Two Strong-minded Israeli Defense Chiefs Purged Ahead of Evacuations
The non-extension of Lt.-General Moshe Ayalon’s tour of duty as Israeli armed forces chief of staff is unprecedented. The one-year extension has always been automatic for every one of his predecessors, a routine that crossed party divisions and assured the country that the army serves the nation as its supreme defender and is above and apart from the political schemes of the government in office.
This virtual sacking hit Israel like a thunderclap after midnight Tuesday, February 15, the more shocking since it followed shortly after the announcement that Shin Beit Director, the second top czar of Israel’s war on Palestinian terror, will also not be asked to stay on when his stint is up in May. Both of these experienced veterans, widely acclaimed for their achievements in cutting down Palestinian terror, are being dropped ahead of the evacuations of Israeli civilians and troops from the Gaza Strip and northern West bank in the coming July. Both have spoken out against the step – each in his professional capacity.
By Wednesday morning, a vocal chorus from the extreme political left to the right had condemned the step as irresponsible. The Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee will be called into urgent session.
An angry tremor ran through the IDF’s high command. High albeit anonymous officers voiced fears of the destabilizing effect on the armed forces at a very tricky period. The top soldier’s retirement inevitably generates a round of new appointments and musical chairs which are bound to complicate the run-up to the dangerous and painful withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Many commanders expect the post-disengagement Palestinian territory to turn rapidly into a fast-exploding powder keg.
It is too soon to say whether General Yaalon jumped or was pushed. But it hardly matters. Prime minister Ariel Sharon and defense minister Shaul Mofaz obviously wanted him out of the way and replaced with a more supportive military chief before the evacuations began. Three of the frontrunners are deputy chief of staff and former air force commander Dan Halutz, former deputy chief of staff Gaby Ashkenazi and a dark horse, close friend of the prime minister, former OC central command Moshe Kaplinsky.
After soldiering for 37 years – mostly in combat units – general Yaalon knew the rules and kept to them, voicing his views to the heads of government and parliament in private, although his conviction that Israel was undertaking unacceptable risks in withdrawing from Gaza at this time was no secret. The departing Shin Beit director spoke freely of the threat of a second South Lebanon badland rising in the Gaza Strip after the redeployment of Israeli troops outside the territory and away from the Philadelphi border strip with Egypt and laying much of southern and central Israeli open to Hizballah-backed Palestinian terrorism, missiles and mortars attacks.
Yaalon objected strongly to troops having to execute the forcible evictions of evacuees from their homes and this task passed to the police. His departure will tell the country that its highest-ranking soldier opposes the employment by the prime minister and defense minister of the armed forces to drive civilians out of their homes on the front line for political ends while engaged in battling an enemy attacking those same civilians.
Even if this was not the intention, his retirement days ahead of the July date for the start of the evacuation will signal to every officer and soldier entrusted with this task that he labors under an unstable, untried, changing chain of command.
But Sharon and Mofaz are not wasting a moment for the news to sink in. debkafile has learned they have directed Gush Katif, in the southern Gaza Strip, and settlements in the northern part of the territory military areas locked down as a military zone immediately after the cabinet approves their evacuation Sunday, February 20.
Under the new orders, Israeli civilians will be barred from entering the closed zones and even residents will require special permits limiting the time they may spend outside their homes.
In effect, 10,000 Israeli citizens will be placed under martial law.
Yaalon and Halutz have received their orders to make all the necessary preparations for the “closure” within the next two weeks, and that is exactly what they are doing. The cordon sanitaire is aimed at foiling the settlers’ plan to bring tens of thousands of supporters to the Gaza Strip to stop the evacuation by their very presence.
The clampdown will also affect the media, including outlets that are firm supporters of Sharon’s “disengagement” plan. Print, photo and television journalists will be barred from entering the cordon and have to make do with stage-managed briefings at special media centers run by the Army Spokesman’s Office. Footage recording the pull-outs will be provided by army camera crews, and subjected to military censorship. The media, along with the settlers, will effectively be gagged, all in the name of saving the Sharon government from embarrassing scenes at home or abroad.
These draconian measures were indicated but hardly contested. “Anyone who speaks or writes against the disengagement plan is guilty of incitement,” Sharon declared at the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday.
Even the people facing eviction appear to be living in a dream world, believing they have five months to play with till the axe falls in July.
Not so Israel’s entrepreneurs.
debkafile reports that commercial companies are investing huge sums in creating services for the besieged Israeli communities and their outside contacts, including foreign journalists. Some have built systems for facilitating the rapid movement of people and goods in and out of the Gaza Strip and set up deals for procuring the precious permits – all for a hefty fee. Financing was arranged to loft airships, or zeppelins, over the Gaza Strip to provide the trapped settlers with round-the-clock telephone and Internet communication with the outside world.
This plan was scotched by military hints that the airships would be shot down or electronically jammed.
A number of so-called “extremists” who have changed their identity card addresses to “Gaza Strip” are in fact agents of those firms, planted in the region to keep their operations ticking over smoothly. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been invested to beat the government’s “media blackout” on the areas destined to be evacuated.
Importers and retail sellers of satellite telephones and digital cameras report a dramatic spike in sales and rentals. One Tel Aviv firm told us buyers are snapping up everything that clicks, “especially the most expensive equipment”, with digital cameras priced at between 30,000 and 60,000 shekels a hot item. They are to be smuggled to the future evacuees with instructions in their use from former Mossad intelligence operatives or Shin Bet security agents trained in surveillance tradecraft.
Among the customers for these services, debkafile‘s counter-intelligence sources report, are foreign citizens and organizations working undercover for foreign intelligence services in the market for real-time information from the Gaza Strip, a development that could have diplomatic and political ramifications for the Israeli government.
Changing horses in mid-war was a characteristic tactic for the old Sharon and evidence that he has not changed his spots – as his spinmeisters contend. As defense minister who led the country into the 1982 Lebanon War, he ordered certain units not to be mobilized because their commanders and men opposed his policy. Now as then, he is taking pragmatic decisions, guided by considerations of political ends – not means or ideals. Then as now, the prime minister brooks no objections to his decisions and is deaf to counterarguments. Although elected to lead the Likud and committed to the opposite agenda, he has had no compunctions about switching to the radical left-wing platform of uprooting Israeli towns and villages rather than building them, a contradiction of his life’s work. He has proved capable of wooing the ultra-religious factions when he needs their votes and kicking them out when he does not; embracing the anti-religious Shinui party for the sake of a stable government and dumping its ministers in favor of a new darling.
It is now the turn of the chief of staff and domestic security director to be traded in for more amenable successors. Both learned the hard way of the high price they must pay for questioning the course Sharon had determined. Mofaz in contrast has remained in place by sacrificing a sacrosanct national tradition that honored the armed forces as the people’s servant and protector.