What we saw up until now was just the preface, with a strong opening chord in Ramallah. This war even has a new name, albeit not officially. “This war should be called the ‘war for the home,” the chief of staff told regular paratrooper soldiers before they left for the battle to conquer the capital of Palestinian terror, the city of Nablus. And they sat facing him in tense silence, with the knowledge that they were about to see fighting that very few armies, including the IDF, had experienced: combat inside a large, crowded city with tall buildings, with a casbah, with the radical A-Najah University, which gave birth to a large number of the suicide bombers, with the largest concentration of wanted men who know that the IDF is on the way, and who have had enough time to prepare for it. “This is a very crucial time,” Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz told them, “and the minister of history has summoned you to be participants in the battle for our home. Each one of you understands the great responsibility on your young shoulders.”
As of last night, the preliminary military operations were undertaken to enable the reservists to get ready, put the units in order, complete the battle orders and began the mission of completing the occupation of the territories. Control over these areas is mainly by means of the regular army units, who go from one sub-section to another. In the less problematic places, the reservists are the ones who take control or help to do so. The sub-sections in the West Bank, which until the most recent operation were handled by brigades, are now being handled by three divisions. The West Bank is saturated with army troops on a scale never seen before.
The IDF decided to work, in the first days of fighting, from the outside inwards. First it entered Ramallah, Tulkarm, Kalkilya, Bethlehem. These are cities that the IDF entered and exited recently, and they are already a pretty squeezed lemon as far as combating terror infrastructure goes. The addition of isolating Arafat is a political act, and the more time that passes, its damage outweighs its benefits. The world is busy today dealing with the question of how many pitas Arafat’s besieged office ordered, and not with the question of how many terror attacks this man is responsible for.
On Tuesday, we went up a grade. The reserve troops, meant both for combat or as backup in case of military deterioration, became ready, and the army began to deal thoroughly with Samaria, the heart of Palestinian terror. On Tuesday the incursion into Jenin began. And last night was the climax: the incursion into Nablus.
However, this climax may also signal the countdown of the diplomatic clock. If this were just a conflict between ourselves and the Palestinians, Israel could conquer the area and cleanse it, an act that could last even several weeks without any real diplomatic pressure. However, there was a change in the last 24 hours. The Egyptian announcement of cutting diplomatic ties, which will most likely lead to a similar Jordanian announcement, is a very worrisome signal, and it is still unclear how it will develop. The heating up of the northern border and the danger of this border burning within a few days may halt the military operations in the territories.
The pressure from Europe and the UN on Israel is secondary. But with the Americans worried about the rift with Egypt and a possible flare with Syria, the IDF operations in the territories could be shortened to a week. Israel needs more time to achieve its central goal of reducing the volume of terror.
So far, the operation has produced 1,000 Palestinians who were arrested. Around 70 armed Palestinians were killed. Among those arrested are only a few dozen major terror activists. At Jibril Rajoub’s headquarters, for example, while around 200 people did give themselves up, only 13 of them were mid-level terror activists. The intelligence aspect and the confiscation of weapons is important, but the thing that will put a stop to the wave of suicide bombers and the reduction of terror is the number of wanted men who are neutralized. We need a few dozen of such high-level people and a few hundred mid-level ones to achieve this. And for that, the IDF needs time.
This time can be obtained if there is no deterioration in the north, if we don’t do anything stupid in the territories, and if we are able to show the Americans that we are getting direct results in the war on terror. One result of the present war is already evident: The Palestinian Authority, as we knew it, does not function and apparently no longer exists. The big unknown is what sort of political creature Israel will face the day after, in the hope that all the chilling predictions of a fundamentalist mutation do not come true.
This article ran in Yediot Aharonot on April 4th, 2002