Jewish New Year 2002 - The Second Anniversary of the Intifada

By Ben Kaspit. Part I: Ma'ariv, September 6, 2002
 
** When the Intifada Erupted, it was finally clear to all: Israel is Not a
State with an Army but an Army with a State **
 
It happened about three weeks after the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada: General Amos Malka, head of Israel's Military Intelligence [AMAN. AK] was visiting the Central District Command.  The District Intelligence officer was then Yosi Kopperwasser (today head of AMAN's Research Division). "Tell me," Malka said to Kopperwasser, "how many bullets has the IDF fired since the beginning of the Intifada?"
 
Kopperwasser was dumbfounded.  He did not have a clue. Malka asked him to find out.  When the answer arrived by noon, most of the officers who were present, according to an eye witness, turned white. In the first few days of the Intifada, the IDF fired about 700,000 bullets and other projectiles  in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank - AK] and about 300,000 in Gaza.  All told, about a million bullets and other projectiles were used.  Someone in the Central Command later quipped that the project should be named "a bullet for every child." This astronomical number evinces the facts on the ground.
 
A picture is worth a thousand words, but a million projectiles are stronger and deadlier than a picture.  Here's an illustration of the same point: Nabil Shaath [then Palestinian Authority Minister for Planning and > International Cooperation - AK] who was hosting a European visitor on a
tour of  the Gaza Strip tried to demonstrate to him how aggressive the IDF was. He asked his bodyguard to draw his hand gun and fire a single shot in the air.  The entire IDF line erupted in response.  The IDF returned fire using dozens of weapons, including tanks.  The hellish shooting continued unabated for two hours: rifles, machines guns, heavy machine guns, personal anti-tank weapons and what not.  A heavy incessant barrage of firepower, all in response to a single handgun bullet.
 
Incidentally, this story does not originate with Nabil Shaath.  The story is well known to sources in the Israeli army.  Similar cases were documented over the area up and down the region.  For many years, the Israeli Defense Forces had been preparing for this Intifada and when it erupted, the IDF unleashed its prolonged frustration on the Palestinians, who did not know what hit them.  Initially, the events were dubbed "Tunnel Plus" [a reference to the 1996 incident when Palestinian anger erupted over Israel's opening of an ancient tunnel near Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque - AK].  It was seen as nothing more than a minor obligatory phase in the Palestinian national struggle for statehood.  No one, whether on our side or theirs, could have imagined that the [second] Intifada would last two years, would exact thousands of fatalities (more than 615 of them Israelis),  with no end in sight (in spite of visible signs of fatigue).
 
Some government and security officials believe that perhaps the IDF's destructive response and the blow inflicted on the Palestinians during the first weeks were directly responsible for the deteriorating situation and the escalation that followed.  During those weeks, Israel took very few casualties, in contrast with numerous Palestinian dead and wounded.  The ratio [between Israeli and Palestinian casualties - AK] was initially 1 to 20, then 2 to 40 [sic].  By early October, 75 Palestinians had been killed, compared to 4 Israelis.

"What's the matter with you?!" high Palestinian officials asked their Israeli counterparts.  "You are breaking all the rules of the game!"  The IDF continued shooting, using mainly snipers.  The shock on the Palestinian side intensified and a murderous "blood ledger" was created.  The highest Palestinian interest was now to inflict Israeli casualties, to "achieve parity," to take revenge.  The rest is well known.  IDF commanders solemnly swear repeatedly  that the army tried its best to contain the events and respond with precision and discretion.  However, the data and the results on  the ground point to a different reality.

** Deputy Minister Sneh Can't Take it Anymore **

 

Deputy Defense Minister, Efraim Sneh, who was appointed by Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to be responsible for improving Palestinian conditions, was able to observe the Army's thoughtlessly brutal policy first hand.  Sneh was repeatedly finding himself in adventures where it turned out that clear, written instructions from the political echelons, usually coming from the government or the Prime Minister,  would (as a best case scenario) get "stuck" en route to being carried out, or be passed on to the military echelon and not be carried out as intended or as ordered (as a worse case scenario) or would not be carried out at all (worst case scenario).  The activity logs and minutes contain dozens of examples, both serious and minor, of such incidents.

For example, during the efforts to reach a cease fire, following one of the meetings between Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat, it was agreed that Israel will open the 'Tantzer' road and refrain from cutting up the Gaza strip into two parts.  The day went by, night fell, a new day arrived and the Tantzer road was still  closed. The Palestinians called up to protest.  Brigadier-General Gadi  Eisenkot, Ehud Barak's Military Secretary, called the Southern Command. The Southern Command insisted: 'Tantzer' is open. Eisenkot got back to the Palestinians who continued to insist that the road is closed. Eisenkot returned to the Southern Command and on and on it went.  Finally, the Palestinians lost their patience. Muhamad Dahlan [the Palestinian Security Chief at the time] went to the 'Tantzer' road himself and got stuck there among hundreds of cars and thousands of people because the road was, indeed, closed.

Turned out that the order to open the road did arrive, but the soldiers did not carry it out.  The official excuse: a suspicious object was found at the checkpoint.  No bomb expert who could diffuse it was available.  Only by the end of the day were some bomb experts found. The suspicious object turned out to be benign. The military establishment - hardly so.

Similar as well as more serious cases happened almost daily.  Government orders were formulated, written down, signed sealed and delivered - nowhere.  They remained neatly filed in their binders.  After one of the discussions in [Prime Minister] Barak's office, there was a follow-up meeting of the military high command.  One of the generals said in response to the operative orders he had received: "But we were directed by the political branch to cease military incursions at this point!"  Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz replied: "You do what you think is right, given the facts on the ground.  If the political branch chooses to, it will let you know its objections later."

No wonder therefore that one of the brigade commander, speaking in front of other officers, dared to say something like the following: "We almost managed to break them [the Palestinian], but all this kissing up and talk about a cease fire spoiled it for us."  Another brigade commander, Gal Hirsh, said the failure "to break them" was due to the government decision to allow a cement shipment into one of the Palestinian towns. Moshe ("Boogy") Ya'alon, who was deputy Chief of Staff and then head of the Central Command [currently the Chief of Staff - AK] was heard more than once saying that there was no point talking while shooting and that any discussion of the a cease fire while the fighting continues  was harmful and unnecessary.

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak [former Chief of Staff and member of Knesset - AK] coordinated the government cease fire efforts during the initial period [of the Intifada].  Again and again he would reach a detailed agreement with Dahlan, only to see it passed on to the military echelons and then totally ignored.  After one too many of these events, Lipkin-Shahak decided he no longer wished to play this game and resigned.

One who had to go on is the army chief coordinator in the Palestinian territories, General Yaakov ("Mundy") Orr who put his body on the line trying to maintain some normalcy and keep the intensity of the conflagration to a reasonable level.  Orr retired at the end of his term, heavily scarred by these experiences.  The people who reported to him in the territories where called "collaborators" by highly ranked IDF officers [the term 'collaborator' - complete with a military acronym (the Hebrew "MASHTAF") - refers to Palestinians informers.  They are generally held in utmost contempt by Israeli soldiers who informally refer to them as "stinkers" - AK].  Again and  again, Orr and his men witnessed how Palestinian perishable farm products,  approved [by the Israeli government] for distribution, get stuck at checkpoints until it was of no use to anybody.  This had very serious consequences, especially when the products were strawberries or flowers, two export crops that thousands of Palestinian families in Gaza depend on.  If such crops are held for 2-3 days, their commercial value evaporates.

Another example is the order to supply gas to the Gaza strip via the Gasoline Terminal.  The government issued a clear and precise order to that effect one evening, only to discover the next day that a military vehicle, dispatched by the Brigade Commander, is parked at the Gasoline Terminal
preventing the order from being carried out. Someone, somewhere fired some shots a few hours back and the Brigade Commander decided to halt everything until calm is restored.  [Prime  Minister] Ehud Barak delegated authority to Brigade Commanders on the ground. They, in turn, decided to punish as they saw fit whoever they felt like punishing, or anyone else in the vicinity, for that matter.

Similarly, in the first months of the confrontation, IDF bulldozers indiscriminately razed  thousands  of dunams of planted farm land, hot-houses, nurseries, including agricultural equipment, pumps and
tractors under the pretext of "security needs." At the time, Palestinians were carrying around photographs of houses and goat sheds which were demolished on top of their herds before they had a chance to evacuate them. The head of the Southern Command was summoned one day to the Defense Minister after the IDF uprooted a large grove near Kibbutz Nirim [close to the Gaza
Strip - AK].  Only after all trees were gone was it discovered this was a kibbutz grove.

At a certain point Efraim Sneh himself has had it.  He had several hard talks with Barak and delivered him a stern letter.  Sneh wrote, among other things: "From the Chief of Staff down to the very last Sergeant at the checkpoints, no one is carrying out your policies." Sneh, in effect, told Barak that the army does not take him seriously, that orders are not carried out, that each officer does what he feels like; that the Chief of Staff, the heads of the  main Command Districts, and really the entire army need to be shaken up; that the policies of collective punishment and economic  strangulation do not serve the political objectives of the government.

** Prime Minister Barak was Apprehensive **

Barak listened. He saw what was going on, heard what people had to say and gathered testimonies.  Among others, he also had talks, at some point, with high Palestinian officials who reported to him what was going on in the territories. "You have no idea what is being done," they told him. Barak  was trapped: on the one hand, he believed in the military system through which he rose up and which he knew so well, and therefore he gave the army a lot of leeway.  On the other hand, he understood the problem.

Barak was apprehensive and did not want a confrontation with the IDF or with the Chief of Staff.  He could sense the coming elections and knew that such a confrontation could be damaging.  He would say to his military secretary Brigadier General Gadi Eisenkot from time to time: "Tell the Chief of Staff that things can't go on like this."  "How can I tell the Chief of Staff anything?" wondered Eisenkot, "he is my commander!"  In effect, Eisenkot hinted that it was Barak who needed to talk to the Chief of Staff.

But Barak continued to nap. At some point, however, even he could take it no more and he  summoned several high ranking officers, among them the Chief of Staff and the head of the Southern Command, Doron Almog. The discussions were held in secrecy with very limited attendance to avoid any leaks. People who were present described the proceedings as "harsh and stern." Barak was described as someone who arrived "with a loaded gun and a clear threat to shoot anyone who continues to disobey him straight between the eyes."  However, after the threats were conveyed, those who were reprimanded returned to the territories where lawlessness continued to reign.

It should be emphasized: what is being said here does not justify or excuse the Palestinian murderous behavior during the last two years. Nothing can justify or excuse it.  To some extent, the Palestinians got what they deserved. There is no intention in this article to hold Israel responsible for the eruption of the riots. This particular coin had two sides, at least.  Neither is there an intent to express a political position here. The IDF was determined to use its power to the fullest and inflict a heavy price on the Palestinians. It may very well be that the IDF, wanting to teach the Palestinians a lesson once and for all, a lesson they will never forget, was right in its approach.  History will tell.

The issue is entirely different.  In the Israel of 2001 it became clear to anyone who did not know already that the Israeli army both determines national policy and executes it.  The army is the one to dictate the course of events and determine their pace and direction. The political echelons have no ability to discipline the army or keep tabs on its activities. In those difficult days of September 2000, we found out for sure that Israel is not a state with an army but an army that has a state as one of its branches. The real executive branch is not the government but the colossal security system the state has built around itself over the years.  A security system that is exclusively responsible for all of Israel's Intelligence, but also thinking, planning and control, and uses these means as it sees fit.  During a fateful period like the one which exploded in our face two years ago, the security system  remained outside the scope of any real control mechanism.  Everything depended on the good will of the system's high officials and the extent to which they had internalized the values of democracy, rule-bound government, and the law.

In general, Prime Minister Barak kept his cool.  But toward the end of his term he kept zigzagging.  He'd issue declarations in the morning only to cancel them in the evening. He'd preside over long discussions culminating in learned conclusions, only to file them out of sight barely hours later. And so it went.   But on the whole he did not lose his head even during the most difficult of times.

His breaking point came when two IDF soldiers were lynched in front of TV cameras in Ramallah.   According to eyewitnesses, Barak went wild. He ordered F-16 jets to be used against multiple targets simultaneously. In closed discussions he declared "an Armageddon war."  He was furious.
Martin Indick, The USA ambassador to Israel, called and Barak, angrily, refused to answer. Barak's staff tried as hard as they could, all day long, to calm him down.  Efraim Sneh consulted Yossi  Beilin [a principal negotiator at the Taba talks with the Palestinians in January 2001, former Minister without portfolio, and currently member of the Knesset - AK] who tried several tactics.  Finally, the F-16 jets were replaced by attack helicopters. That night, Gaza underwent the heaviest helicopter attack ever; Israel crossed the threshold of restraint and overnight the conflict escalated by a whole step (or even by an entire floor).

Current Chief of Staff, Major General Moshe Ya'alon said in an interview that he is "the Chief of Staff for the entire people of Israel."  His predecessor, Shaul Mofaz, said similar things in discrete conversations. "We report to the people of Israel," our Chiefs of Staff tell us and they are seriously mistaken.  They do not report to the Israeli people. They are appointed civil servants, not elected officials. They are responsible for the functioning of the army and must report to the supreme command over the army, which is the government.  It is the Israeli government which must report to the Israeli people that has elected it.

The government must determine the national policy, issue its instructions, draw the big picture and point the general direction. During the difficult days of September 2000, and in the subsequent months, Barak's government was not exactly up to these standards.

Dozens of people, among them security officials and high-ranking officers were interviewed in the course of preparing this article. Only a few of them were either politicians or had any political agendas. Most of them were united in their opinion that the events covered in this article marked Israeli democracy's darkest days and most difficult hours. Some of the interviewees admit that occasionally they fear this democracy won't last for long the way things have been going.