded hatred (Sinat Hinam), and in the medium term I do not even exclude that it develops into civil war. A deep rupture within our society could degenerate very quickly into violence between citizens. I think this danger is greater than all the dangers of the Arab world put together. Historically, I would like to remind you that we have been expelled from Israel on several occasions: the first time was when Joseph was sold by his brothers, the second when we were exiled to Babylon on account of idolatrous and immoral behavior; finally, when we had spilled our brothers’ blood in a civil war motivated solely by that baseless hatred that is besetting us today, the country was invaded by the Romans, which marked the beginning of a two thousand year exile. Other examples from our history show that when we are united we are capable of overcoming all our difficulties and beating our enemies. We do not have a big problem combating terrorism and facing threats from the Arab world and Iran. Where we are genuinely faced by a major challenge, where what is at stake is the survival of the State as a Jewish country, is where it involves problems that touch our bodies, our souls and the very foundations of our beings as Jews. We must therefore do everything to avoid a schism within our society, and in my capacity as commander of the central part of the country, that is one of the most important parts of my responsibilities.
You have listed the main challenges you will be called upon to face. In concrete terms, how are you going to handle them, allowing for the fact that the Arabs are firing daily on Jewish towns and settlements?
As far as terrorism is concerned, we are constantly on the alert and take the defensive and offensive actions required. In respect of the situation in Sderot and Gush Katif that you refer to, you should be aware that militarily it is often easier to fight large forces than small attackers. We have first-rate military technology to combat Scud missiles and sophisticated satellites for our defense needs. However, a simple military problem can sometimes have enormous ramifications, and a calculation must be made of what is the smart thing to do. We are able to stop all the firing of Kassams and mortars on the settlements you mentioned, but to do that we would have to undertake a large-scale military action that would involve the occupation of practically the whole of Gaza by three or four divisions. We would have to call up approximately half our reservists for a period of from six months to a year, which means the mobilization of a very large number of men and all the logistics that involves, without speaking of the impact of such a mobilization on the economy. Today, Israel does not have the will to launch such an operation. Do not forget that Gaza is surrounded by a protective wall, thanks to which we have been able to curb every sort of terrorism in the main urban centers that emanated from Gaza. It is true that today Kassams and other types of shells kill and cause widespread damage in the towns and settlements right next to Gaza, but I do not believe the government will launch a large-scale operation to put an end once and for all to this type of aggression. The army manages to stop most attacks, which does not mean it is resting on its laurels, far from it. We are about to implement a certain number of technological and strategic elements that will allow us to fight and provide warnings of these types of attacks.
Getting back to our fight against terrorism, I must stress that our actions are greatly facilitated since in Judea and Samaria we are in the Arab villages and in their immediate vicinity. We have to be in these population centers because for the time being there is no separation closure. Do not forget that just a year ago we were facing a wave of terrorism that blew up buses in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, whose perpetrators came from Judea and Samaria but not from Gaza. Rightly, priority was given to fighting in those areas, in order to stop the terrorism. On this specific issue we succeeded. The question is therefore to know if we should or should not launch this type of operation – and when. Having said that, we shall have to see what Abu Mazen will actually do, if his intention is, behind all the fancy talk, to continue the policies of Arafat, or if he is capable of acting. On our side, we keep up our fight. We will soon know.
Do you think there is a risk of Kassam rocket attacks being launched from Judea or Samaria?
As long as we are in the Arab towns and our troops patrol there regularly, so that they can immediately locate the factories where they are being made, the risk is effectively non-existent. We are not in Gaza, so this sort of activities can carry on undisturbed. If we will have to quit the towns of Judea and Samaria or be located outside them with Abu Mazen’s forces not doing what is needed to ensure minimum security, I think the problem could then arise quickly enough.
You have mentioned the security fence; one hears less of High Court rulings and challenges blocking work, but rather of real construction work on the ground. Is work continuing and do you really intend to complete it one day?
This barrier is a first class strategic asset. We must continue rapid construction, since it has been demonstrated that it is an efficient security tool, ensuring a healthy separation between the populations, from both the economic and demographic points of view. Our government has incidentally just fixed its final route.
You have told us that Hizbullah is financing Fatah. At the same time, Syria is about to receive new ground-air missiles from Russia. There can be no doubt that these are destined for the Hizbullah, who will not hesitate to provide them to Fatah. How will you combat this new situation?
Hizbullah has set up a barrier of thousands of Kassam rockets in southern Lebanon. Unfortunately Lebanon has not acknowledged its responsibilities and has withdrawn its forces from the south of the country. UN forces are also conspicuous by their absence. Having said which, overall and for the time being Hizbullah has kept quiet and only occasionally launches violent attacks. This is due to the fact that it knows very well that an attack on our forces will be attract very severe reprisals by our air force. The new rockets you mention, the Russian-made SA-18, may put a question mark on our air force’s ability to act over southern Lebanon, where it dominates the skies. I believe this goes well beyond the local issue of conflict along our northern body with Lebanon, and that we are facing re-evaluation of the balance of forces in the Middle East. This issue must be handled very discreetly through silent diplomacy. For that reason, the question of a possible transfer of such weaponry from Hizbullah to Fatah cannot yet be seriously considered.
Talking of the fight against terrorism, it is difficult to understand that the powerful Israeli army is unable to block the digging of tunnels that go under the Egyptian border.
You have to know that the tunnels are dug from private homes, and it is very hard to detect them as they go down to a depth of 25m. These underground galleries are an excellent business, since a bonus of $5,000 is paid for each tunnel dug. At the moment, that’s the best deal going in Rafah. Once built, the terrorists have no trouble passing through arms, men and all the equipment they need. There is no technology today that lets us detect these tunnels. The only way is to go house-to-house, knowing full well that for every tunnel we discover there is another we know nothing about. Happily there are no tunnels in Judea and Samaria, since the type of soil does not allow. The Gaza region is sandy, while the West Bank is made of mountainous rock.
Let us come on to what you have called your greatest challenge, the disengagement. How do you think it will go in practice? Will we be in a situation where on the one hand there will be Jews who refuse to leave their homes, faced off by a Jewish army that threatens them with machine guns and tanks; on the other hand, the media will take a perverse pleasure in transmitting violence between Israelis to the entire world, and lastly the Arabs will be firing on every one?
As I have told you, we have a decision of the government, and it is the Army’s task to carry out orders. At the moment it appears that the expulsions as such will be carried out by the police, who are authorized to arrest demonstrators and those instigating disorder. I truly hope we will manage to carry out the disengagement through negotiation and that the majority involved will agree to leave of their own free will. As far as those who refuse to leave as part of an agreement are concerned, despite all the pain it will cause us, we will have to do what ever is necessary to get them to leave with the minimum of violence and the maximum of dignity. We are going to close off the areas, transfer people into hotels, then pack, move, and store their belongings and help them move in gradually into their new homes. We will be faced by a situation in which we will have to leave with a minimum of loss, but it would be unacceptable that the army retreats or be put in a position where it cannot carry out its mission, however unpleasant it is. That would open the door to anarchy in the army itself, and tomorrow, acting against an enemy force, each soldier would only think of doing what he fancies. We are going to handle this entire issue without arms, through persuasion and negotiation. We will close these areas to the press to avoid pointless provocations, and we will do everything to handle the women and children with the utmost delicacy. We will act in a way that this tough operation, which is so difficult for everyone, is carried out in a dignified manner, yet with firmness and determination.
To end, a personal question. You are the first major general to wear a kippa. Personally, how are you handling this problem of disengagement and expelling Jews from their homes? Do you have any doubts and feelings, or do you feel that in this issue you have a job to do and that your personal feelings have no place?
It’s impossible to bottle up my feelings, my ideas and my conception of life and of the State of Israel. Today I am simply faced by a choice with two alternatives: one is bad and the other is very bad. As with everything in life, in such cases it’s the least of all evils that must be done. In this case, the “bad” alternative is taking part in the eviction of Jews from their homes; the “very bad” one is to let anarchy take over and for civil war to lie in wait for us.