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Top Israeli Officer Says Tactics Are Backfiring

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 31, 2003; Page A01

JERUSALEM, Oct. 30 -- Israel's senior military commander told columnists for three leading newspapers this week that Israel's military tactics against the Palestinian population were too repressive and were fomenting explosive levels of "hatred and terrorism" that might become impossible to control.

In remarks that suggest a dramatic split with the approach of the current government, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces, said that crackdowns, curfews and roadblocks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were crippling the lives of innocent Palestinians and that the military's tactics were now threatening Israel's own interests.

The military chief directed most of his complaints at restrictions imposed on the West Bank four weeks ago, after a suicide bomber from the West Bank city of Jenin killed 21 people in a restaurant in the Israeli port of Haifa. Yaalon said the current curfews and travel restrictions, some of the tightest since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, were preventing Palestinians from carrying out critical olive and other agricultural harvests, hampering thousands of children from attending school, increasing hatred for Israel and strengthening terrorist organizations.

"In our tactical decisions, we are operating contrary to our strategic interests," Nahum Barnea, columnist for the Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper, quoted Yaalon as telling him.

Yaalon also said he believed the Israeli government contributed to the failure of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian prime minister because it was too "stingy" and was unwilling to make concessions to bolster his authority.

Yaalon took his complaints public after several weeks of security staff meetings in which he advocated easing the military restrictions on Palestinians. But in each session he was overruled by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and the intelligence chief, Avi Dichter, who argued that loosening controls on travel in the territories could allow Palestinian militants to slip into Israel, according to two military officers familiar with the internal disagreements. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the final arbiter in the meetings, sided with Mofaz and Dichter, the officers said.

"He felt it was his public duty to say that if we don't do something about this, then it will explode in our face," said one senior military official. "The war against terror is taking place on the backs of civilians."

Sharon and Mofaz, who both advocate stringent and wide-ranging responses to Palestinian suicide bombings and other attacks, reportedly were infuriated that the chief of staff aired his complaints publicly.

An official of Sharon's government, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that what Yaalon said "is legitimate," but that by making his case to the news media, "I don't think he said the right thing to the right people." He added that Sharon and Mofaz were "not happy" and that "it would not happen again."

But Yaalon's remarks, echoed by equally vociferous criticism from other military officers interviewed Thursday, revealed a schism between military and political leaders over the government's handling of a conflict that many officers and soldiers say they believe is not winnable through military force, incites more terrorism than it prevents and mistreats innocent Palestinians. Almost 900 Israeli citizens or foreign residents of Israel have been killed in attacks by Palestinians, and Israeli military forces have killed about 2,500 Palestinians.

"We're in a more serious situation that the U.S. was in Vietnam," said reserve Brig. Gen. Yiftah Spector, one of the most decorated fighter pilots in Israeli military history. Spector was grounded as a flight instructor last month after signing a letter, along with 26 other reserve pilots, calling the military's targeted killings of militants in crowded civilian neighborhoods "illegal and immoral."

Israel's military policies in the Palestinian territories, Spector said, are "opposing everything I was raised on" during his career in the air force.

While Yaalon's staff attempted to make a distinction between his concerns and those of the pilots, military officials and analysts said frustration and disillusionment within the military -- not only over tactics that punish innocent civilians but also with the stalled peace process -- had spurred large numbers of troops, from infantrymen in the field to reserve officers to the chief of staff, to speak more openly against the policies of Sharon's government.

"We feel there's a real problem here," said one military officer, who agreed with the chief of staff's assessment. "The public should be made aware how we feel. There should be a public debate in Israel on where we're going and how far we can push the Palestinian public."

Yaalon also criticized the government's decision to expand the barrier being built between the West Bank and Israel deep into Palestinian territory to encompass more Jewish settlements and cut off tens of thousands of Palestinians from their agricultural lands and families. The Finance Ministry estimated this week that the barrier would cost about $2.3 billion, more than three times the original estimate.

A civilian government official accused Yaalon of hypocrisy, alleging that the military commander carried out many of the orders that hampered Abbas without raising objections.

Some military analysts and officials also note that Yaalon has supported some of the armed forces' most controversial tactics in the Palestinian territories, including targeted killings. Human rights groups have criticized such killings because they impose a death sentence on a suspect without due process. In addition, bystanders are frequently killed in such operations.

Mofaz summoned Yaalon to his office for a reprimand on Wednesday, the day the Israeli newspapers printed their first accounts of his remarks, according to government officials familiar with the meeting. Although Yaalon was not identified by name in the news columns, which referred to him as a senior official, the army's chief spokeswoman, Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron, monitored the meeting with the journalists, and defense officials did not try to hide the source of the story when Israeli radio and television identified the source as the chief of staff.

Two military officials said Mofaz ordered Yaalon to release a statement that said: "No uniformed officer has expressed criticism of the government. The articles reflect the fundamental deliberations and the discussions that take place in light of a complex situation. The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] is subordinate to the political echelon and carries out its orders precisely."

On Thursday, a military officer familiar with the dispute said that Yaalon "stands behind everything he said."

Mofaz's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Sharon's office made no official response to the controversy. The prime minister spent almost seven hours under interrogation Thursday by police investigators probing allegations of bribery and illegal campaign donations involving him and his two sons in his 1999 election campaign.

One military official said Yaalon expressed reservations about the government's treatment of Abbas, who was Palestinian prime minister from April 30 until Sept. 6, because his nominated successor, Ahmed Qureia, must decide next week whether he would accept the position. Yaalon and other military officials fear that if a second Palestinian government fails, the Palestinian Authority could disintegrate, creating chaos in the territories, the official said.

2003 The Washington Post Company