|Prevention and Intervention|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
In one of his most famous songs, Gilbert Bécaud sang, “And what do I do now?” This phrase can easily be paraphrased for the security situation in Judea and Samaria, “And what will happen now?” “Now” is the reality of Hamas in power, the reality of Israel’s civil and military withdrawal from Gaza, the reality of a massive, uninterrupted flow of arms into these areas, and lastly the reality of constant terrorist activity on the West Bank and in Gaza, which places Israeli civilians in danger every day. Happily, the army is carrying out remarkable preventative work. To explain to us the various aspects of the situation on the ground, we traveled to Beth El, the headquarters of the IDF’s Central Command, where we were met by Brigadier-General Yair Golan, commander of Israeli forces in the area.
Could you sketch for us in a few words a picture of the security situation in the areas under your command?
To understand the current situation, you have to recall what happened in Israel in 2002, the year Arab terrorism wreaked its greatest havoc, with 234 Jews in Israel killed by suicide bombers, not to mention the many wounded. In 2006, 11 were killed, and so prima facie we are seeing a huge reduction in Arab terrorism. However, this only shows a part of the true picture. In fact, the number of incidents of small arms fire, of attempted bombings and of Palestinians killed is up sharply. The combination of these two facts, that we have succeeded in thwarting a large number of terrorist acts and the growing number of attempts, shows that the threat is relentlessly growing. This is because there is no political solution in view and because the ending of the Second Lebanon War has encouraged the radicals. The terrorist organizations have attempted to launch as many operations as possible. We have countered these attempts day after day, night after night with a lot of perseverance and not a small amount of luck. For example, a suicide bomber was stopped by chance in Jerusalem, when we did not even have the slightest intelligence about him. That is a brief summary of the ongoing war against terrorism that we have fought in 2006.
What is your assessment of developments among the local population?
It has been particularly affected by the Palestinian Authority having become a Hamas authority. At Israel’s request international financial aid was stopped, thereby severely reducing all economic activity in the autonomous areas. In a word, there can be no doubt that the situation of the population has deteriorated. The Palestinian Authority has not paid salaries on a regular basis since January 2006.
You talk about the Palestinian Authority. What is its true situation today?
It is a totally ineffective organization, which, even if no longer directly involved in terrorist activities, has neither the intention nor the means to rein them in and even less of preventing them. It is in no way the supreme authority in the territories that are its responsibility. What’s more, it has absolutely no monopoly on power, far from it. I believe that in time the Palestinian Authority will become one of the forces in the area, but certainly not the most important nor the one that leads the Palestinian population. Over the last six years its role has gradually shriveled, which is not good news.
Who controls the money and who controls the arms?
On this there is a large difference between the Gaza Strip and Judea and Samaria. In Gaza, since its election, power is in the hands of Hamas and it is the supreme authority. Here in Judea and Samaria, while the Palestinian Authority is officially controlled by Hamas, the picture is different. We have to deal with the same Fatah people, there has been no change of personnel and I reckon that Fatah is still in power. In fact, we do not cooperate so to speak with this organization, but there are small problems every day that we have to solve together, such as medical, humanitarian, water and electricity issues and the like. What’s more, even though their contribution to the maintenance of security is very low, from time to time, such as for example when an Israeli citizen mistakenly enters their areas, they get going to return that person to us safe and sound. Cooperation is thus maintained at a very low level, which is certainly beneficial for both parties, but which can in no way serve as a basis to create a new form of solid relations that might let us think of a better future together.
What relations do you have with the Jewish population of Judea and Samaria?
2006 started off very badly with the dramatic evacuation of Amona (Editor’s note: in fact there was systematic, determined and unjustified physical brutality and verbal intimidation) and the Shapiro house in Hebron. With time tempers cooled and there was the Second Lebanon War, which reestablished a certain harmony. In Judea and Samaria like in the rest of the country, we are in some sort of on hold situation, waiting to see how things develop. For the time being, the current Israeli government has not formulated any medium- or long-term strategy.
Do you believe that the security fence is contributing effectively to the fight against terrorism?
The closure is an excellent infrastructure for controlling every type of activity. Once, the area was totally open and all movements were entirely free and difficult to verify. As a result, monitoring terrorist activities were very complicated. Now, since the area has been closed off, terrorists are forced to take certain routes to get from one point to another, making our task both easier and more effective.
What is the risk that the terrorists will fire Kassam rockets from Arab towns and villages in Judea and Samaria?
The probability is extremely low, since we enjoy complete freedom of action and can intervene in Palestinian towns and villages, and we do not let this sort of activity develop. Recently there was an attempted launch of a Kassam from Tulkarem. We intervened and destroyed all the preparations. I think that as long as we can act as we are doing today, the risk of seeing Kassams or any other sort of rocket launched against Jewish towns is effectively non-existent.
What is the influence of Hizbullah and Iran in the Arab towns?
It is absolutely fundamental. There are dozens and dozens of terrorist cells financed by Hizbullah, which means by Iran. Hizbullah is deeply involved in terrorist activities in Israel. This is a very dangerous development, but in my opinion the main problem is not with the actual activities of Hizbullah, but rather that it is providing arms, money and know-how to the men of Hamas. Having said which, we must differentiate between the situations in Judea and Samaria and in Gaza. If around here Hizbullah only has limited influence, in Gaza it has an entirely free hand and plays a leading role since its assistance to Hamas is unlimited. On this point, it is interesting to note that there are no terrorist cells run by Al-Qaeda. This organization twice attempted to set up in the area, which we prevented.
How do you see the situation developing in the coming year?
My job is to prepare for the worst. I believe we will have no choice but to launch a large-scale ground operation in Gaza, which will involve the army remaining until it has destroyed the entire Arab terrorist infrastructure. There is no other way of ending the Kassam and other rocket attacks. I fear that Israel will only undertake an operation like that following a major attack with a large number of victims, such as a rocket exploding in an Ashkelon school. If Israel does launch such an operation, it will certainly directly effect the situation in Judea and Samaria, inevitably causing riots or an increase in terrorist attacks. Nor can it be excluded that it would not revive terrorist activity in the North through Hizbullah and even possibly from Syria. I therefore foresee a possible deterioration in the situation, but we have all the necessary means and are sufficiently established throughout the region to effectively meet and end any such development. It should not be forgotten that the situation is highly complex.
Do you think we are at the dawn of a third Intifada?
I think that firstly we should define this term. Is it just acts of violence that we saw during the first Intifada, which in toto consisted of stones and Molotov cocktails being thrown? Or are we talking about the second Intifada, when suicide bombers were blowing themselves up on Israel’s streets? If we talk of the first situation, experience has shown it can last a few months but not years. Incidentally, in the first Intifada, after three months the level and intensity of violence dropped significantly, continuing on only a sporadic basis. The second Intifada was quite different, because we were up against the most terrible form of terrorism. And as I have said, I believe that as long as we maintain our presence in the Palestinian towns and villages and retain our total freedom of action, we shall not be faced with a new type of risk. Today there is no reason in this area to make us think we are threatened on the security level. Similarly, I do not think that light arms fire on civilian cars will restart in a big way. So for the time being I do not believe we will see a radical grass-roots change that would be something new for us or that might take us by surprise, even if the cycle of violence recommences. The only development that could bring change would be a political one, such as a decision by the Israeli government to abandon a large amount of territory in Judea and Samaria and to evacuate many Jewish settlements. Another possibility is that our government is subjected to American pressure to implement the Road Map fully and immediately. To sum up, as long as there are no political developments, the security situation will probably not change. Therefore, if on the political plane things are more uncertain, on the security level I can say we have the situation fully under control and that we are operating in these areas day and night, every day of the week.
How do you see the development of the activities to populate Judea and Samaria with Jews?
Following the disengagement from Gush Katif, just over a year ago, I would say we are in a situation I would call a “cease fire”. The leaders have not pushed expanding settlements hard and we have not done much to stop them. I would say that in a curious manner, on this specific point, their situation and that of the Palestinians somehow dovetails: the two populations are awaiting a political initiative that will find a solution acceptable to all.
What problem is your main concern at the moment?
Without a doubt the massive influx of liquid money from Beirut and Damascus for the terrorist organizations. But I think our biggest challenge in 2007 is to prevent contacts between Gaza and the West Bank, and the flow of arms and money between these two regions. Without getting into details, I can say that this is a complex issue beyond the purely military, and involves the banks, the intelligence services and many other bodies such as the police’s Fraud Squad etc.
In the area for which you are responsible is Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus (Shechem). Do you think it right that Jews cannot go to pray at the tomb of one of the most important figures in our history?
Firstly, in this area, there is not just Joseph’s Tomb, but also others, including those of many Sages of the Talmud and that of Joshua, which is in an Arab village. However, here you have touched on a basic issue, whether or not Israel wants a policy of separation between the two populations, Jewish and Palestinian. If that is the case, there are several tough decisions to be taken, including preventing Jews going to certain tombs. But that is the political aspect. As far as I am concerned, I will just talk about my bailiwick, which is the security question. The fact is that the situation is very dangerous, and it is inconceivable to let people move around freely in Arab areas. With regards more specifically to Joseph’s Tomb, we have an agreement that allows Jews to go there three or four times a year. You need to understand what this means for the army. I have to place a very large number of men on alert and put their lives in danger. The preparations are not done at the drop of a hat but require a huge effort. An operation like that needs a lot of time, work and effort, and I can assure you that my troops would be better employed on other, considerably more important tasks.
We are coming up to the fortieth anniversary of the Six Days War. As a career soldier and an Israeli, how do you assess the change of situation between 1967 and today?
Firstly I would answer you simply as an Israel citizen. Every generation believes the difficulties it faces are the hardest. And today I believe we are truly up against a major problem, even though it is no surprise. As time goes by we are getting closer to the moment of truth, when we will have to face up to the basic questions about our existence here as a Jewish state. Among the questions there are first and foremost those concerning the complex relations between ourselves, religious and non-religious Jews, orthodox and liberal, left and right etc. Let’s take a look at some of these questions, such as, how to live in a democratic, Jewish state with a large Arab population, the question of borders, the justice of our cause to live on this land. A lot of questions could be brushed aside during the first years of the State’s existence, from 1948 to 1973. Since then we have been in a period of our history in which we have to face up to these questions, and it is not easy. It requires a great deal of patience and a lot of discernment to know what is truly important for us and what is only secondary. We must have a strong, visionary leadership. I believe that what will determine our future will be our ability to discover the means to unite us around shared values and objectives. We need to know what we want to achieve and how we want to live as a modern Jewish state within an environment whose values are very different from ours. It is fundamental that we determine how we wish to fashion our own future and how we want to bring up our children here. The challenge is hard, but it can be overcome and we shall succeed.
At the military level, I would just say that today we are in a much better situation than forty years ago and we are in a position to control and face up to our enemies.
At the international level, and often even within Jewish society, the IDF’s actions are much criticized. How would you respond to your detractors?
I believe that before passing judgment, you have to know the facts. Those who attack us do not come here, they make no effort to understand what is terrorism, and that goes for a good number of Israelis too. However, for your readers who believe they are living at peace in Europe and indeed throughout the world, I say they should not have any illusions. The relative calm of today is nothing but the lull before the storm, I would strongly advise them first of all to come to Israel, then to go to Judea and Samaria to understand what are the objectives of terrorism that we are fighting, as I told you day in, day out, night in, night out.
To wrap up and to give actual examples of the tough, demanding work of Brigadier General Golan and his brave troops, we will quote two laconic communiqués issued on February 28: “Three Palestinian terrorists sought by Israel were killed in Jenin. The army has not confirmed its involvement in this operation”; then “With the objective of tracking down a certain number of militants, the old city of Nablus was closed off, a curfew was imposed and 50,000 people were confined to their homes; the army made house to house searches and arrested 25 suspects, 5 in Nablus itself. The army stated that the operation was necessary, because most suicide bombers trying to carry out terrorist acts in Israel come from Nablus”.