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Exclusive: Israeli Army Gets Tough in 'Battle of Jerusalem'

Monday, 20 November 2000 12:00 AM

Israel can win what Arabs call "the battle of Jerusalem" on the ground, but lose it in the media. Fed up with a war of defense and needing to end an upward spiral of violence, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have adopted a tough new approach in the seven-week-old street fighting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The army has resolved to attack first against Palestinian strong points, and to target midlevel commanders within the Palestinian command structure who order terror attacks.

The military and politicians are under severe pressure to check Palestinian terror. Today three groups simultaneously took blame for a bomb attack upon an Israeli school bus near a Gaza settlement that killed two. This calculated murder of innocents marks an ominous jump upward from stone throwing and sniping. The intifada of 1987-1993 climaxed with suicide bombings in street buses in Israeli cities.

A first strike is nothing new in Israeli military practice. It has done so wherever it could in its conventional wars. But this is dicey in an urban guerrilla conflict, given media scrutiny, young lightly armed combatants, and the rebels' fondness for taking firing positions among innocent civilians.

The IDF faces a mixed array of plainclothes militiamen with heavy automatic weapons in and among mobs of stone throwing teen-agers. Israel's policy is to "engage with minimum force" against civilians, according to Israel's embassy press spokesman in Washington, Mark Regev.

Tragedies do occur. On Nov. 15 a German, Dr. Harald Fischer, 68, was killed by Israeli return fire in the ongoing skirmishing in the suburb of Beit Jala south of Jerusalem. Beit Jala abuts on an Israeli suburb of Gilo, and the zone has come to resemble a Beirut battle zone. Dr. Fischer was married to a Palestinian woman and had lived through the first rebellion a decade ago.

To bag the shooters and not the stone throwers, the IDF has mobilized elite units of "sniper stalkers" to knock out firing positions with minimum harm to civilians. The army also operates Arabic-speaking "snatch squads" that adroitly rounded up the killers of Israeli reservists lynched during an attack upon a police station.

Undercover operators of the IDF's intelligence arm, A'man, and of the secretive Sayaret reconnaissance section of the Golani Brigade are at high alert. Operations on foot are not the norm. While agents on the ground might scout and support, there is a distinct preference for standoff strikes like helicopter gunship raids that make capture of Israeli troops unlikely. IDF is still smarting from the imprisonment of an entire patrol in south Lebanon by Hezb'allah.

Senior policy makers avoid zeroing in upon Arafat or his very top aides. Confirmation of the aggressive new policy came on Nov. 9, with a helicopter attack upon a jeep carrying a leader of Fatah's Tanzim militia. Fatah is the umbrella organization led by Yasser Arafat, and Tanzim is one of half a dozen military and intelligence units within it.

The Defense Ministry announced in an interview to Haaretz newspaper that henceforth midlevel "operational" officers of any wing of Fatah were fair game if they were hitting or about to hit civilian targets.

Palestinians dispute the directness of Tansy’s connection to Arafat, but Israel has no doubts. An informed Israeli source told NewsMax.com, "After the killings [lynching of Israeli reservists on Oct. 13] Arafat had meetings where he specifically told Force 17 and the others to lay off, but not the Tanzim." This information would have come from agent reports or electronic intelligence. Its source is highly classified.

Tanzim is Arabic for organization. Force 17 bills itself as Arafat's bodyguard, but it is a militia closely associated with him since the 1970s and publicly took blame for the murder of three Israelis in Cyrpress in 1985. Fatah is a collection of factions and splinter groups that are not always splinters, such as Black September in the 1970s. Black September effectively played black hat to Arafat's white.

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Israel can win what Arabs call the battle of Jerusalem on the ground, but lose it in the media. Fed up with a war of defense and needing to end an upward spiral of violence, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have adopted a tough new approach in the seven-week-old street...
Monday, 20 November 2000 12:00 AM
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