(September 21) -- Expert opinion isn't prophecy -- but there's a strong sense among military experts that Israel is in for a rough time.
The next war doesn't have a name yet. But if it comes it will be nasty, close to home, pointless, and probably soon.
This is the feeling among several Israeli military experts, interviewed this week after the startling news conference called by a senior IDF officer to announce that the army is making preparations to meet guerrilla warfare in the territories.
The briefing was denounced by ministers as alarmist and viewed in some circles as politically motivated. But some experts say the warning reflects a growing professional appraisal within the military of an approaching storm that the civilian authorities prefer not to see.
"I can see an intifada, or popular uprising, including stone throwing and roadblocks, combined with guerrilla warfare - like in Lebanon - with roadside mines and gunfire," a widely-respected former senior intelligence officer says.
"That isn't even a worst-case scenario. It's all speculation, of course. But if there is no movement politically, a scenario like this is literally unavoidable. Do you think," he asks, "that just because the government refuses to give them anything the Palestinians will give up 100 years of Palestinian 'Zionism'? Ridiculous."
The IDF might enter Palestinian cities if they prove to be bases of an uprising, the retired officer says. "But it could be that the cities would remain perfectly quiet and everything would happen in areas B and C," which are under Israeli security control. "The Palestinian Authority could then say, 'It's your area of responsibility, not ours.'"
Whatever the scenario, the intelligence officer says, the IDF is only a technical factor, not a prime player. "The IDF is not important in this. The only element that matters is the government."
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Oren Shahor, the recently retired government coordinator for the territories, believes that guerrilla warfare is the lesser of the dangers confronting Israel.
"Guerrilla warfare could be an intermediary stage. It might involve armed bands attacking the army, or settlers with gunfire and Molotov cocktails [firebombs]. But the bigger danger is a violent popular uprising," Shahor says. Such an uprising may escalate into the use of weapons by the Palestinian Police - like what happened after the opening of the archeological tunnel in the Old City last year.
"The Palestinians have tens of thousands of weapons. A general uprising is more dangerous than guerrilla warfare, and putting it down would be a very difficult matter - not just because of the question of Israel's image, but because of the technical problem of dealing with it."
Shahor, who has joined the Labor Party, said it would be difficult for the army to operate in an environment where civilian demonstrators, including women and children, were mixed in with armed elements.
"I don't think we will attempt to enter the Palestinian cities unless there are Israelis trapped in them," Shahor says. "It would be a bloody business as we saw [during the post-tunnel violence] at Joseph's Tomb in Nablus."
Shahor believes that the surrounding Arab countries, particularly Syria, are unlikely to remain indifferent to a Palestinian uprising.
"I don't say they will attack, but they would heat up Lebanon by encouraging Hizbullah; and they could change their army deployment to increase tension. They've done it before," Shahor says.
Syrian divisions close to the front are now capable of launching an attack on the Golan directly from their camps without any telltale forward deployment, Shahor says. "But I don't think they will attempt to fire missiles. They know what Israel's reaction would be."
Egypt and Jordan would also be likely to make some diplomatic move, he adds, perhaps recalling their ambassadors.
"The price of such a war could be heavy for us," Shahor says. "Arafat said some time ago that the Palestinians would be willing to take tens of thousands of casualties to achieve their goals, and asked how many casualties Israel was prepared to suffer."
Shahor believes that "in the end we will return to the negotiating table, but from a weakened position. That's what happened in the Hebron Agreement. We could have achieved more had it not been for the September  riots."
A less dramatic view is taken by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yehoshua Saguy, former chief of military intelligence and now Likud mayor of Bat Yam.
"I just don't know what will happen, but I don't think it will be a guerrilla war," he says. "This isn't the terrain for a classic guerrilla war. There aren't forests, and I don't see tunnels being dug, like in Vietnam. What I can see is a stepped-up intifada with weapons and grenades and Molotov cocktails."
Saguy says that "logically, the Palestinians would be ill-advised to do this; they have too much to lose. They didn't use weapons during the intifada - not because they didn't have them, but because they wisely didn't want to have the IDF reply in kind.
"Difficult as it might be for them now, it will be worse if they resort to force. Now they have what they have, and they enjoy world sympathy. But logic doesn't always prevail in the Middle East."
Saguy would not advise the IDF to try to reenter Palestinian cities, except in dire situations such as a siege of the Hebron settlers.
As for the possibility of war with Syria and reports of Iran's advances in acquiring nonconventional weapons, there is nothing new here to warrant a strategic reassessment, Saguy says. "I feel that some of these statements serve political goals."
Prof. Martin van Creveld of the Hebrew University, Israel's best-known military historian, also does not think guerrilla warfare is the likeliest option. "I would not advise the Palestinians to try it," he said. "They would be blown away."
The likelier option, he says, is terrorism. "It's what Mao Tse-tung called the first stage of guerrilla warfare. I don't think the Palestin-ians would go beyond that."
Although there might be sniping, the Palestinians are unlikely to engage in an open armed struggle unless the IDF tries to break into their cities.
However, van Creveld says, there can be no certainty. "These things can get out of hand."
The Palestinians should not assume that their cities are impenetrable, he says, certainly not to covert actions. "We can expect terrorism to go on as long as our government, whether Likud or Labor, doesn't do what has to be done: build a Berlin Wall between us and the Palestinians that even a bug can't penetrate," van Creveld adds.
Putting up a wall, the military historian grants, is far from the vision of a new Middle East shared by many until not long ago. "But it could be a precondition for a new Middle East. First you have to impose peace."
Van Creveld believes it unlikely that the Syrians will go to war.
"The very worst thing would be a small-scale attempt on the Golan," he says. "To fight Israel without having nuclear weapons would be madness, and they can't delude themselves anymore that Israel doesn't have nuclear weapons."
"To fight it with nuclear weapons would be even greater madness - and they know it. Their missiles are mainly for deterrence."
From the Syrians' standpoint, van Creveld says, Israel has twice attacked them with hardly any provocation, just on the whim of a defense minister. In 1967 it was Moshe Dayan, in 1982, Ariel Sharon.
Thus Syria feels "exposed, and in need of a deterrent."
E xpert opinion is not to be confused with prophecy but there is a strong sense among those who are, or used to be, paid to think about such things that we may be rounding a bend into a rough stretch of road.
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