Yotam Feldman: Collision course
By Yotam Feldman
From his home on the Upper Galilee road between Safed and Rosh Pina, as Brigadier General (res.) Zvika Fogel looks out over Lake Kinneret, the Gaza Strip seems a distant memory. But four years after Fogel retired from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Gaza continues to preoccupy him. He became chief of staff of Southern Command headquarters in February 2000, and in the past few years he has reflected a great deal on the actions he and his fellow officers carried out in the months that preceded the eruption of the second intifada, at the end of September 2000. His conclusion: the IDF created an irreversible situation that led to a confrontation with the Palestinians.
"The constellation of preparations we made actually led to the confrontation - there was no other choice," says Fogel, who is still called up for reserve service in Southern Command. At the end of 2004, a year after he left the IDF, Fogel ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Be'er Sheva. Currently he manages a process analysis and project management company, and is starting work on his doctoral dissertation, which will deal with leadership and decision-making.
The massive preparations undertaken by Southern Command were in fact based on an intelligence assessment that the Palestinians were bent on a confrontation, but that assessment was the subject of controversy even within the IDF, and in any event did not maintain that a confrontation was the only possible outcome or was inevitable. Fogel, who refers briefly to this in Moish Goldberg's film "A Million Bullets in October," which was broadcast earlier this month on Channel 8, now says that the assessment was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In contrast to other critics of the IDF, who emphasize the army's role in the escalation of the confrontation in its first few days, Fogel focuses on the decisive impact that Israeli activity in the Gaza Strip at the beginning of 2000, and more particularly that summer, had on the Palestinian inhabitants and the Palestinian Authority. That activity occurred even before the Palestinians fired a bullet.
Five months after Fogel took up his duties in Southern Command, then-prime minister, Ehud Barak, went with a high-ranking Israeli delegation to Camp David to discuss with the Palestinians the possibilities of a permanent end to the conflict. After the meeting, political contacts between Israel and the Palestinians continued, and Barak made even more generous offers than those he had proposed at the summit. At the same time, the preparations by both sides for a confrontation accelerated.
Fogel analyzes - in military present tense - the developments in the months that preceded the eruption of the second intifada. "The conceptual sequence is that we are creating the conditions for a confrontation by the very fact of our preparations," Fogel says. "It is clear to everyone that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We want to decide which event would foment the explosion. All we have to do is say what will launch it and then behave as we have planned."
Even if that was not the Palestinians' intention?
Was the course the IDF embarked on a one-way street?
"I am afraid that I have to say yes. I don't see a situation in which, in July-August, someone says, 'Dismantle the forward posts, we are going back to joint patrols.' People would have looked at you like you were tipsy."
Did anyone warn about this? Did anyone say "We are doing things that are irreversible"?
"No one said that. When you are busy making a network of preparations that are supposed to provide a response to the outbreak of the confrontation, and have thereby taken the initiative, you don't spend time checking whether it's a dead end. You try to find elements that can strengthen this approach."
And did you find what you were looking for?
"We did. You see Palestinian police exceeding their behavior, [sic] you see more and more organizing and processions on the outskirts of the settlements, you see more and more attempts to prevent people who work in Gush Katif [the settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip] from getting there, you see internal power struggles."
Do you also look for things that might refute the accepted assessment?
"No way, that is never done."
Fogel, 51, started his military career in a pilots' course, but did not complete it, instead becoming an officer in the Artillery Corps. He reached the rank of company commander at the time of his discharge, in 1979, and returned to the IDF two years later, having studied law in the interim. Fogel rose through the ranks in the Artillery Corps. In July 1995 he was the commander of Operation Accountability - the concentrated attack on Hezbollah villages in southern Lebanon - and in April 1996 commanded the eastern sector in Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon. He then commanded a unit in the Artillery Corps and afterward was appointed chief of staff of Southern Command.
Fogel is well aware of the aberrant nature of his observations. The GOC Southern Command at the time, Yom Tov Samia, and other senior figures responded angrily to his comments, but declined to address them substantively. Nevertheless, Fogel speaks with deep conviction. He notes that he reached his conclusions in retrospect and not as events unfolded, and the picture he paints seems to sharpen for him even as the interview proceeds.
"When I get to Southern Command, the atmosphere is one of continuing the normalization process with the Palestinian security authorities," Fogel says. "But a picture emerges in which normalization will not be enough for the Palestinians and that there is a chance of an uprising very similar to what we saw at the end of 1987 and the beginning of 1988. We focus on that period, and not on Oslo. The assumption is that the Palestinians will launch popular resistance in order to exploit our weaknesses - the fact that we do not shoot at and do not attack unarmed civilians - and afterward they might move to firearms."
Fogel maintains that the IDF's preparations, above all the building of a series of forward outposts, adversely affected the Palestinians' living conditions and influenced the Palestinian security forces' interpretation of Israel's behavior.
"A situation that is intolerable for the Palestinian inhabitants of the Gaza Strip develops," he says. "Even though we are still in a mode of joint patrols [with the Palestinians], we reinforce the outposts. That has an impact on the Palestinians, because when you build a new outpost you block roads and you set up a checkpoint to keep them from approaching the outpost. These are outposts that have implications on the ground - more than 10 of them."
What was the effect on the Palestinians?
"Someone who lives in Khan Yunis or Rafah and wants to enter Israel to work has to go through all the circles of hell in order to reach the Erez crossing point. He has to leave home at six-seven in the evening, after supper, in order to get to Erez at two-three the next morning and stand in line to wait for the foreman."
Did this affect only the workers?
"I don't think there was a Palestinian who wanted to use the roads who was not harmed by the building of the outposts. Everyone who wanted to use the roads, especially north-south and south-north, was affected. Each outpost took between one month and four months to build."
Fogel thinks that the hardships encountered by the 27,000 Palestinians who worked in Israel had an indirect effect on about half a million Palestinians, about a third of the Gaza Strip's population. "There is a feeling that gathers strength: 'You are talking to us about normalization, but you are making life harder for us.' After the first one is affected, and the fourth, and the tenth, each one of them creates circles of understanding that the Israelis are shits. This happens close to September."
Was there another possibility?
"To open Sufa crossing for workers. We did that occasionally, but not continuously. That gives all the inhabitants of the south - Khan Yunis and Rafah - the possibility of leaving from a different place."
Why wasn't it continuous?
"I was one of the central proponents of the idea. I raised it in Southern Command forums and also in work with the General Staff. It requires the allocation of additional resources. The argument was that there was no way to make Sufa 100 percent secure, like Erez, that there is no money."
Did anyone view this in strategic terms?
"No, absolutely not. I fought for it, because I thought of it from military aspects, thought it would facilitate things at the checkpoints. If fewer people would need to go from north-south, there would be fewer people at the checkpoints Also, when you maintain two crossings, you can play them off as pressures change: if you're good we will give you both of them, if not we will open only one."
According to Fogel, the Israeli preparations also sent a clear and aggressive message to the Palestinian security services.
"They see us building this thing, tons and tons of concrete, there is no way to ignore it, it's an outpost that is meant to house a company, a monstrosity that is built next to the officers' quarters, which are a symbol for the Palestinians. What is supposed to be the Palestinian's lawn and playing field turns into an [Israeli] outpost."
Is that a humiliation?
"It's a different language. The humiliation comes in later stages. The whole mass of activity gives them the feeling that we are talking A and maybe doing A and B, or doing only B. We were not alone in feeling mistrust - they felt it, too."
Was there dialogue with the Palestinians? Did you hear this from them?
"Yom Tov [Samia] talks to the Palestinians every day. Before the events they say they cannot control their people."
Did they warn about the implications of the Israeli activity?
"They say, 'We cannot ignore everything you are doing in the Gaza Strip, in the outposts, which show that you are preparing for war."
What the politicians
Another element that brought about a deterioration in relations between Israel and the Palestinians was the termination of the joint patrols in the Gaza Strip. The directive to that effect arrived without any prior preparation or explanation, Fogel says.
Was that a dramatic move?
"We view it less dramatically. In the run-up to the decision, the feeling grows that they too have had their fill of [the patrols]. A few days earlier they start faking timetables and the number of people they have to allot. They complain that we are giving preference to Jews traveling on the roads, even though we prove to them that the timetable favors the Palestinians."
Was this part of the irreversible process?
"We do not stop the patrols in order to launch a war; we stop them based on an understanding that the [Palestinians'] whole pattern of behavior is leading to a confrontation. We do not dismantle the positions of the joint patrols, but we stop using them."
How did all these developments affect the settlers?
"There is no doubt that they had an effect. We are bound to give expression to their pressure when we meet with our superiors. We give expression to the pressure of the Jewish Israeli inhabitants. And they also bring pressure to bear on the higher levels. Their activity, which is aimed at the government, is in part provocative, to attract attention."
Did the operational activity the army chose reassure them?
"It was not meant to reassure them, but that was the result. The fact that they saw we were adding outposts made them feel that the IDF was not just treading water."
To what extent was the political echelon aware of the situation in Southern Command, of its thrust toward an unavoidable confrontation?
"One hundred percent. Nothing was kept hidden from them. There were presentations, on-site tours, full details at the level of how many people cross checkpoints, how long a Palestinian waits, how long an Israeli waits. Everything is known - the reinforcement of the outposts, the method of operation we chose."
Did they encourage this approach?
"No one should feign innocence. There was no one who said 'Why do we have to be so unequivocal?' Not one. On the contrary: the politicians went to talk with soldiers; there is no politician who does not talk to soldiers. They ask them, 'Do you feel prepared [for the confrontation]?' 'Do you feel you have everything you need?' I can tell you that in all the meetings I had with politicians, in their visits and in the discussions, no feeling of urgency for some other approach was created."
In the Gaza Strip, the second intifada began on September 27, 2000, the day before Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount. A Fatah man initiated a roadside bomb attack on soldiers who were escorting a convoy of settlers from Karni checkpoint to Netzarim [a settlement]. That night, Haaretz correspondents Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff write in their book "The Seventh War," the commander of the Gaza Strip, Yair Naveh, convened his officers and said: "This is the way it is supposed to start."
At the end of six weeks of confrontation in the Gaza Strip, 60 Palestinians had been killed, but not one Israeli. "We all saw this as the full achievement of the mission," Fogel says, "at least in terms of casualties. Moreover, we noted to ourselves that the 60 who were killed bore arms. Even if there were deviations. The feeling was that we hit the right people and succeeded in defending ourselves exceptionally well."
One of the means Southern Command adopted in order to avert attacks on Israelis was to declare death zones in the Gaza Strip - areas in which IDF soldiers were authorized to open fire at anyone who entered them. "Their use of women, children, infants and innocent farmers increased," Fogel explains. "We understood that in order to reduce the margin of error, we had to create areas in which anyone who entered was considered a terrorist."
And was marked for death?
The Military Advocate General's Office denies the existence of any such order.
"I have my truth."
Was there machine gun fire into populated areas?
"Not in the first six weeks. Use of that was permitted gradually, including at suspicious places, and that definitely loosened the trigger finger."
Fogel relates that soldiers also fired flechette antipersonnel shells into populated areas. These shells, usually fired from tanks, contain thousands of metal darts which disperse over a wide area; they are intended to kill and maim. "It came and went," Fogel says about the use of flechettes. "We banned it when we understood that it had a huge deterrent effect and that it also caused casualties among noncombatants. At first we used it a great deal, particularly in areas that we did not want to evacuate with D9 bulldozers."
Were they fired even into clearly populated areas?
"If not clearly, then yes, into populated places. There are houses in an orchard and we fired into it."
How was it done from the legal standpoint? Is firing flechettes a matter of black-and-white?
"When you want to use something, you have no problem finding the justification, especially when we hit those we wanted to hit when we used them at the start of the events. If at the beginning we could justify it operationally, then even if there were personnel from the Advocate General's Office or from the prosecution, it was easy to bend them in the face of the results."
No natural death
In March 2001, the new GOC Southern Command, Doron Almog, drew up a plan for a broad Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip. In the wake of criticism by the chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, and his deputy, Moshe Ya'alon, Southern Command modified the plan to make it far more massive and offensive in character.
Fogel complains that Southern Command received contradictory directives: "They tell us 'Make contact, get to the places of friction and take out whoever you have to.' The moment you switch to a plan in which you are the initiator, you increase the chance of harming the population."
When did you see the effect that the harm done to the civilian population was having on the Palestinians?
"The other side exploited our response to justify its operations, and from that moment there was a snowball effect. We reached a situation in which no one died a natural death in the Gaza Strip - they were all killed by us. From the moment the other side leveraged this, we were all dragged into the process. That is the reason I argued that they [Hamas] would win the elections."
Did you discern legitimization for attacking Palestinian civilians directly?
"I think I can say that from the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003 we look at the population differently. There was a deterioration in the restrictions we imposed on ourselves in regard to striking at the population, and not necessarily with weapons. In this period we started to treat the population homogeneously. There was an atmosphere that it was permissible to make things hard for the population, to hound them."
Were the measures that are being taken and considered today - restricting fuel and cutting off the power supply - also considered then?
Do you think that such measures prevent attacks on Israel?
"They prevent nothing; on the contrary."
An explosion aimed at
According to Fogel, the situation Israel now faces in the Gaza Strip is due to fundamental flaws in the disengagement process. "I think the disengagement was a peak point at which the intifada could have been stopped and we could have moved to true parameters of neighborly relations," Fogel says. "It was the point in time to create a different mode. Hamas then had the best possibility of winning in the elections - if they had shot at us, they would have said that the disengagement was done because of that. Hamas understood that it could achieve this even without shooting. Instead of seizing this lever and providing the economic tools and the necessary aid to lead to the right path, we opened a dialogue of weapons, not a dialogue of economic aid.
"The whole disengagement operation was implemented without thinking. One thing led to it - the desire to set a process in motion, to create a new reality. I remember that in the first discussions I said unequivocally that we are disengaging, but are not guaranteeing three things: full Egyptian control of the Philadelphi route; an air, sea and land opening for the Palestinians - the possibility to complete the building of the port, and also land passages to Sinai; and employment instead of what they had in Israel."
Fogel warns that the situation that has been created - the imprisonment of the Gaza Strip's inhabitants without the possibility of transit - creates "a focal point of explosion that is aimed completely at Israel ... There is no other place it can erupt into. The Egyptians are a lot less gentle than we are. If tomorrow morning 2,000 people will try to enter Egyptian territory via the Rafah crossing, it's clear that there will be 2,000 bodies, because they will prevent it."
Did Israel not recognize its responsibility in the Gaza Strip?
"That is exactly the point: Israel did not understand that the moment it disengages and does not allow the Palestinians these things, we continue to be responsible for their fate. I am not talking about fuel and electricity; I am talking about everything, bringing in merchandise - we are still the custodian."
How does that sit with the kind of operation in Gaza that the IDF now wants to carry out?
"I say that the operation in Gaza is a necessity that has to be carried out in conjunction with other actions Everyone is asking how we will leave, and the answer is that we will leave when the Palestinians have a future. At the moment they do not have a future. A future means a port. What are they going to bring in there, tanks? After all, after an equation is created, when it will be clear that you are not afraid of entering the Gaza Strip and striking at them, the majority - who are rational - will understand that it is worthwhile to live."
So why isn't it happening?
"The primary characteristic of all our behavior is that we are unable to see the interests of both sides and find the common denominator."
Are the present operations the result of helplessness?
"I think that throughout all the years and all the wars, we have pushed ourselves into a situation of no choice, because that is what we know how to get out of best. Maybe we are waiting for a Qassam [rocket] to hit a kindergarten and kill 10 children so the operation will be enabled - the neighborhood bully who tells everyone to stop him, so he can beat people up. So we are telling the whole world, 'Restrain us,' and looking for a reason to beat up others."
Major General Yom Tov Samia, who was GOC Southern Command at the start of the 2000 intifada, declined to respond to Fogel's comments. Another senior officer, who was involved in the confrontation with the Gaza Strip at the time, rejects outright Fogel's description of the process that began in the IDF when the intifada erupted. "The process that leads to the confrontation is a political decision by Arafat," says this officer. "Even earlier, there was a string of bad events that showed loss of control. If the other side had decided not to do it, we would have gone through the period of crisis and carried on."