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ANALYSIS: Beit Hanun is the Palestinian Kfar Kana
Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff

For months, GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant has been laboring to persuade everyone - government, public and media - that Gaza`s IDF is not Lebanon`s IDF. Then came the botched shelling in Beit Hanun on Wednesday, proving once again that it`s still the same army, making the same mistakes, with the same disregard for enemy civilians.

By sheer coincidence, the artillery battery that erroneously killed 19 civilians in Beit Hanun, belongs to the battalion that killed 100 Lebanese civilians in the first Kfar Kana massacre. That was the hitch that stopped Operation Grapes of Wrath in April 1996.

Beit Hanun is the Palestinian Kfar Kana. What happens now depends to a large extent on the other side`s reaction, which, according to all signs, is bound to be harsh and violent.

Hamas` political bureau chief Khaled Meshal on Wednesday summed up Palestinian strategy for the coming months in one sentence: `Blood will not turn into water,` an Arabic proverb threatening revenge.

From his Damascus exile, Meshal ostensibly leads only Hamas, but the news conference he held was seen as a statement of intentions by the Palestinians` de facto president. An hour earlier, the Palestinian Authority`s president on paper held another news conference. Mahmoud Abbas called the Israeli shelling `a heinous crime,` but almost implored the Palestinian organizations to refrain from irresponsible reaction, such as rocket fire or suicide bombings. Abbas said that the rocket fire damages Palestinian interests. One cannot but admire his political courage for stating things so blatantly against the Qassam launchers at this time. Unfortunately Meshal, not Abbas, is calling the shots.

Unlike Abbas, Meshal delivered the goods to his public: He promised revenge. `We won`t make do with denunciations,` he rebuked Abbas. `We`ll answer the deaths with `deeds, not words.`

Meshal knows that resuming the suicide bombings will exact a painful political price. Hamas` entire leadership would become a target for Israeli assassinations, and the Hamas government will cease to function. But at this stage, it is more important for Hamas` leadership to respond to the voices from the street than to preserve the already faltering government.

In any case, the status of PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and his government`s status is guaranteed for the coming weeks. Haniyeh and Meshal understand that during the days after the killing, criticism against the government will be hushed. Haniyeh, who was supposed to meet Abbas on Wednesday to decide on a candidate to replace him as head of a government of experts, announced that all contacts to set up the new government were suspended. The IDF`s guns granted Haniyeh`s government a few more days in power.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz demanded that the IDF conduct an instant inquiry and submit its findings by tonight. The inquiry team headed by Deputy Ground Forces Commander Major General Meir Kalifi is examing two possibilities - a malfunction in the battery`s radar or a computer. This could be either a technical fault or human error inputing data.

But a real examination would have to probe deeper. Veteran artillery men were terrified to discover that the battery had fired at Beit Hanun on the basis of range aiming from the previous night. The corps` artillery procedure demanded that before firing at a designated target, the unit had to reset range and bearing that morning, because changes in the weather and humidity could affect the shell`s trajectory.

Without such resetting, a 450-meter deviation from the target is not so radical. Even more troubling are the safety ranges from the houses. In the Gaza Strip, these range from 200 to 300 meters. In Lebanon before the pullout, the range was one kilometer from the villages` outskirts. But in the Gaza Strip, all these rules have been broken.

`In the recent war in Lebanon we fired like madmen, without adhering to any safety ranges,` an artillery officer said.

The defense minister should also examine himself. Peretz had been warned of the implications of using artillery several times. These low-precision weapons have little effectiveness against Qassam launchers but a high probability of wreaking damage. He considered completely canceling artillery fire a number of times, but ultimately gave way to the officers` pressure and authorized it.

Kalifi`s previous report was about the Ralia family incident. The family had been picnicking on the Gaza beach when an explosion killed the father and three children. A number of others were injured, some seriously. The report cleared the artillery (in the Israeli public`s eyes, but not the world`s), and the batteries resumed action.

The new division commander for the Gaza front, Brigadier General Moshe Tamir, stopped the artillery fire almost completely, except in extreme cases.

In view of the artillery fire alert toward Ashkelon after the ground forces had left Beit Hanun, he decided on Wednesday the situation was sufficiently extreme to warrant an artillery attack.

Tamir faced a real dilemma. Had a rocket landed in a school in Ashkelon
Wednesday morning, the media would have crucified him. Still, the IDF should have taken minimal precautions vis-a-vis civilians in the Gaza Strip.

The artillery fire, certainly within the present safety ranges, does not fulfill such precautions. A number of majors general in the general staff agree.

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