Ambush at Erez Checkpoint

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It resembles a movie on the mafia. The heads of two “families” meet, embrace and kiss each other. On the way home, the “soldiers” of one family wait in ambush for the other one and “liquidate” them.

This has happened now in Israel. And not in the mafia.

We heard the Palestinian version of this event last Friday, when a Gush Shalom delegation visited Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. He was still livid with anger. “It was an ambush!” he asserted.

This is what happened: On Wednesday the Americans pressured the Palestinians into agreeing to take part in a meeting of high-ranking commanders for the purpose of “security coordination”. The Palestinian officers did not want to go, knowing that the Palestinian street would condemn such a meeting while Israel was “liquidating” Palestinian activists, bombarding Palestinian town with helicopters and tanks, demolishing homes and uprooting trees in large numbers.

However, Arafat ordered the Palestinian commanders to attend the meeting, which took place (in spite of denials) at the residence of the American ambassador in Herzlia. American embassy cars took the three security chiefs of the Gaza strip – Amin al-Hindi, Muhammad Dahlan and Abd-al-Razek Majeidi – from the Erez checkpoint. After the meeting, in which no agreement was achieved, the American embassy cars brought the three and their bodyguards back to the checkpoint.

At Erez, there is an Israeli checkpoint and a Palestinian one, at a distance of a hundred yards from each other. Between them, one has to walk. All the area is well lit and dominated by Israeli watch-towers armed with machine guns.

The members of the Palestinian delegation alighted from the American cars on the Israeli side and walked along the lighted path towards the Palestinian checkpoint. There their cars were waiting for them. Before they could get into them, fire was opened on them from several directions. The members of the delegation took cover while their bodyguards returned fire. Three of them were wounded.

The firefight went on for three hours. The members of the Palestinian delegation called Arafat in Ramallah by their mobile telephones, and he started a frantic round of calls with King Abdallah, President Mubarrak, the European Union and the American Secretary of State. Collin Powell immediately called Ariel Sharon, using, so it seems, very rough language. Sharon gave orders to stop the shooting.

The Israeli media treated the event – if at all – as a marginal incident. After all, shooting takes place all the time. The army spokesman, a man blessed with a highly developed imagination, reached new heights of fantasy: He announced that the Palestinian bodyguards had opened fire on the soldiers. This means that the bodyguards shot at the Israeli soldiers in a well-lit area, when surrounded by Israeli watch-towers, endangering the lives of their commanders. Even an imbecile wouldn’t believe that.

Actually, there are only three possible explanations, each one worse than the others.

Possibility A: The soldiers opened fire just for the fun of it, knowing fully well (for they must have known) that this was a convoy of high-ranking Palestinians. If this were true, it would mean that in the army anarchy reigns supreme and that the army has ceased to exist as a disciplined military force.

Possibility B: A local commander, somewhere between lieutenant-colonel and major-general, deliberately created the incident, knowing that it would turn into a severe international affair. If this were true, it would mean that the extreme right and the settlers have by now succeeded to infiltrate the higher ranks of the army and have caused a deliberate provocation. This danger would be more serious than even a second Yigal Amir.

Possibility C: The initiative originated at the highest level: Chief-of-Staff Shaul Mofaz. That’s what Arafat thinks. If this is so, we would all have to be frightened as hell. Because it would mean that the Commander-in-Chief is now directing the affairs of the state, and that he despises Sharon as he admittedly despised Barak.

Never in the annals of the IDF has the army been commanded by a man more political than Mofaz. In the avalanche of interviews he has given these last few days, he has said that “the state has an army” and not the other way round (an allusion to the famous saying of Honore Mirabeau, a leader of the French revolution, “Prussia is not a state that has an army, but an army that has a state.” I am rather afraid that in Israel the same situation prevails.

Of course, we are no banana republic. We don’t have military coups, like Argentina or Nigeria. The situation here is far more complex. Most (if not all) senior officers are a highly homogenous band, whose members are ferociously loyal to each other and who have a common rightist-securitist-settlerist outlook. It is actually a kind of supra-party, which controls both the Likud and Labor. Because of this, there is hardly a difference between the two, and any senior officer is looking for a job in politics can chose between the two (as did Weizman, Sharon, Mordechai, Barak and many many others), with the final choice being dictated merely by expedience and opportunism.

There is hardly a democratic state that has a general in its government. In our present government there are five (Sharon, Ben-Eliezer, Sneh, Vilnai, Ze’evi). At the last elections for Prime Minister, all three initial contenders were generals: Barak, Sharon and Mordechai. The great majority of our former Chiefs-of-Staff did become cabinet ministers (Yadin, Dayan, Rabin, Bar-Lev, Gur, Eytan, Barak), and two of them did become Prime Ministers. Since the days of Begin, the Chief-of-Staff takes part in all cabinet sessions – unusual in democracies even during life-and-death wars.

The ideological differences between the generals are negligible. The smooth transition from Barak to Sharon proves that the maps of annexations of both are practically identical. (Matti Peled, who did become a fighter for peace, has remained an exception.)

There will be no military coup in Israel. There is just no need for it. A man like Mofaz can prepare to displace and succeed Sharon, insinuating that Sharon is a weakling. For that he must prepare another “knife in the back” story of how the politicians prevent the army from winning. This “Dolchstoss im Ruecken” legend was invented in Germany after World War I and has been repeated since many times, for example in Viet-Nam and Algeria. Always the army was just about to win the war, when the corrupt politicians stepped in and caused a debacle.

Without a thorough investigation, we shall not know what exactly happened at Erez checkpoint. And a real, independent investigation will not, of course, take place.

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