|In the Eye of the Storm|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
The security situation in Judea and Samaria has a direct impact on the security of Israeli citizens throughout the country. Hamas has been in power for three years in Gaza and is daily strengthening its presence and influence in the West Bank. In addition, there is a massive, uninterrupted flow of arms into these territories, where permanent, continuous terrorist activity, both on the West Bank and in Gaza, is daily threatening the civilian population of Israel. 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 for Judea and Samaria, where we were met by Brigadier-General NOAM TIVON, commander of Israeli forces in this area.
Brigadier-General Tivon was born in 1962 on Kibbutz Tzora. Formerly commander of the parachutists and then of the Hebron region, he has a degree in History from the University of Haifa and a MA in public relations from Harvard.
You and your men are daily on the ground in direct touch with the actual security situation in Judea and Samaria. How would you assess it?
The situation in the areas for which I have responsibility is extremely precarious, and requires not only constant attention but also know-how that ensure security while avoiding setting the powder keg on fire. Our main activity is the fight against terrorism. I believe that the results obtained to date by both the army and the security services have been exemplary. Incidentally, professionals from all over the world come here to study our methods and know-how. In 2002, when the terror was at its height, over 400 Israelis were murdered in attacks, whose Arab perpetrators came from Judea and Samaria. That was the year when Israel was hardest hit, both in terms of number of victims and of the security situation itself. People were no longer going out, buses and cafes were empty, and tourism fell practically to zero. The economic consequences of that state of affairs were devastating. Six years after that drama, the situation has radically changed. In 2007 four people died in attacks in Judea and Samaria while in 2008 there have been five, with most of the attacks taking place in Jerusalem itself. There was in fact one attack in Dimona carried out by terrorists who came from the West Bank. In most cases, by the way, they were committed by Israeli Arabs. This shows that both in Judea and Samaria and in the rest of the country, citizens benefit from well-established security. This is not only due to the army’s work, but also to that of the security services, the border police (green berets), the police and the civil defense organizations, with all of which we cooperate fully. Our success has above all been due to the total freedom of action the army enjoys throughout Judea and Samaria. In this connection I must emphasize that as part of our activities we pay very close attention only to attack people carrying out terrorist activities and not to touch civilians or their families. Thus in 2007 we killed 70 terrorists, in 2008 about 50 and in 2009 to date about fifteen. We work here with the finest units in the army, such as the elite parachutists and special anti-terror units.
The second thing that helps us enormously is the security barrier (cf. Shalom Vol. 49), despite the demonstrations that take place every week against it. Since the security situation is less precarious than a few years ago, we can also help with the every day of the Arab inhabitants of the area. We have just lifted a number of roadblocks, especially around Nablus (Shechem), a town that had been so infested with terrorists that we had been forced to blockade the place. We succeeded in ending their activity and so could reopen the city. This has let the population put life back into the local economy. As you can see, the reduction in terror goes hand in hand with the everyday wellbeing of the Arab population.
The third aspect of our success lies in the ability and know-how of our men. All the troops serving in Judea and Samaria receive special training; we teach them how to react in different situations in which they can find themselves while on duty in these areas. We teach them how to conduct themselves when up against demonstrators, in the face of the Palestinian Arab population, under which circumstances to arrest somebody or to let them go, how to maintain a prisoner’s human dignity, when to open or close a checkpoint etc. It is by the way in no means rare that a soldier who finds himself effectively alone has to take this type of decision, which cannot be taken lightly. Normally a soldier entering the army is trained how to fight in the case of war against one of the neighboring Arab states. You have to realize that the relative calm we are enjoying today was not achieved overnight. It is the result of work carried out day after day by every commander who has preceded me and by the hundreds and hundreds of soldiers, both those performing their national service and those called up for reserve duty (Miluim), who have not spared their efforts in order that Israeli citizens can sleep peacefully in their beds. We have in fact reached the point where we can say that terrorism effectively no longer disturbs the everyday life of Israeli citizens. In a nutshell, what interests us is to know that when an Israeli, whether he lives in Judea and Samaria or anywhere else in the country, gets into his car in the morning, he no longer needs to think of attacks or worry whether he will return home safe and sound at the end of the day, but rather can complain about the traffic jams and think about his work. In a word, that he lives a normal life. When I hear that is the case, I know I have done my work properly.
What are your relations with the Jews of Judea and Samaria?
Contrary to a number of negative articles that have appeared in the Israeli press, relations are excellent between the army and Israeli citizens who live in the areas for which I have security responsibility. Here we work under strict orders of a well-defined policy that states that it is prohibited to set up new outposts. We enforce the letter of the law and when such places are set up we evacuate the inhabitants and demolish their structures. This work is not carried out by soldiers but by the police and the Border Police. This does not mean that we have a daily fight against the leadership of the population of Judea and Samaria, far from it. In fact, as I have said, we enjoy excellent relations with these people, and the fact is that we cooperate in many areas. However, I must say that within this society there is a fringe, marginal but very extreme, which gives us not a few problems. These are people who do not accept the authority of the State and the law and who are continually defying the army. This leads to violent incidents that we would prefer to avoid. You need to understand that these confrontations are always bad for everyone, on the physical, psychological and moral levels, starting with our soldiers. At the same time, left-wing anarchists who throw stones at the troops and who are always provoking us confront us week after week. The army’s job is not to express political opinions but to apply the law and implement the decisions of the Israeli government. Having said which, the situation on the ground is much less troubled than it appears from the press. However, where there is an extremist action that contravenes the laws of the land, or if people attack the security forces, we do what is needed so that the law and public order should be maintained with the least damage on either side. But this type of event is always very impassioned and difficult for everyone involved, and I believe I can say that our soldiers and their commanders in general display a great deal of calm and keep their cool, which is not always easy or obvious. We provide them the means to stand firm on both the physical and moral levels, but you have to realize that the fact that other Israelis are confronting our men weighs enormously on them. It is true that on both the left and the right we are only dealing with a minority, but it is a minority whose importance or danger must never be underestimated. We cannot include the entire population that lives in Judea and Samaria with these right-wing extremists, in the same way that it would be wrong to include the entire Israeli left in the movement of left-wing anarchists.
The Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria definitely does not enjoy unanimity within Israeli society. Do the soldiers serving on this front really do so wholeheartedly?
One of the key elements of our success lies in the very high morale of our men. They understand that their service here in fact is to protect their homes and families. We have soldiers from all over the country and of every shade of opinion. We are the largest unit, comprising six battalions, of which the largest are “Menashe” in Jenin, “Ephraim” in Tulkarm, “Shomron” in Shechem, and “Benjamin” in Ramallah. You need to know that the men are changed regularly and that those who undertake refresher courses within their battalions replace them as part of a regular rotation. What is important is the adaptability of our troops. All our men were able to fight for victory in Gaza and to meet the requirements of our posting here in Judea and Samaria. In that same way, all units carry on their usual training while stationed here. The men are ready to go to the front, highly motivated and always at the peak of fitness.
Through your constant action the terrorists are certainly obliged to regularly change their places. Where currently is there most terrorism?
Over the last two years Jenin, where Islamic Jihad was based, and Shechem, where there were units of Hamas and Tanzim, were the most difficult places for us. Due to our various actions their infrastructures have been destroyed. Today the hotspot is Hebron, which is a highly religious city where Hamas is deeply entrenched. We carry out painstaking work, day in, day out, hour by hour and night after night. We go into the towns and villages, arrest suspects, interrogate them, assess the information and then destroy the terrorist infrastructure. This work is carried out very discreetly, away from the glare of the cameras, and without an article in the papers after each of our missions. We need a great deal of patience and at times the work is tedious, slow and exhausting, but we do not tire and we never give up. We also have to adapt ourselves on the ground, to developments in Palestinian Arab society and to political requirements.
A visitor who has not been in Judea and Samaria for about a year and a half will be struck by the increase in the number of mosques in the Arab villages. Does this mean that Hamas has become stronger in the region?
I do not think that is the case. In fact, since Hamas seized power in Gaza we have witnessed an interesting phenomenon in the Palestinian Authority (AP). Its leaders have understood that they need to be very circumspect about Hamas. For that reason they have started to fight Hamas very seriously, while in previous years they just left them alone. We just experienced a striking example in Kalkilya, where PA agents managed to capture Hamas terrorists who were hiding and whom we were also seeking. They caught them a bit before us. Thus the chasm between the PA and Hamas is getting wider. I cannot say that the PA forces are cooperating with us. They organize and carry out their military activities in the light of their own direct interests. From a professional point of view, we have to acknowledge that they are much more efficient than in the past. We hold regular contacts, and for the time being they are not acting against us. They limit themselves to fighting Hamas and to make sure law and order prevails in the areas they control. But let it be clear that security in Judea and Samaria is in the hands of the IDF and under its sole responsibility. We do not delegate any action or responsibility to a third party. We count only on ourselves and act everywhere, as I told you, wherever and whenever we deem it necessary.
As far as the increase in mosques goes, in the Muslim world we are observing an increase in religiosity, with Palestinian Arabs following this trend. In this respect, it is interesting to note that one of the reasons we are doing everything possible to ease the lives of the Arab inhabitants of the region is to avoid Hamas winning supporters by economic means (family support). If people can have a job and support their wives and children as well as their elderly parents, they will not need financial help from Hamas. It needs to be understood that Hamas’s objective is to create a “state within a state” in Judea and Samaria. With enormous funds available, it is offering Palestinian Arabs all the aid that the Palestinian Authority is not providing, medical care, schools and every sort of welfare. That is how Hamas wins people’s loyalty, and ends up controlling them. This approach has worked very well with Hizbullah in South Lebanon, and also in Gaza. Now the leaders of Hamas are trying to act the same way in Judea and Samaria.
What are your biggest challenges at this time?
The first is to prevent terrorism from regaining a foothold in the area. Judea and Samaria today is a place where the political stakes have taken front stage, both nationally and in the world. We are the army and not a political party. Thus our duty is to ensure security while implementing the political decisions taken by the State of Israel, namely the government. In a nutshell, that is to maintain law and order. However, since this area is so politicized, each side attempts to win the favor of the army, and our duty is to remain beyond all influences. We receive our orders from the country’s Central Command, which in turn receives them from the Chief of the General Staff, who himself is implementing the government’s directives. This is not at all easy, because beyond the fact that our actions are scrutinized under a microscope the world over, military action in Judea and Samaria for our men includes a very strong psychological and sentimental aspect, which is not always the case in other parts of the country. Under such conditions it is not obvious being able to retain one’s sang-froid and not lose sight of the objectives, the war against terrorism, protecting the lives of the citizens living here or who are passing through Judea and Samaria from some other part of the country. That is what my men work at earnestly day and night.
How do you see the future?
Firstly I have to say that we are absolutely not on the point of a preparing a new retreat that would involve a massive expulsion of Jews, as was the case in Gush Katif. Having said which, I believe we are on the threshold of a critical period for Judea and Samaria, both in terms of our relations with the Palestinians and with the Jewish inhabitants. At the level of the ordinary soldier this will not be felt since his sole mission is to provide defense. At my level and higher up things are more complicated, since our duty is also to provide advice that in the end will lead to major decisions at the political echelon and that will have a direct influence on this region. Because we live here and we know the area inside out, we are called upon to provide a very precise picture of what is really happening here, which in fact is constant instability. We need to understand and analyze both retrospectively and especially forward looking the whys and the hows of the changes that are taking place, often very fast and fundamentally. This concerns both Jewish population growth and the relations between the Israeli government and the PA. At times, this aspect of our work takes on capital importance, as is the case at the moment.
On a more technical level, have there been changes in the type of weapons Arab terrorists are using?
In Judea and Samaria we are watching to make sure they have no form of rockets, whether commercial or homemade, or anti-tank weapons. Anyone who obtains or tries to use these types of weapons or to build homemade bombs with an exclusive charge is immediately arrested or killed by us. We are of course fighting against arms smuggling of anything more than an M16 automatic rifle. I still say that we want to maintain the level of arms that circulate here, especially among the Arabs, at that of the M16 in order not to have call in our F16s. Incidentally, the PA police is entitled to have Kalachnikovs and 9mm pistols. We confiscate any weapon of a larger size or greater power and fight very actively against arms and explosives smuggling. I have to say that for the time being our efforts have been crowned with success. Over the last two years, we have put a special emphasis on hunting down explosives, which can in fact come from innocuous sources. Thus fertilizers, with just a bit of effort, can be transformed into powerful explosives. The same goes for the acetone that is an ingredient in nail varnish. You have to realize that terrorism today is no longer amateurish at all; it is organized, financed and supplied by Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. Iran is certainly the prime source of financing, though Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are not much better. Money flows in enormous quantities through every possible and imaginable channel (in cash, by offset, and every manner of laundering), and is then distributed everywhere in the Palestinians’ terror centers. The same goes for lethal know-how, which has become increasingly sophisticated.
How do you act against such activities?
As far as terror know-how goes, we act militarily directly by destroying their entire infrastructure that we are aware of. Concerning the financial matters, thanks to some very sophisticated work by our security services, we have succeeded in acting directly against the bureaucratic infrastructure in Judea and Samaria. We have closed down the summer camps, schools and welfare centers of Hamas. I believe it has a certain amount of power in the region, and our fight against it is not carried out just by military means. We have accountants, lawyers, doctors and the managers of their welfare funds under surveillance. These people do not carry weapons but are highly dangerous and operate within the most extreme Islamist frameworks. We are doing everything to weaken Hamas, in the schools, in the universities, in fact everywhere its members have direct contact with the Palestinian population.
We are faced by a large-scale challenge, because if ever Hamas takes power in Judea and Samaria, Israel will find itself in a much more difficult situation than today. So my task is to prevent Hamas from gaining a foothold, whether politically, militarily or civilly. With time we are no longer fighting just the military wing of Hamas but currently also effectively against its state type controlled activities. Because Hamas taking power in Judea and Samaria would mean simply an extreme Islamic entity, which would clearly be very dangerous for us. Which does not mean we have abandoned the fight at the military level. In Hebron at the end of May we arrested one of the leaders of Hamas who had organized a large number of attacks in Jerusalem. We had been looking for him within the area for ten tears. Thanks to our activities, Hamas has not made any headway in the past year and we are continuing to battle it on a daily basis at every level I have spoken about. As long as the IDF is in Judea and Samaria it will not let this area be transformed into Hamastan as happened in Gaza.
Have you uncovered or arrested any Iranian or Lebanese Hizbullah instructors or agents active in Judea and Samaria?
Not for the time being, and anyone attempting to get here from Gaza would be immediately arrested and expelled. The border here is hermetic and illegal crossings are very difficult. What’s more, in the fight against terrorism and against Hamas in particular, we enjoy excellent cooperation with Jordan, which fears this organization.
We hear all the time about the illegal construction of Jewish outposts. Is there illegal construction by the Palestinians, and if there is, do you also act against that?
There has in fact been major growth of illegal Arab construction, especially around Jerusalem. We act when these houses pose a threat for security, namely when they are close to roads or anywhere we consider inappropriate.
You have mentioned the constant changes that are taking place in Judea and Samaria. Have there recently been any unforeseen developments?
There are several issues. May people who still yesterday were terrorists and whose objective was to carry out bloody attacks in Israel have for the moment stopped their activity; if we find them, we arrest them, especially if they have Jewish blood on their hands. However, like us, Palestinian society is well aware that this region is being scrutinized by the entire world. Its leaders are doing everything to make a good impression, and it is with this in mind that they are fighting Hamas. But we here have to be permanently on the alert, without a moment’s respite; we have to recognize changes in good time and know how to react immediately. To illustrate what I am saying, I will give the example of what we call “lone terrorists”. These are people who wake up one morning and who, on account of some course of religious indoctrination they have followed, or because their life seems difficult or because their father hit them, decide to kill a Jew. We arrest about a dozen such people each month. When we do not find them before they have committed their crime, we suffer for example the murder of a child, as occurred in Bat Ayin at the beginning of June 2009, or some other bloody attack. It is clear that people who have undergone religious indoctrination come to kill and die. The problem is that we have no prior information about the attack being prepared. So the only way to stop them is to bolster the defense of Jewish towns and villages and of the roads.
Do you think we are at the dawn of a third Intifada?
I do not think so. By the way, during the military operation in Gaza in January, there were effectively no anti-Israeli demonstrations by the Arabs who live in Judea and Samaria. But we are ready to confront any eventuality, and that type of scenario is part of our preparations and the training of our men. To sum up, I would say that our task here is to have our eyes and ears open everywhere and to keep well ahead of our enemies.