If the USA military?s escalating war against insurgent forces in Iraq is starting to look more and more like Israel?s campaign to crush the Intifada and the Palestinians? hope of an independent state, it?s probably because the Americans have been increasingly turning to their Israeli allies for advice on how to conduct just such a conflict.
Now that the United States has become an occupying power, like Israel, (although the Israelis still like to kid themselves they?re not really) it has found itself having to grapple with a growing insurgency that is showing every sign of escalating and expanding. The contacts between the two allies is largely classified, mainly because the Americans would find it massively embarrassing if they were seen to be taking lessons in crushing Arab resistance from Israelis. The Americans? insistence that they “liberated” Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein?s grotesque regime would suffer greatly from comparison to the internationally condemned Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
But USA and Israeli officials confirm such contacts are under way, including several visits to Israel by USA military and intelligence officials in recent months. “Part of what?s going on is the culmination of years of picking each other?s brains,” said Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington. “After Sept. 11 they discovered that they had more things to talk about.”
The Americans began actively tapping into the Israeli Army?s experience in fighting guerrillas, particularly in an urban environment, about two years ago when it became clear that the Bush administration would invade Iraq. The April 2002 battle of Jenin was of particular interest to the Americans, who sent troops to Israel in the spring to train in the mock Arab town the Israeli Army built some time ago in the Tzrifin area of the southern Negev Desert to teach its soldiers urban warfare - something that American forces (with the possible exception of the Marine Corps) have little experience of.
On Dec. 1, Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, Chief of Staff General Moshe Yaalon and other top army brass officiated at a ground-breaking ceremony for a better “training city” at a new Negev site. Given the $2 billion or so the USA gives Israel in military aid every year, no doubt it?s American taxpayers? dollars that will be paying for the construction.
Many of the tactics employed by USA forces in Iraq in recent days to counter a sharp escalation in attacks by insurgents bear striking similarities to those used by the Israelis against Palestinian militants in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip ? a greater use of air power, surface-to-surface missiles, round-the-clock surveillance by unmanned aerial vehicles of suspected guerrilla centres, large-scale search-and-seize operations, cracking down on a sullen, increasingly hostile civilian population.
Since insurgents downed three USA helicopters early in November, the Americans, long paralyzed by their agile tormentors, have launched a major offensive that has included air strikes by fighters dropping 500-pound (230-kilogram) bombs, satellite-guided missiles, long-range artillery bombardments, gunship attacks and massed tank fire ? in effect, using a sledgehammer to swat a fly. Those are exactly the kind of tactics that will alienate Iraqis who will see the Americans as a brutal army of occupation, just as the Palestinians view the Israelis.
The Israelis? controversial use of armoured bulldozers, USA-built D-9 vehicles, during the Jenin operation to flatten buildings in which Palestinian guerrillas were holed up ? sometimes along with unarmed civilians ? apparently made a big impression on the Americans.
On Tuesday, soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, sweeping through the town of Hawija, near Kirkuk, in search of insurgents, drove a bulldozer up to the one-story home of one Aziz Abdel-Wahhab, whose son Adel they were looking for. They threatened to flatten the building unless he was handed over. The Iraqi?s wife, Bushra, told them where Adel was. Fifteen minutes later he surrendered to the Americans.
As the soldiers withdrew, one told reporters: “We weren?t really going to knock down the house. We?ve never done it ? at least not in Kirkuk. But the woman did only start to talk when she saw the bulldozer.” As USA and allied casualties mount, how long will it be before troops start blowing up the houses of suspected insurgents?
Pentagon officials scoff at any comparison with the West Bank or Gaza, and indeed George W. Bush cannot afford to have the USA occupation seen in that light. Maybe that?s why he?s trying to distance himself from Ariel Sharon so much these days.
Israeli commentator Akiva Eldar noted in Haaretz a few days ago that USA and Israeli officials met recently during which there was “an exchange of views and tips on how to deal with terrorism and occupation. The Israelis gave the Americans advice on how to keep the war against terrorism separate from innocent civilians.”
Eldar did not explain how the Israeli military had supposedly mastered that technique without anyone noticing, and went on: “Now it has become harder for the Americans to criticize Israel. They are paralyzed, actually. Their hands are tied. Sharon now has a free ride, because the Americans are doing exactly what Israel is doing, in such policies as putting restrictions on the movement of civilians. Civilians have already been hurt and now the Americans are starting to use air strikes.”
He concluded: “Sharon?s challenge now is to keep from overplaying his hand, and to refrain from making it overly obvious that he is having his policy cake and eating it as well.”
USA helicopter crews, particularly those flying gunships, have made extensive use of Israeli firing ranges, especially for night-time training they could not get in places like Germany. The recent intensification of USA counter-insurgency operations in Iraq has included a sharp increase in night-time helicopter operations against suspected insurgent centres and the use of Hellfire ground-to-air missiles.
No, this isn?t the Gaza Strip, or the West Bank, but ?liberated? Iraq ? a collective punishment for resistance that comes from people who don?t want Bush-style ?freedom?.
These are the same weapons that Israeli gunship crews have been using with murderous effect to attack Palestinian militant leaders since late 2000, a few weeks into the Intifada. A lot of the “innocent civilians” ? men, women and children ? that Eldar says Israeli forces have found ways of not killing have perished in such missile attacks.
USA officials also have been talking to Shin Bet, Israel?s domestic security service, which plays a major role in the war against the Palestinians. Shin Bet and Military Intelligence have built up a vast and formidable network of agent-informers in the Occupied Territories, even within the radical organizations themselves. These have been invaluable in targeting militant leaders marked for assassination and thwarting dozens of suicide bombings ? 20 in the last two months alone, according to the Israelis.
Indeed, radical groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad appear to have been seriously damaged by the Israeli assassination campaign that they have been forced to drastically curtail their operational activity in recent weeks, even to the point of being prepared to discuss a possible cease-fire.
The Americans badly need a similar network. Their biggest problem in countering the Iraq insurgency is a grievous lack of good, reliable intelligence. Even after months of warfare, it seems that the USA military has little real idea of who it is fighting. USA troops claim they killed 54 insurgents in Samarra, north of Baghdad, in a fierce gun battle the other day, but local people say only eight people were killed and some of those were innocent civilians. It all sounds horribly familiar.
So, it?s in the realm of gathering usable, real-time intelligence on its elusive enemy that the Americans must make some significant headway as fast as they possibly can, and Israeli expertise in fighting Arabs, understanding their culture and motivation, could be invaluable.
Looking at the Israelis? success in curbing Palestinian operations through systematic assassinations and other harsh measures, the Americans may be tempted to adopt similar tactics in Iraq, although USA officials pale at such an idea, given the criticism directed at Israel. Indeed, Ariel Sharon?s government is now coming under increasing criticism for its brutal tactics from prominent military and security figures, such as Chief of Staff Yaalon and four former Shin Bet directors.
For the Americans to opt for assassinations ? and these have been approved by Bush himself ? would be a disastrous mistake. It would certainly make a mockery of the administration?s stated intention of introducing democracy to Iraq, and eventually to the Middle East as a whole and could lead to the deep divisions that are emerging in Israel infecting them too. Vietnam redux.
In a desperate bid to improve their counter-insurgency effort, the Americans are now rehabilitating many of Saddam Hussein?s former intelligence and secret police operatives, widely hated and feared by Iraqis, a questionable asset at best. They?re also trying to form a 1,000-man paramilitary battalion recruited from the militias of five Iraqi factions. That sounds horribly like the infamous “Black and Tans,” mercenaries recruited by the British to fight Irish separatists after World War I, a force that employed tactics so brutal they drove people into the arms of the Irish Republican Army.
The Central Intelligence Agency warned in a bleak report in mid-November that resistance to the USA-led occupation could strengthen in the coming months. The Americans and their allies, of course, cannot just stand there and be shot down, but using Israeli-style tactics could make the CIA?s assessment a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Shlomo Brom, a senior researcher at the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, recently cautioned that a prolonged USA occupation would strengthen the perception of the occupation as Western colonialism in a new guise. “The result,” he cautioned, “will be like Israel in Lebanon in 1982. It started with the population throwing rice and flowers and ended with Hizbullah.”
Ed Blanche is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in London, UK.
Article courtesy of The Daily Star, Beirut.