Israel's new prospective army chief of staff is a man who makes war his only option, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Aisha Al-Rahhal, 49, walked the three- kilometre length of the road connecting Al-Maghazi Refugee Camp in the centre of Gaza and the cemetery on the eastern border of Al-Masdar Village, south of the camp, on Thursday, to recite Quran verses at the gravesite of her husband Hassan. Aisha does this every Thursday since Hassan was killed on the first day of the last war on Gaza.
Despite the passage of time, there is no consolation for Aisha who still remembers how Hassan died. On the morning of 28 December 2008, Hassan headed to the police station in the Central District in Gaza to take care of business pertaining to his shop in Al-Maghazi, returning home as body parts after he was killed when a jet plane dropped two bombs, each weighing one tonne, on the police headquarters. Hassan died, as did another 70 people with hundreds more injured.
Like other women in Gaza who have lost their husbands, children, brothers and loved ones, Aisha is not aware of the controversy that erupted when Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak nominated Yoav Galant, the current head of the Gaza Regional Division in the Israeli Army's Southern Command, for the post of Armed Forces chief of staff. These widows do not know that their personal tragedies are the main reason why Galant was nominated for the top post.
Barak and Israeli public opinion believe that the war that resulted in the death of 1,500 people, 80 per cent of whom were civilian, was the measure of "success" of the war that Galant led in the Gaza Strip, especially that it came at the heels of a huge failure for the Israeli army in the second war on Lebanon, which extensively weakened Israel's power of deterrence. In hindsight, four years after the war on Lebanon and two years after the war on Gaza, the Israeli army now believes the former was a tactical defeat for Israel but a strategic victory. The latter, however, was a tactical success but a strategic failure because of Israel's fall from grace in the eyes of the international community at the end of the war. That is how Amir Aron, military commentator for Haaretz newspaper, put it.
It is true that the war on Gaza raised Galant's standing in the eyes of decision makers in Israel, especially Barak who is also the leader of the Labour Party. But a closer look quickly reveals that choosing Galant is a continuation of a trend among political circles and public opinion in Israel when choosing the army's chief of staff.
Galant is zealous about using force and prefers the military option and escalation to any other choice. These tendencies have increased during Galant's military career. He was an officer and commander of a navy commando unit, or Force 13, which is generally responsible for operations outside Israel, whether assassinations or intelligence information gathering, or boat searches amid sea on the hunt for vessels transporting weapons to resistance movements or parties which Israel considers hostile.
His superiors noticed more and more that the military option had become the modus operandi for Galant, and reassigned him to lead military operations against Palestinians in the first Intifada in the West Bank. Later, he headed the Armoured Division. He was admired by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who made him his military secretary during the second Intifada, which is a sensitive rank in the Israeli Army since the military secretary is privy to top-secret information. Galant was then promoted to major general.
After that, Galant became commander of the Southern Command, which means he leads the battle with resistance groups in the Gaza Strip. He champions the notion that any action by Palestinian resistance movements in Gaza should be confronted with a much larger reaction. This explains the massive destruction resulting from army operations under the leadership of Galant, after the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and in response to attacks by locally made missiles launched by the Palestinian resistance.
Galant held nothing back during the war on Gaza, which is indisputably the most criminal offensive that the Palestinians have encountered in Gaza. Judge Goldstone's Report detailed many massacres that Galant ordered during the war, most ferociously bombing the home where dozens of the Al-Samuni family sought refuge in Al-Zeitoun district in southern Gaza, where they were all killed. Galant also ordered the bombing of the mosque of Ibrahim Al-Maqadma in the town of Beit Lahia, a massacre that killed and maimed tens of worshippers.
But Galant has also failed in a number of missions, such as Al-Ansariya Operation in 1994 when he was a navy commando. Galant had planned the assassination of a leading figure in Hizbullah in the village of Al-Ansariya in southern Lebanon. The group that went to the village were ambushed by Hizbullah, and 12 of the 15 would-be assassins were killed and the remaining three injured. The success of Hizbullah's ambush tarnished Galant's reputation, but did not prevent his progress and promotion in the military.
Observers in Israel agree that one of Galant's "positive attributes" in the eyes of political circles in Israel is his tendency to align his battlefield plans with the positions of the political elite. They believe that this is the secret behind the special relationship between Galant and Sharon, and Galant and Barak. Many believe this advantage is critical to the ongoing debate about Israel's position regarding Iran's nuclear programme.
The general impression in Israel is that current Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi is taking a contrary position to that of Barak and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, by being apprehensive about any proposal to bomb Iranian nuclear installations. Ashkenazi is believed influenced by the contacts he has with US military leaders, who believe that any Israeli attack on an Iranian nuclear installation would not serve US interests in the region. In fact, such an attack could drag the US administration further into the Middle East quagmire at a time when US President Barack Obama is working to limit the damage done from involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. This also comes at a time when the US is opening new fronts in Yemen, Somalia and others areas.
The general belief in Tel Aviv is that Galant will champion any Israeli military operation against Iranian nuclear targets, although there are many red flags that should prevent Israel from attempting a military move against Iran. All signs indicate that if Tel Aviv decides to attack Iranian nuclear installations, Galant will be the commander in charge of carrying out the mission as the Armed Forces chief of staff.
No doubt, naming Galant to the top post will trigger a rash of resignations in the army. It is almost certain that the incumbent, Ashkenazi, will bring forward his date of retirement, as well his deputy Benny Ganz, the head of the Northern Command Znakov, and the head of Central Command Avi Mizrahi. Accordingly, the majority of the leaders of the army will resign shortly after Galant is appointed to his new post. In the meantime, it is rumoured that the leaders of the major intelligence apparatus will be replaced soon, including Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin and the head of military intelligence Amos Yadlin. This would mean that a new security leadership would take over the reins of power in Israel.
According to several security assessments in Israel, this development will not be a good one for Israel on the eve of Tel Aviv taking several critical decisions on a number of issues, including the Iranian nuclear issue, tensions with Hizbullah, and the southern front in the Gaza Strip where there is a need for experienced security leadership.
Fate has played an important role in propelling Galant to this post. He left the army five years after being drafted, and became a stonemason in Alaska. He intended to become a lumber merchant but his business failed, so he returned to the army after he was unsuccessful in civilian life. While Galant has been mostly victorious in his career, success at the beginning does not guarantee triumph at the end. Expecting too much from Galant as the chief of staff based only on the large number of operations during his army service is erroneous. His ability to lead and direct immense military operations, take difficult decisions in real time, in complicated circumstances, has not been tested.
Leading the most powerful army in the region in a war of annihilation against Palestinian civilians in Gaza should not be a measure to judge this military commander or any other. Galant's fate may not be any different from that of Dan Halutz who had a remarkable record in aerial attacks targeting many Arab capitals, which was highly praised by decision makers in Israel. However, Halutz failed miserably by choosing to go to war again in Lebanon.
The link: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2010/1014/re3.htm.