By Amos Harel and Yuval Azoulay, Haaretz Correspondents and Reuters
The commander-designate of the Israel Air Force, Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, believes the presence of Israel Defense Forces troops on the ground in the Gaza Strip could prevent the manufacture of the Qassam rockets that are plaguing the Negev as well as the smuggling of weapons into the Strip.
"Professionally speaking," he said, "if Israel wants to prevent any high-trajectory rocket or mortar fire, it must establish good control on the ground."
At the same time, Israel is examining anew the possibility of purchasing one of two foreign-made anti-rocket defense systems to combat the Qassams, according to defense officials, because the Israeli-made Iron Dome system, currently under development at the Armaments Development Authority Rafael, will not be operational before 2010.
In a lecture at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs delivered two months ago, and made public Sunday, Nehushtan, currently the head of the IDF Planning Directorate, said: "Compare Lebanon and Gaza to the West Bank, where Israel has control over the external perimeter and can control the entrance of weapons inside the area. In Lebanon, well-organized shipments of weapons flow across an open border with Syria. Gaza is open along the Egyptian border. The West Bank is not open and the weapons don't flow in with the same freedom."
According to Nehushtan, who will take command of the IAF on May 14, while "local arms production is a matter of know-how ... if Israeli forces are present on the ground, as they are in the West Bank, then we can stop the development and manufacture of rockets and other weapons in time."
Asked whether the Gaza problem could be solved militarily, he referred to Israel's Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in April 2002. "It took a few years [after the operation ¬ A.H.], but we managed to establish a different kind of control. The motivation of suicide bombers in the West Bank did not recede, but their capabilities did." The decision as to the role of the army, Nehushtan added, is in the hands of the country's political echelon: "In Gaza, as well, the IDF will do what it is instructed to do."
Nehushtan noted that the Gaza Strip represents the first example in the world "of a regime affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood," which began in Egypt.
"Hamas is building up its power and building its military capabilities ... Even if we build better shelters, this is no way to raise children," he noted, referring to the "constant shelling that really makes life impossible" for people living in Sderot and nearby communities.
He acknowledged "the difficulties of an open, modern, sensitive, Western society such as Israel's in operating against terrorists who operate from within civilian territory against civilians on the Israeli side," adding: "It was not like this in World War II ... We have to operate within this environment and under these constraints. At the same time, we still have to provide security for our people.
"Now that civilians are part of the equation," he continued, "anti-terror operations become much more difficult. When we have to operate against forces that operate within a civilian environment, we have to be pinpoint precise and very sensitive to collateral damage. We are much more limited in what we can do."
This was not the first time that Nehushtan, a former combat pilot, has spoken about the need for ground operations to prevent rocket fire. In meetings at the IDF General Command in late July 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Nehushtan and another pilot Military Intelligence head Amos Yadlin were among the first senior officers to tell then chief of staff Dan Halutz that his plan to continue the aerial attacks on Hezbollah was not working.
"You must bring this before the government," Nehushtan told Halutz, according to the protocol of the meeting as published in Haaretz over a year ago. "You need to tell them straight that without a major ground operation, we cannot remove the Katyusha threat. If the government does not approve it, we should tell them that they must stop the campaign now."
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is reviewing two potential substitutes for Iron Dome to counter the Qassam rockets. One is Nautilus, a joint Israeli-American invention that uses lasers to blow up rockets and mortar bombs mid-flight. The other is Phalanx, an automated machinegun produced by U.S. firm Raytheon whose heavy bullets shred incoming shells.
Defense Ministry director general Pinchas Buchris flew Sunday to the U.S. state of New Mexico to watch Nautilus now being upgraded under a new name, Skyguard in action. The mission is significant as Israeli experts long wrote off Nautilus's performance as inadequate. A Defence Ministry delegation visited Raytheon earlier this month to inspect the Phalanx.
Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror confirmed that Israel is examining the Phalanx and Nautilus systems, if only to assess their core technologies as potential complements for Iron Dome. "I think the future will be a combination of laser and missile systems," he said.
Dror denied that protectionism had motivated Iron Dome's initial selection, saying its slated performance was deemed to be more reliable than that of Nautilus or Phalanx.
Palestinians fired five Qassam rockets at Israel Sunday, but no one was injured and no damage was caused.