- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 26, 2002

QALANDIYA CHECKPOINT, Israel In 1967, Israel's army became a legend, routing three Arab armies massed on its borders. But those renowned warriors are gone now, peacefully retired from their military service.
A new generation of Israeli soldiers mans a checkpoint outside the West Bank town of Ramallah, facing not Syrian tanks and Egyptian infantry, but Palestinians trying to get to work, or go home, or reach a hospital. Right now the deadliest enemy is the suicide bomber, indistinguishable from ordinary humanity until he or she self-destructs.
"It's not exactly what we were trained for," said Maj. Oded Bar-Maoz, deputy commander of the battalion manning the checkpoint.
For a generation, Israel's soldiers have used overwhelming force to patrol occupied areas and, for 20 months now to fight lightly armed militants leaving some military experts questioning how they might do if they again were up against a well-equipped army.
"If you fight the weak, you become weak," said Martin van Creveld, a prominent writer on Israeli military affairs.
"The number of Israeli commanders who have participated in any kind of real warfare, there are maybe one or two left. All the rest are policemen," Mr. van Creveld said. "What will happen to an army of policemen in case there is a real war?"
Israel hasn't fought a serious battle since its armor clashed with Syrian tanks in Lebanon in 1982. For the rest of the time, it has vastly outgunned the militias and guerrillas it has fought.
In the six-week incursion into West Bank cities that ended in May, it used tanks, helicopter gunships and thousands of soldiers to fight a few hundred militants armed with submachine guns, mortars and explosives.
They continue to raid towns and villages, and operate dozens of checkpoints that make life a misery for the 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"This job is very, very, very difficult," said Maj. Bar-Maoz, 29, a full-time soldier whose Qalandiya checkpoint lies at the entrance to Ramallah. "In this kind of mission, morale is usually not good."
The checkpoint is actually a heavily fortified minibase designed to protect the soldiers from attacks by snipers and suicide bombers, who have targeted the roadblocks themselves in the past.
Wearing body armor and helmets and carrying assault rifles, the soldiers stand behind waist-high concrete slabs topped with sandbags and question villagers women carrying children, men returning from work.
Dozens of other Palestinians waiting in the orange light of dusk are kept behind a wide semicircle of concrete barriers and coiled razor wire. The distance between them is meant to protect the soldiers, but it also serves to further alienate them from the Palestinian public.
"There are lots of people here, and you can't be sure who is going to be a suicide bomber and who is not," Maj. Bar-Maoz said. "Every soldier is a target."
It's a far cry from the military triumphs of the Six-Day War of 1967.
Surrounded by forces massed on three borders, its southern sea outlet under a throttling blockade and the U.N. peacekeeping force expelled by Egyptian order, Israel launched a surprise attack on June 5, 1967, that obliterated Egypt's air force in three hours.
Over the next few days, Israel devastated the forces of three hostile neighbors, quadrupled its size and emerged as the superpower of the Middle East.
But the army so proud of its pluck and ingenuity was badly humiliated by a surprise attack in 1973 by Syria and Egypt. It managed to push those armies back, but at great cost. Some 2,700 of its soldiers were killed one-seventh of the Arab toll.
Since then, Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with Israel, but the threats still linger on the nation's borders, and are compounded by the distant but unsettling specter that the next war will be fought with long-range missiles, even weapons of mass destruction.
Syria has 380,000 active-duty soldiers and 520 combat aircraft, but Israel is more worried about its northern neighbor's growing missile program and its ability to launch chemical and poison weapons into Israel's cities. Iraq is also believed capable of firing missiles tipped with chemical and biological weapons. During the 1991 Persian Gulf war, it fired Scud missiles into Israel, though they were wildly inaccurate.
Egypt has steadily modernized its army of 450,000 soldiers and 481 combat aircraft. Though Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement in 1979, there is concern the Palestinian conflict could increase tensions. Jane's Information Group reported in January that Egypt had conducted military exercises whose hypothetical target was Israel.
Every Israeli male serves three years in the military, followed by several weeks a year in reserves, making up a force estimated at 185,000 active troops and 445,000 reservists, plus armor and 628 combat aircraft,
"It's still the strongest army in the Middle East," said Shai Feldman, director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. He compared it to a philharmonic orchestra, stocked with virtuoso players of every classical instrument of war.
Brig. Gen. Gershon HaCohen, director of the Israeli Defense Forces doctrine and training division, said the constant threat of invasion coupled with operations on hostile Palestinian ground have forced Israel to create a highly adaptable "postmodern warrior."
"You must prepare the troops in order to engage in classical battle, but the same troops must also be prepared in the new kind of warfare," he said.
In this new warfare urban battles in hostile cities, searches for bombers and snipers the military cannot use its backbone of artillery and jets, but must rely more on the training and skill of individual soldiers, he said.
As the military continues to try to quell Palestinian attacks, many in Israel remain worried about morale. Polls say a majority of Israelis favor a Palestinian state, and a small but vocal movement of reservists has refused to serve in the Palestinian territories.
Rules designed to keep the military out of politics forbade the soldiers at Qalandiya from airing their political beliefs, but many said that after some 70 suicide bombings that have killed more than 250 people inside Israel in the past 20 months, they don't feel so bad about checkpoint duty.
"If it's for the defense of our nation. That's our job, so we have to do it," Lt. Omer Brickman said.
Operation Defensive Shield meant taking over most of the Palestinian-run cities in the West Bank, where Hamas and other guerrilla groups have weapons and explosives factories and where they recruit, train and send suicide bombers into Israel. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people's lives were turned upside down. Dozens of wanted men were killed or arrested in the towns and refugee camps.
"No one is happy going into a refugee camp," said a former army chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. "But when you get the feeling it is a necessity, and it is in order to save lives then I believe people understand why they have to go in."
But many Palestinians have come to view the army as "a gang that terrorizes a captive population" with checkpoints, military raids and assassinations, Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi said.
The soldiers who seem so brave in Israel are considered by Palestinians to be cowards who hide in tanks and shell homes, she said.
"It doesn't take much courage to stand there in their [armored personnel carriers] and their bulletproof vests and humiliate people deliberately," she said. "They have turned every Palestinian into a victim."
At Qalandiya, soldiers speak of the emotional difficulties of their jobs of worrying that every approaching person is a potential attacker, but also trying to understand that most are decent people, frustrated by the humiliations and delays at the checkpoint.

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