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Behind the Headlines: Front-line Israeli Commander Describes a ‘complicated’ War

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During these past two months of Israeli-Palestinian violence, Col. Gal Hirsch has lived his life from shooting to shooting, riot to riot, day into night into day again, without more than two hours of sleep in any given day.

As commander of the Binyamin Brigade, Hirsch has controlled Israeli military activity at some of the worst flashpoints of violence in the West Bank, including the outskirts of Nablus and Ramallah, as well at some of the nearby Jewish settlements that have been fired upon repeatedly.

With an endless cycle of violence to oversee, Hirsch has not spent much time with his family. Since the crisis began in late September, he has forgone weekly leaves. Twice, he returned home to see his wife and two children. Both times, he was quickly called back to his unit.

Yet with the army keenly aware that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is taking place in the media as well, the 37-year-old Hirsch was given an hour off from his hectic duties to tell JTA about how the crisis looks from the perspective of a senior Israeli military commander on the ground.

During an interview at the Israel Defense Force’s Central Command headquarters in eastern Jerusalem, Hirsch fielded several calls and beeper messages reporting fresh incidents in the field, then quickly bounced back to the subject at hand.

His dissection of Israel’s military predicament appeared uninfluenced by the enormous burden of his sleepless daily routine or the complexity of the larger challenge facing his units and the entire IDF.

“We are in a complicated situation. It isn’t correct to say it is complex,” he says with analytical precision. “A complex situation can be taken apart, but a complicated situation cannot be taken apart. In a complicated situation, we must behave with extreme caution. We cannot just walk into that china shop and behave like an elephant.”

The complicatedness of the situation can be seen in Hirsch’s multifaceted role in the field. On a typical day, he is involved in everything from ordering Israeli responses to riots or shootings, dealing with the daily needs of Israeli settlers, planning special operations, appearing before the media and maintaining a surreal dialogue with Palestinian commanders through remaining communications channels.

But whether Israel has been behaving like the elephant Hirsch describes — the Hebrew equivalent of the proverbial bull in a china shop — that is perhaps at the core of the international controversy Israel is mired in today.

During the first weeks of the conflict, scores of Palestinian civilian deaths sparked accusations by international human rights groups that Israel used excessive force when dealing with Palestinian rioters. The accusations severely harmed Israel’s image.

Even as the conflict has shifted toward a guerrilla-like war spotted with terror attacks, the excessive-force question is still on the agenda – – particularly when Israel retaliates with helicopter raids on the hearts of Palestinian cities.

For Hirsch, who himself was seriously injured three years ago when Palestinians hurled a cement block through his windshield, the answers are clear.

“Israel is behaving in a very, very restrained fashion,” he says. “Our restraint is unprecedented in any campaign against terror or guerrilla activity.”

Despite Palestinian evidence of scores of deaths and thousands of injuries inflicted by the Israeli army on the upper bodies of stone-throwers, Hirsch says his units have followed orders that compel soldiers to shoot only at lower body parts and to use live fire only when fired upon.

Mass riots backed by what Hirsch describes as heavy gunfire have created a very difficult situation for troops on the ground.

Yet Hirsch insists his men have been careful to use only rubber-coated steel bullets against rioters, while using live fire without hesitation to shoot at any Palestinian firing a gun.

He also denies that soldiers have taken the law into their own hands by shooting indiscriminately.

“Our activity in the field is under complete control,” he says. “I know about every bullet that leaves a gun barrel.”

Having appeared on local and international television, Hirsch knows the current conflict is twofold, playing out not only in the field but also on the airwaves.

He knows the world sympathizes more with the Palestinians because they are seen as underdogs. And he knows that in a globally wired world, images of what his units do are flashed around the world instantly.

“An Israeli soldier in a full-metal jacket and M-16 facing a child with a grenade never makes a good picture,” he says.

“But I believe that even in the media arena the world is starting to get tired of the Palestinian point of view, and they are starting to understand that this is initiated violence and not spontaneous.”

According to Hirsch, the army was well prepared for the explosion of violence in September and has watched carefully as the conflict evolved from its early days of mass popular uprisings backed by gunfire into the current situation.

After those initial weeks, the Palestinians shifted gears and tried to challenge the Israeli army at night.

Overall, Gal says, the Palestinians realized that they couldn’t really pose a threat to the IDF after dark. So they shifted instead to more use of gunfire during the daytime, including some snipers.

In recent weeks, they have made yet another shift — shooting attacks on main West Bank arteries at Israeli soldiers and civilians. There are still riots, but far fewer than at the beginning of the conflict.

The multiple tactics employed by the Palestinians explain why the situation is so complicated.

The status quo is not a state of classic war between two sovereign states, nor is it a clear-cut guerrilla war or a popular uprising.

Hirsch describes it vaguely as a “fighting situation,” including multiple components such as guerrilla warfare, terror, counterterror, riots and demonstrations.

Israel has also started to change its strategy as well. Initially, the strategy was simply to contain the violence. “Now we are shifting into a `shaping’ attitude, taking more action with offensive implications,” he says.

Yet the jury is still out on whether such a strategy can help Israel extricate itself from the crisis.

Even though Hirsch believes the Palestinians have made no military gains to date, and have realized they will pay an increasingly heavy price for confronting the powerful IDF, the question of whether Israel can defeat the Palestinians militarily and forge a political solution to the conflict remains open.

“That depends on whether Israel wants to win by points or by knockout,” he says, using a boxing analogy.

A knockout would only be possible if Israel decides it wants to unleash all of its military force to completely destroy the Palestinian Authority. Military protocol forbids Hirsch from making political comments, but it is clear that the diplomatic backlash against Israel in such a case would be devastating – – and it could also spark an all-out regional war.

Assuming Israel does not choose a knockout punch, the other option — a long, drawn-out conflict that Hirsch calls victory `by points’ — poses big questions not only to the military but also to Israeli society.

So far, Hirsch believes Israelis have demonstrated that they have the staying power to stick the conflict out for the long haul.

For example, he says, reserve soldiers have been reporting for duty with high morale.

Furthermore, despite raw emotions driving the Palestinians to fight for their independence and their assumed ability to sustain much heavier losses than Israel, Hirsch believes they are reeling under the force of the army.

“Whether or not Israel can `win by points’ is an internal question we must ask ourselves. It will depend on what victory means for Israel, and what do we want as a country,” says Hirsch. “Winning by points will be complicated — just as complicated as this entire war.”

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