Israeli offensive putting squeeze on terrorists

Halt in suicide bombings shows effectiveness of campaign, planners say

April 09, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - During 11 days of fighting in the West Bank, the Israeli army has unleashed a military campaign of controlled fury across a volatile urban battlefield of ancient cities and teeming refugee camps.

President Bush and other world leaders have demanded that the operation end immediately, now that it has devastated the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority, forced tens of thousands of fearful civilians to remain in their homes and left Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat isolated in his ruined compound in Ramallah.

But to the planners of Operation Defensive Shield, the mission's effectiveness is best judged by what is not occurring on Israel's streets: Palestinian suicide bombers have been silenced, for now, providing a reprieve for an Israeli population made jittery by terror attacks.

"The main measure of whether the operation is successful or not is there has not been a suicide bombing in almost a week," Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman, said yesterday. "And equally important, the warnings [of terror attacks] that we have, which were horrendous on the eve of the operation, have gone down dramatically. The terrorists are either on the run or arrested or killed. In that respect, the facts on the ground prove this strategy does work."

But Israel's military cannot guarantee that terror attacks will not resume.

"No one is suggesting 100 percent success, that there won't be a suicide bomb today, in hours, or tomorrow," Dallal said. And it remains unclear whether the bitter street-by-street fighting in recent days will make the recruitment of suicide bombers by militant groups even easier.

The operation has not come without a cost to the Israelis. At least 14 soldiers have been killed and more than 40 wounded. Thousands of reservists have been called up, ensuring that Israel's economy will be affected.

There have been Israeli incursions in the West Bank in the past, but none with this operation's breadth and scope. In past campaigns, the Israeli army entered one area at a time, only to have militants move one step ahead. This time, the Israelis threw a net over seven Palestinian cities and towns.

"You had to do it in many places," said Avraham Rotem, a retired Israeli general. "To maintain control you have to enlarge your force, gather many units. This you cannot do by any other system. You can play with those terrorists on other matters. But the way Israel decided to do it was to remain human beings and not to bomb cities, not to bomb villages."

By amassing overwhelming force, Rotem said, Israeli forces could move "slowly, very carefully."

"We don't want the burden of massacre on our shoulders," he said.

First, Israeli forces encircled areas they wanted to enter, to cut off avenues of escape. Then the army moved in armor and troops, setting up spotters and snipers on rooftops. When needed, it brought in helicopter gunships.

Soldiers also sought to stay off the streets, engaging in house-to-house searches by blasting through the walls of one home to get to the next.

Shlomo Brom, a retired general and senior researcher at the Jaffe Center, said the Israeli army has dealt with the "Palestinian resistance more easily than expected," although it encountered fierce resistance when trying to enter a Jenin refugee camp.

He said Israelis also have learned lessons from past urban conflicts, including the U.S experience in 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia, where American forces lost two helicopters and had to fight thousands of armed Somalis, an incident re-created in the movie Black Hawk Down.

Brom said the Israelis learned how to operate helicopters so they would be less vulnerable to light arms, as well as integrating helicopters with infantry.

"Whenever the infantry is facing resistance, in a very short time they can aim the helicopter fire at the resistance," he said.

The Israelis have drawn other lessons from fighting in populated areas.

"We don't use cannons," Col. Miri Eisen, an Israeli intelligence officer, said in a briefing Sunday. "We are fighting meticulously, and use UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and ground observers from high places around the cities to guide our forces to the main points of resistance."

The Israeli military has painted a positive picture of the incursion and seems anxious to continue the operation that was originally reported to have a four-week timetable. But political pressure, including the arrival this week of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, may force the Israelis to curtail the operation, beginning with the pullout from two cities that was reported early today.

In talking Sunday with reporters, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, head of operations, noted the time pressure.

"We are working as if each day is our last day," Harel said, "so that if they say we have to leave, we will have had enough time to target all the central sites."

Harel also described what he considers "a paradox."

"A series of devastating attacks occur, and then it is highly legitimate for us to go into the [West Bank]," he said. "The terror went down. Now, our legitimacy to be in the territories is quickly evaporating, and we must leave. If we do it too soon, though, another series of devastating terrorist attacks will force us to return to the territories. If we stay in and make more achievements, maybe we can at least rest safely for a little bit longer."

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