- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Washington Times correspondent Joshua Mitnick spoke in Israel last week with Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, who oversaw his country’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as chief of the army’s southern command. Gen. Harel arrives in Washington next month to serve as military attache at the Israeli Embassy.

Question: Why did the evacuation go so much smoother than expected? It was planned for three weeks but took about seven days.

Answer: It went swifter because when we came to the moment of truth, and the settlers had to decide what are the boundaries in cases of an engagement with the military and the police, they decided they would basically obey the law.

By not taking this line of violence against security forces, the main thing left was the very emotional and hard-beaten process that took place during those seven days.

Q: So your original assessment was that there would be violence?

A: Yeah, we thought there would be violence. There was violence. It wasn’t to the extent that we were worried about, and because of actions that the soldiers and the police took, and because of the noble behavior of the settlers themselves, it drew the lines within which we worked, and I think showed us the way to success.

Q; In the end, wasn’t this just a production that served both the settlers and the government?

A: No, it wasn’t. If you were one of those men who had to knock on the door at 7:30 in the morning and tell that family that you came to evacuate them, and you saw the hot cup of coffee, and the breakfast meal that was just prepared, and that nothing was organized, because they really truly believed that the evacuation wouldn’t take place. If you saw the shock on their faces, and the bursting into tears, and speaking afterward very silently, like there was a death in the family, and you had to carry in your heart the very painful memory of what you had done, then you would understand that it wasn’t just a facade.

I’m referring to the evacuation in Neve Dekalim. There were negotiations [between] settler rabbis and leaders, and rules of the game were agreed to. …

Take the synagogue in Neve Dekalim. Yes, we had discussions. Yes, we drew the lines that there wouldn’t be any harsh violence. And yeah, we said you can resist, but no, you can’t shoot on a security force guy or even raise a hand on him, because it’s illegal and basically two persons from the same nation. It’s against Judaism as we understand it, and as the rabbis understand it.

So, yes, we had discussions, but did we know what was going to happen there? No. Was there violence in the synagogue? Eventually, yes. Was it containable? Yeah, it was, and we managed to come out of it united.

But just imagine one settler or one policeman losing his nerves and doing something severe. Everything could go out of control. It was going on a razor’s edge. We managed to fulfill the mission as we wanted. ‘We’ meaning the settlers and the security forces. Was it a charade? Absolutely not.

Q: The army is not happy with the way the Rafah border agreement is being enforced and the job that the Palestinians are doing monitoring Gaza’s border with Egypt … What is the threat to Israel if the Palestinians don’t carry out their side of the Rafah agreements?

A: It means there’s a threat of incoming Palestinian terrorists or worldwide Islamic Jihad coming into the Gaza Strip. It means that all kinds of weaponry can cross the border without any control or prevention from the Palestinians as they committed [themselves to], and it means that terrorists can go out into Egypt, circle around and then come into the Negev.

All of this should be dealt with in the military-security arena … What I mean to say is that the military should have answers, but it shouldn’t be based on military answers.

The prevention of shooting rockets into Israel should not be done by the air force. It should be prevented by the Palestinian security forces, which isn’t carrying out any of its obligations. And the situation will deteriorate if they don’t start fulfilling their obligations.

Q: How can they smuggle heavy arms across a civilian border crossing?

A: If they let a jeep cross the border, and on that jeep there are Strella [shoulder-fired surface-to-air] missiles or Katyusha rockets, then you can smuggle it in. You don’t have to go only by the passage itself. If you don’t control the whole border, there are 14 kilometers [8.7 miles] of border.

Say you have total control of the passage itself, but you don’t put a barrier on the other 14 kilometers, then you’re just controlling a gate in the desert. So what good is it? People are simply moving things from one place to the other, either on their backs or on jeeps.

Q: Do you know there’s movement along other areas of the border.

A: Up to the point where I was responsible? Yes. Small arms, munitions, surface-to-air missiles, Strellas. It couldn’t be worse.

Q:Were those surface-to-air missiles coming in through the tunnels before Israel left?

A:There were rumors, but I don’t think so. Afterwards, yes, I think missiles crossed. It’s very hard to smuggle missiles like that through small tunnels.

Q: How do they come through now?

A: Now, I don’t know. But a month and a half ago, it came by jeep to one side of the border, and somebody moved it to the other side of the border, and that’s it. It’s very easy. You have to remember that Rafah is a divided city. So you just drive to the border and move it. In some places along the border, there was a wall. And some places, they blasted the wall. So people were just moving along with all kinds of baggage on their back. So it’s very easy.

Q: How long can Israel endure this porous border at Rafah before it takes its own punitive measures?

A: I think we should evaluate the situation in the Rafah area very closely, not only the passage, but the whole border. If the Palestinians don’t carry out their end of the agreement, then we should call the line that goes along the green line [with Israel], Karni, Erez and all the passages — as a border. Period.

Something that shouldn’t happen is happening today.

We disengage from the Gaza Strip. We hand all the territories to the Palestinian security forces. But instead of the behavior that you expect from the PA, instead of normal and sovereign behavior from the Palestinian Authority, what you have is chaos … no control of what’s going on.

Not on the borders, and not in the cities. It’s very disappointing, and I think that we should take steps to correct this situation and enhance our security.

Q: What are you suggesting?

A: Just calling the green line the border line carries severe ramifications for the Palestinian Authority. We are not doing it, just because we are interested in the welfare of the simple Palestinian. But we can’t see the well-being of simple Palestinians as our major concern. Our major concern is security.

Q: Are you referring to ending the customs union with the Palestinians?

A: If you don’t have control of what’s passing their border, and you can check only everything that’s legal, and everything that’s not legal is moving from the sides, not only weaponry, but also drugs and cigarettes, then what is the passage goal for?

Q: In your new position, you’ll be the point person for the army and Israel’s Ministry of Defense in Washington. How do Israel and the United States continue forward after the crisis in relations in recent years over Israel’s arms sales. Can you assess the damage of these misunderstandings?

A: There was a long process of clearing these misunderstandings. We really do believe that it was a misunderstanding. Nobody had any intentions of creating damage on either side. It took a long time to solve it. But the way out has been designated. We are out of it, mostly.

The successful visit of [Israeli Defense] Minister [Shaul] Mofaz in the States about a month ago and his meetings with his counterparts in the American government in the [Department of Defense] in the Pentagon and the State Department paved the way out. Most of the things are behind us.

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