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Mofaz's Mullah Challenge By: Olga Hartmann
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 26, 2006

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz stopped just short of threatening to attack Iran’s nuclear program in a speech last Saturday at the annual Herzliya Conference in central Israel.  The last person to make such a bold statement at this conference was the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, three years ago, when he announced his plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip. The withdrawal from Gaza was completed in August. Why then, was the statement which may well see action in the near future being made by the Defense Minister and not interim prime minister Ehud Olmert?

More than likely, the reason is that Mofaz banks on being able to steer the likely future prime minister in his military actions, given that Olmert possesses little in the way of military experience. Yet interviews with military commanders who served under Mofaz while he was Chief of Staff raise serious doubts about his intentions in making crucial past military decisions.


Soon after his appointment as Chief of Staff in 1998, photos of anti-terrorist training courses were leaked to the media, making public for the first time the brutal methods used to harden young volunteers.  Injuries during such training were common and mothers of soldiers, who had previously accepted without question the necessity for the IDF’s methods, began to protest it.  Not long afterwards, Mofaz gave orders to reduce exercises that could expose soldiers to injuries. 


A former IDF commander and officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, served in an elite unit for the duration of Mofaz’s tenure as Chief of Staff. “His changes weakened the army by forbidding a lot of contact training and other exercises. In the two years leading up to the intifada, I believe the soldiers who came out of training schools were unprepared for the battles that lay ahead.”  He said also that his colleagues became so paranoid about being dismissed during one of Mofaz’s “clean-ups” for inappropriate training methods that many units stopped teaching Krav Maga, a highly effective form of self defense developed in Israel, altogether.


Mofaz’s fear of negative press coverage intensified just before the outbreak of the Second Intifada, when three soldiers from an elite anti-terrorist unit were killed in a nighttime raid in the West Bank while trying to capture a notorious terrorist.  A later inquiry identified a string of tactical errors in the operation and both the commanding officer of the unit and the commander of the IDF’s West Bank forces were pressured to resign. 


Mofaz’s concern with media image may have played a major role in a decision he made in October of 2000, one month after the beginning of the second Intifada.  As a peace gesture, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak had agreed to turn control of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, a site sacred to Jews, over to the Palestinian Authority.  Jewish worshipers were forcibly removed and all but 18 soldiers were left behind to guard the Tomb, the understanding being that the Palestinian Authority would ensure their safety.  Within hours of the transfer, the tomb was attacked by an armed Palestinian mob.  Mofaz ordered 60 tanks to surround the city -- a clear indication that he thought a significant battle was imminent.  But the tanks were ordered to keep their distance. 


“For 48 hours, we watched from above Nablus as gunmen opened fire and attacked the soldiers guarding the tomb,” said the former officer, who was among the reinforcements.  “It was painful to watch, because we knew we should be going down there.”  Finally, at 2 p.m. on the second day, Mofaz landed in his helicopter at the base outside Nablus. “He went into meetings, and more meetings.  We kept being told: ‘We wait, contact has been made with Jibril Rajoub’ [the head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Force].  Rajoub has told Mofaz he can stop his policemen from destroying the tomb.  It turns out he neither had the ability, nor did he want to stop what was happening down there.”


Meanwhile, the soldiers were fighting for their lives. A rabbi trying to stop the rioters from burning the Torah scrolls and other religious texts left behind at the tomb had disappeared. A border policeman, Yosef Madhat, 19, was shot and bleeding.  As he waited to be rescued, fellow soldiers radioed numerous times for help.  Four hours later, still no aid had arrived, and Madhat had bled to death. Later that same day, the missing rabbi’s body was discovered outside the city, riddled with bullets.


An unnamed senior officer subsequently explained to The Jerusalem Post the IDF’s reason for not intervening. 


“If we had sent in tanks and heavy weapons to take out a wounded soldier, it would not only have caused an escalation in events, but imagine how it would look to the rest of the world.” (October 3, 2000).   It wasn’t hard to imagine how the IDF’s failure to rescue one of their own looked to the Palestinian Authority, however; only five days later two IDF reserve officers who took a wrong turn and ended up in a Palestinian police station were mob-lynched and their blood displayed gleefully on the hands of their killers.     


Michael Oren, a noted Israeli historian and best-selling author of Six Days of War, believes Mofaz was not entirely to blame for the debacle at Joseph’s Tomb.  “The government was making the decisions and could have overruled the army.  The real question is: What message was the army giving to the government at that time?  I believe the message the IDF was giving was a defeatist one.”


Mofaz’s obsession with media image meant that during the first year of the Second Intifada, the IDF was made to use defensive tactics to keep soldiers out of harm’s way, rather than going on the offensive to quell the attacks on Israeli civilians.


In the first year, the orders to the soldiers were to defend and hold their position. “We did not attack, we only waited for them to attack us,” the former officer said.  “It was frustrating. We were not allowed to fire at or arrest a man who was setting up an explosive device on a road, because he happened to be standing in Area A.”  Under the Oslo Accords, areas designated as Area A were put under Palestinian Authority control with the understanding that the PA armed forces would prevent terrorist attacks on Israeli towns and villages.  The rules of the Oslo Accords were still being adhered to, but only by the IDF.


It took the World Trade Center attack for Mofaz to approve an arrest operation inside Area A. The former officer I spoke to submitted a proposal for the operation on September 10th, expecting it to be denied like many others. On the morning of September 11th, he and his officers and soldiers went through the motions of preparing for the mission, still expecting it to be cancelled at the last minute. But as they ate their meals at a mall in central Israel, they looked up at the TV screens to see the burning towers come crashing down. “I remember turning to my officer and saying, now we will go through with this mission.” The first real operation inside Area A, one year after the conflict had begun, was carried out that night.


Having only really begun to authorize offensive missions in September of 2001, many of the operations which led to the relative quiet Israel is experiencing today were ordered by his successor, Moshe Ya’alon.  “Mofaz said repeatedly to the press: ‘There is no conventional military solution to terrorism.’  He was absolutely wrong,” said Oren.  “Bogi won the war.  The only ideology Mofaz had was Mofaz.”


Mofaz’s role will only become more central with Sharon’s departure and Olmert’s dependence on the Defense Ministry to bolster his image as a hardliner.  Olmert should be cautious, however, before authorizing the decisions of a man whose obsession with his image in the media has impaired his judgment at crucial moments in the past.   


Olga Hartmann is a former writer and editor for The Jerusalem Post. She spent several years in the IDF as an officer. She was a Sauve Scholar at McGill University, and concentrated on researching different approaches to the Palestinian-Israel conflict. 


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Olga Hartmann is a former writer and editor for The Jerusalem Post. She spent several years in the IDF as an officer. She was a Sauve Scholar at McGill University, and concentrated on researching different approaches to the Palestinian-Israel conflict.

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