Imagine getting a phone call from an advancing army warning you to get out of the area.
Or getting a “knock on the roof,” in the form of a dummy bomb dropped from a military plane, warning you that the terrorist hiding in your building has been targeted, and the next bomb will be real.
That’s the side of the war against Hamas the Israel Defense Forces wants more people to see in the wake of the Goldstone Report by the UN Human Rights Commission. The report alleges that both sides committed war crimes against civilians during their fierce conflict at the end of 2008.
“We have made thousands of phone calls for terrorists to evacuate houses, and dropped thousands of leaflets,” said Avital Leibovich, the IDF’s spokeswoman, who is traveling in the US this week courtesy of the Israel Project to discuss the success of Operation Cast Lead, the operation that targeted Hamas forces in Gaza to end attacks on southern Israel. “The steps we took to prevent civilian casualties were enormous.”
While some critics said those warned by Israel had no place to which they could evacuate, Leibovich notes that the area once occupied by Gush Katif settlements in northern Gaza, such as Nitzanim, remains a completely unused area where civilians could have waited out the violence.
Leibovich, a lieutenant colonel, stopped by The Jewish Week’s office Thursday, fully armed with facts and figures, maps and charts. While Israel does not recognize the legitimacy of the Goldstone report and generally won’t dignify it by responding directly to its allegations, Leibovich did say that investigations into the conduct of Israel’s soldiers is ongoing. “There are some investigations, but the source is not Goldstone,” she said, noting that a handful of troops have already gone to jail for conduct during the operation.
To those who argue against the mobilization in the first place, Leibovich pointed out that were on average 60-80 rocket or mortar attacks on Israel from Gaza per month before the operation, a number that has now dipped into the single digits. There were two Kassam attacks in June, the same number in July, seven in August and five in September. “The result speaks for itself,” said Leibovich.
That number doesn’t count the rockets that never made it into Israel. About one-quarter of rockets fired end up landing inside Gaza.
While the rockets have been quieter, there has been a recent surge of shooting attacks on Israeli soldiers at the border or at civilian workers maintaining surveillance equipment. There have also been improvised explosive devices planted in the path of patrol vehicles. Smuggling weapons through some 350 tunnels in a 9-mile zone at the border continues, despite Israel having blown up hundreds of the secret passages last year. “They are working 24-7 to build the tunnels,” says Leibovotch. “They have the manpower. Of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, 50 percent are 15 and under.”
Hamas is known to be stocking up on Grad missiles, more powerful and reliable than Kassams, that are capable of hitting targets twice as far away, as far as Yavneh, which is 35 minutes from Tel Aviv.
And so, the eight-month lull in fighting between Israel and Hamas can only be viewed as a resupply period for Hamas. “Since we are not in Gaza we can’t give direct numbers on [how many smuggling tunnels are being used],” said Leibovitch. “But our information is they are returning to operational capacity.”
She displayed a militant map seized by Israeli forces in a small village in northern Gaza that detailed hidden munitions, anti-tank explosives and mines and even a sniper station in a mosque, all in a heavily populated civilian area.
“They turned a residential neighborhood into a military base,” said Leibovich, noting that militants frequently open fire on soldiers to draw them into such situations. In response, the IDF has constructed a mock-up Arab village in which to train troops in close-quarters combat. There is ample evidence, she said, of Hamas routinely using civilain shields, and she has taken to posting it on YouTube to make the case.
In the final analysis, Israel determined through thorough background checks that more than 60 percent of casualties during the Gaza war, or 707 people, were Hamas members, while the remaining 245 were civilians or people whose identity can’t be verified.
Leibovich spoke much more optimistically about the situation in the West Bank, where hundreds of Palestinian police are being deployed after training by U.S. Army Gen. Keith Dayton in Jordan. They are now the law in Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem and Jericho. That, plus the construction of the security barrier around Jewish settlements and the border with Israel, has greatly increased security. “Since 2006 there has not been a suicide bomber infiltrating Israel from the West Bank,” she said (although there have been bombers from East Jerusalem).
She said there were signs of increasing economic ties between Palestinians and Israelis — the mayors of Nablus and Gilboa are planning a joint industrial zone — and unemployment has been dropped even as construction, the number of Israel work permits granted and tourism rates have soared. “Almost one million people visited Bethlehem last year, more than all of Israel,” said Leibovich. “I think that’s an incredible number.”