Editor’s Notes: Not like Lebanon at all

By David Horovitz May 27, 2005

The radical differences between pulling out troops and evacuating reluctant civilians

Amid the wholesale changing of the guard in the security establishment this spring, one departure is being somewhat overshadowed. Gabi Ashkenazi, the deputy chief of staff who failed to win a last, most precious promotion, is currently working through his final few days, already out of uniform, high in the Defense Ministry’s gleaming new office building in Tel Aviv’s Kirya military complex.

Even at this late stage, the chain-smoking Ashkenazi won’t talk about what he’s planning to do next, or about the selection process that saw Air Force chief Dan Halutz preferred to him as successor to Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon.

But he will talk – a little, and carefully – about disengagement, from a unique perspective: It was Ashkenazi who, as the general in charge of the Northern Command, oversaw Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon, under Hizbullah fire, five years ago.

In a week during which numerous Israeli commentators have marked that anniversary by drawing parallels with the Gaza-Northern Samaria pullout, Ashkenazi chooses to highlight the differences. And the way he tells it, May 2000’s departure from the security zone – with the South Lebanon Army collapsing, thousands of SLA members and their families clamoring for admission to Israel, Hizbullah gunmen raining down fire on the departing troops, and 20 years of military hardware being brought home overnight – sounds like a cakewalk by comparison with the task facing the IDF this summer.

He stresses that ‘the army can and will carry out the disengagement.’ The question, he says, is ‘at what price – and what pictures we’ll see, what the Palestinians will do.’

At the heart of the complexity is that along with the withdrawal of troops and equipment common to the pullout from Lebanon, the IDF in Gaza is tasked with the mission of securing the evacuation of 1,500 settler families – ‘an entire community… with women, children, graves, synagogues. It’s not merely a more complicated military operation. It’s one that’s not about soldiers.’

‘And a great majority’ of that settler community, he notes, ‘doesn’t want to leave.’

Ashkenazi alludes in only the vaguest way to the matter of Israel’s preparations for the relocation of those families, raising ‘the question of the readiness to absorb them.’ But the plain fact is that he, overseeing the absorption of refugees from a neighboring country five years ago, had a far more effective and advanced mechanism at his disposal than the one set up for Gaza’s Israelis.

Israel took in no fewer than 6,000 members and families of the SLA, the militia that had come to bear overwhelming responsibility for maintaining the security zone, during the frenzied pullout period. Their absorption has certainly not been without problems, but the IDF had spent something like nine months beforehand arranging the logistics of their relocation, identifying appropriate destinations for Druse, Muslims and Christians, ensuring that their children would have schools to go to, and maintaining an ongoing liaison force comprising hundreds of soldiers who had worked closely with the SLA in Lebanon.

That makes for a stark contrast with the failure to plan for life after Gush Katif.

Whether or not improved preparation might have mitigated the Gaza settlers’ disinclination to go quietly, the fact is, Ashkenazi notes, that having to evacuate reluctant civilians necessarily means the whole operation ‘will take longer,’ will not be feasible overwhelmingly at night, as was the case in Lebanon, and will thus render civilians and troops ‘more vulnerable’ should Hamas and other terror groups fire on them.

Again, to underline the distinction from south Lebanon, Israel’s troops there were thoroughly prepared for the most rapid evacuation possible.

The Barak government had hoped to leave Lebanon in the context of a formal peace agreement with Syria and its client state – an agreement that would have meant an orderly, internationally celebrated transfer of authority. Ehud Barak had been elected in 1999 pledging to press hard for such a deal, and had set a deadline of July 2000 to reach it, or pull out unilaterally. Many, in the Israeli security establishment and beyond, believe Barak himself rather than Syria’s President Hafez Assad torpedoed the chances of such a deal. But leaving that aside, the prime minister’s stated determination to leave Lebanon, deal or no deal, meant that the collapse of the SLA was only a matter of time: Through 1999 and into 2000, SLA fighters knew Israel would be going, and soon.

Although the IDF tried to bolster SLA morale with increased salaries, better weaponry and more protection at the military outposts in the zone, the assessment was that the militia, far from holding firm till July, could collapse as early as February 2000 – that, one day, the fighters simply wouldn’t turn up for work. When that day came, if the IDF didn’t want to dispatch large numbers of Israeli troops to replace the militiamen, it would have to be ready to bolt for the border.

In the event, the SLA collapse came in late May. But for months before then, every Israeli army truck, taking food and other supplies into the zone, quietly returned with non-essential military equipment. Toward the end, Israeli soldiers were told to keep only their most essential effects with them, and to be ready to pick up and go in an instant. When the orders came to pull out, therefore, it was a matter of folding the flag, saluting and departing – a generation’s military presence removed more rapidly than most people move house.

WHICH BRINGS us back to Gaza and a world in which the IDF cannot order settler families to send their non-essential personal effects out of the Strip ahead of disengagement if they are not happy to do so, or to keep their heads down and run for the armored personnel carriers as mortar shells and rocket fire rain in.

The IDF managed to get its troops out of Lebanon unscathed, taking calculated military risks. It would presumably feel obligated, if under fire at the settlements in Gaza, to send civilians into the bomb shelters and suspend any evacuation until calm was restored.

It is widely assessed in the Israeli security establishment that Hamas will find it hard to resist the temptation to maximize the PR value of Israel’s departure – that, at the very least, masked gunmen will be filmed firing in the direction of the departing Israelis and their settlements to underline the sense that relentless ‘resistance’ forced an Israeli capitulation and retreat.

Echoing Sharon, Ashkenazi stresses the consequent importance of trying to coordinate the pullout with the Palestinian Authority – that there be an address, responsible for security, that can keep control of the territory around the settlements and take control of the settlement areas once they are evacuated.

‘That may not prevent photographs of green Hamas flags flying from the red roofs of the settler homes,’ he adds, ‘or from the rubble of the homes if it is decided to destroy them – which I don’t think should be done. But it could certainly, primarily, prevent casualties.’

Why would the PA take such responsibility, especially given Mahmoud Abbas’s reluctance thus far to effectively combat the terror groups?

Ashkenazi: ‘If there is a particularly grave incident with the settlers during the pullout, one in which settlers are injured – or several incidents – it could even lead to a situation in which the government decides to halt the move so as not to endanger more people.’

This in turn ‘could lead to a military escalation because the IDF would have to react.’ Coordination with ‘the other side’ could avert that – avert the attacks and ‘prevent a situation in which Israel decides that, given the security realities, it is wrong to continue’ with the pullout.

And since the PA wants to see Israel leave Gaza, Ashkenazi thinks ‘it is in the interests of both sides’ to coordinate.

IN THE last two years before the Lebanon pullout, Israeli fatalities on that front had fallen from more than 20 on average per year to about a dozen. The pullback to the international border has reduced that casualty level significantly further.

Few would argue, however, that the desire to emulate Hizbullah has been a major factor in the terrorism of the past five years. It is unarguable, too, that Hizbullah has refocused much of its own activity on directing Palestinian terrorism – and has been responsible for many of the attacks on Israeli targets from the West Bank in the past two years.

Together with its international terrorist capabilities – underlined by the 1992 and 1994 attacks on the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center offices in Buenos Aires – Hizbullah’s missile capability creates a balance of deterrence deeply disturbing to Israel. The 1992 embassy blast was seen as a response to Israel’s killing of Nasrallah’s predecessor Abbas Mousawi; as a consequence, Israel will not lightly contemplate targeting the sheikh.

The hope in the Israeli security establishment is that a public demand for freedom and democracy in Lebanon will render untenable Nasrallah’s bid to play a major political role in his country while maintaining the sole armed militia there, and that he will either voluntarily disarm or be forced to do so.

But, in the meantime, many in Israel are concerned that Nasrallah’s ‘spider’s web’ metaphor – the assertion that Israel can be swept away if attacked brutally enough and relentlessly enough – is being given new credibility. The pullout from Lebanon established the theory; the departure from Gaza further vindicates it.

Ashkenazi won’t be drawn too far on this. ‘I think the narrative of the two sides will be different. That’s usually the way with such moves,’ he says. ‘The Israeli side will argue that it acted out of strength and a recognition of its best interests, and the other side will say the opposite. To some extent it’s possible to draw a parallel with the Yom Kippur War: To this day, the Egyptians celebrate victory, and the Israeli side makes its own claims.’

The fact is, though, that the Lebanon pullout and the Gaza disengagement demonstrate that Israel is prone to make concessions when under heavy attack. Where Left and Right part ways is on the policy implications.

For the Right, the clear lesson is to hold firm under fire, secure victory and dictate terms from a position of strength. And, in that mindset, disengagement is a terrible mistake, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory over five years of terrorism – just as the Oslo process represented defeat snatched from the jaws of success in quelling the 1987-93 intifada.

For the Left, the lesson is to try and avoid bloodshed by acknowledging and initiating the inevitable compromises necessary to secure a Jewish, democratic Israel – and gain legitimacy, that most important international political coin, if the other side proves obdurate. Such a stance, it is argued, for instance, could have brought peace with Egypt before rather than after the 1973 war.

Until he bids farewell to the defense establishment, Ashkenazi, unsurprisingly, won’t take a public stance in this fundamental debate. Albeit for a few more days, he’s still in the army.

And for the army today, as it was five years ago in Lebanon, the focus, now that the politicians have spoken, is on getting the job done.

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