|The security situation|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
At this time the question must be asked whether there is some mathematical certainty in events or coincidence that has some significance. Five months to the day after the unilateral and precipitous evacuation of Southern Lebanon on Ehud Barak’s orders, the second Intifada was launched by Arafat. Five months to the day after the end of the expulsion of the Jews from their homes in Gaza, Hamas won the elections in the Arab areas of Judea, Samaria, Gaza and Jerusalem. Whether chance or just coincidence, the fact is that today these are the two issues that are the main internal sources of concern for the Israeli army.
In order to paint for us a picture of the current security situation, we met with Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, Deputy Chief of Staff of the IDF, who received us very warmly in an exclusive interview in his office on the 14th floor of the Army’s new fortress, erected right in the middle of Tel-Aviv. This is the third time I have conducted an interview in this building, which, apart from the Prime Minister’s Office, is probably the best-guarded building in Israel. Each time I am impressed by the reassuring atmosphere of quite force and strength that one senses inside.
It is the Eve of Pesach, and one of the most famous phrases that characterizes this festival is the “Ma Nishtanah”, where the youngest member of the family asks the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” To paraphrase this question, I will ask you what is the difference between the current security situation from that which existed before the election victory of Hamas?
Before answering you in detail about the Hamas phenomenon, I will give you a general assessment of our current situation. Unfortunately we continue to be faced with terrorism, first and foremost with Palestinian terror. Among this population, the most active group is the Islamic Jihad, which believes it was the true victor in the elections. It has declared that Hamas has abandoned armed resistance to devote itself to the political fight. As a result, members of the Islamic Jihad feel they have the mission to continue what they call “resistance” and what we call terrorism. They act according to what they say, preparing a large number of attacks, trying to reactivate the cycle of suicide bombers in Israel, and continuing to fire Kassam missiles at Jewish towns and villages along our southern border. We also face terrorism organized by Fatah, which operates through the Al-Aksa Brigades, also known as the Martyrs Brigades. Fatah took its election defeat very badly and is looking to revenge itself by unleashing acts of terror on the roads of Judea and Samaria. So we are daily faced with these different sorts of terror. In addition, Hamas is doing everything behind the scenes to restart terrorism, by financing this type of activity, providing active assistance for the trafficking in arms, and by trying to reestablish the terrorist groups that we have wiped out in the past. In a way, Hamas is preparing to engage in a series of terrorist operations when the right moment presents itself. Today, Hamas members are not directly active on the ground, but provide a lot of support for Islamic Jihad. They give them large amounts of money, train their operatives, supply them with every sort of weapon, and organize their entire logistics in order to be able to make use of them. Another group operating regularly in Judea, Samaria and Gaza is Hizbullah, which is deeply involved in terrorism in Israel. Its members offer money, arms, training and all other forms of support for the activities of the various terrorist organizations. In the coming months we will face the risk of attacks organized by each of these groups, both individually and in direct collaboration. It is important to know that despite their differences, these organizations are united in their purpose of inflicting as much damage as possible on Israel. We encounter Hizbullah in the north of the country along the border with Lebanon. This terrorist organization is deployed there with thousands of missiles and rockets aimed at the towns and villages of the Galilee. We must be aware of the realities on the ground and Hizbollah’s attack capabilities. Last January members of this organization attempted to kidnap Israeli soldiers. I believe this is a strategic ambush. By carrying out an abduction they know full well that we have no choice but to act. It should be recalled that Hizbullah is playing two roles at the same time. On the one hand it’s a terrorist organization structured as a paramilitary group that controls the whole of Southern Lebanon. On the other hand, it has legitimate, official representation in the Lebanese parliament and two ministers in the government. And it is attempting to get the best out of both situations. I believe that western governments should continue to put pressure on Hizbullah to agree to disarm and to hand over the territory to the Lebanese army. This would create stability in the north. Unfortunately, we are very far from that. In this connection I would like to stress that Iran is deeply involved in terrorism in Israel itself and in the surrounding countries. This is particularly true of Lebanon, where Hizbullah is nothing more than the long arm of Iran, which procures for it everything a terrorist organization needs to operate properly. Recently Hizbullah has increased its activity in the territories, which it coordinates with Hamas. The leaders of this group were recently received in Iran. For those who still harbored doubts about the intentions of Iran, Hamas and the other terrorist organizations I have mentioned, I would recall at this point that in February 2006 the Iranian President went to Damascus, where he invited all the leaders of Hamas and all those terrorist organizations for a working meeting. This was no innocuous initiative. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted to show the entire world that he not only wants to strengthen cooperation with Syria, but that he also wishes to collaborate with all the terrorist groups, including the PFLP. The meeting received maximum coverage, where everyone currently involved in terrorism in one way or another was invited to join the fight against Israel and against the West, a fight lead jointly by Iran, Syria and all the terrorist organizations. This is not a new situation, but it is a development that considerably exacerbates our security situation.
What are you doing to combat this new situation?
As in the past, we are continuing to act with all means against terrorism, every day and at every level. We did so throughout the Intifada and today we have had a certain amount of success in somewhat checking terrorism and its impact on the population. If you compare the present situation to that two or three years ago, when people did not go out to cafes and avoided taking the bus, you can appreciate what we have achieved, which we intend to continue. At the political level there are no contacts between Israeli and Hamas leaders. The same goes for army, because for us it is a terrorist organization and we treat it as such.
Today the PLO’s mask of moderation, which successive Israeli governments had accorded it ever since the disastrous Oslo Accords, has fallen. The leadership freely chosen by the Arab population of Judea, Samaria and Gaza is a terrorist organization whose officially declared aim is the destruction of Israel, whose right to exist it simply denies. Can you tell us how the Israeli army will react on the ground to this openly proclaimed threat?
We are going to have to become much stricter and more determined. Over the last months we had conducted various activities with PLO forces. This of course has ended, since it is completely out of the question to coordinate anything with them. We have tried to assist the civil population by letting it pass more easily through the checkpoints. This too has ended. We have to check each individual very strictly and can no longer take any risks, even calculated ones. In the longer term we must forecast what are the consequences of having a Hamas government on our doorsteps. I do not know what is happening at the political level, but I can tell you that the army will do everything to prevent and fight terrorism, without the slightest hesitation.
You have spoken of a possible increase in acts of terrorism on the roads of Judea and Samaria. How do you think this will happen in practice?
I am afraid that many members of Fatah, who over the last months have stopped their terrorist actions, will very quickly resume them, if only to maintain their position in society and in their respective villages. I believe cars will be shot at, but we are ready to face this new danger.
Do you think Kassam rockets might be fired from some of the Arab towns in Judea and Samaria?
We will do everything to prevent that. Do not forgot that we are absolutely everywhere throughout Judea and Samaria, and that we enter the very remotest Arab towns and villages. This lets us react very fast when we determine that something is starting to brew. There is no doubt that the terrorist organizations are doing everything to get Kassams in Judea and Samaria, but so far we have managed to prevent them and I have good reason to believe that we shall continue to do so.
So you are preparing to face up to a new wave of violence. Despite everything, Israel is continuing to provide humanitarian assistance to the Arabs in the territories, water, electricity etc. Do you think that in time this support will have to be stopped?
Personally, I do not think that attacking the humanitarian aid we provide the population will let us fight terrorism better. We must do everything to fight terror while sparing people who are not involved in such activities. It is an extremely delicate and difficult operation and each of our officers has had to discover the right way to act.
What is your assessment of the security situation on the country’s southern border following the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza?
As you know, the army has had to redeploy, and despite everything we have been able to conduct a certain number of operations against those trying to infiltrate Israel to carry out terrorist acts. We are encountering some difficulties combating Kassam rockets, but this is nothing new and is no way linked to the withdrawal from Gaza. We will find the solution, and there is already a reduction in the number of this sort of attack. At the military level, it is always better to act when one is on the ground, as we do throughout Judea and Samaria, However, we have not been in Gaza for a long time. For the time being in Gaza we only act from outside, which is both very difficult and very risky.
Recently Abu Abbas declared that Al-Qaida had a certain amount of activity in Gaza. Have you any information about this?
We know that this organization is very well established around Israel, in particular in Jordan, where it has carried out a number of attacks. But it is also in Lebanon, and in February rockets were fired by members of Al-Qaida at Jewish villages in the Galilee. We know they are trying to set up terrorist cells in Judea-Samaria and in Gaza, but I do not think they have managed yet. We are doing everything in our power to stop it. Having said that, I believe that today, thanks to the American involvement in Iraq, terrorist organizations have understood that their actions will not go unpunished, and that they should think twice before doing something rash. I do not believe that international terrorism is going to reduce rapidly, but despite everything I think the West’s determination can have positive effects.
To sum up, your main concern today is the rise of terrorist organizations in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and the consequences for Israel of dissension among these groups, which will lead inevitably to a systematic recommencement of terror. Have you another major cause for concern?
The development of Iran’s nuclear capacity is a threat that risks destabilizing the entire Middle East. I do not think any country in the region can remain with its arms crossed if Iran actually obtains atomic weapons.
Do you think that Israel, which is on the front line, will necessarily become the “long arm of the West” and have to act against Iran, as was the case at Osirak?
I believe that global threats should be dealt with and solved by the international community!!!
The expulsion of Jews from their homes in Gush Katif by the Israeli army was not an act without consequences within the army. Many soldiers were affected, not to say traumatized, by the task they were given. Today, six months after those sad events, do you believe there is a split in the army between religious soldiers and others?
Firstly, I want to emphasize that the army has remained the unifying element in the country, and I can tell you that not only are we very proud of that fact, but that we are doing everything we can to keep it that way. This does not mean that there are no tensions between religious and non-religious soldiers, but we are very, very far from any rupture. I believe that the leaders of the army and of the religious world in Israel must do everything to end these tensions, so that we can live together and especially so that religious youth can and will want to continue to make their contribution to the army, as it has done in the past and as it does today. Since the withdrawal from Gaza we have had two recruitment intakes, and I can tell you that the number of religious young people from Judea, Samaria and formerly from Gaza who have volunteered for combat units or officer courses has not gone down, and has even gone up.
Do you think that by avoiding a split in the army and reducing tensions in it between religious and non-religious, that this situation might represent an example that will have repercussions throughout Israeli society?
My response is, definitely yes. Our junior officers knew how to act to reduce tensions, and I must also say that everyone understood that we had no choice but to have a strong, united army, whose main mission is to defend and protect the Jewish people in Israel and in the Diaspora.
Recently there has been a growing number of cases of senior Israeli army officers not being able to go to European countries because they risked being put under arrest and taken to court for having carried out their duty in Israel. Do you think the Jews of the Diaspora should have intervened against this type of action?
Firstly I must say that I am surprised and saddened by this sort of situation. I fail to understand how the West, which has just undergone several traumatic experiences at the hands of terrorism, attacks men who have devoted a large part of their lives to the fight against terror. I think it is first and foremost the duty of western governments to do everything so that such situations do not occur.
We could have gone on listening to the Deputy Chief of Staff, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, for hours. As he accompanied me to the door, he said, “Make sure your readers understand that we are going to continue to defend the Jews in Israel, and that what we do here will have a direct impact on the security situation of Jews throughout the world, for whom we are also responsible.”