Military chief criticizes Israeli handling of Mideast conflict

Thursday, October 30, 2003

JERUSALEM -- The chief of the Israeli military harshly criticized his government's tough policy toward Palestinians, warning it could lead to desperation and a humanitarian crisis, Israeli media reported Wednesday.

The unusual public rift between the army chief and the defense minister reflects the frustration on both sides over the inability to bring three years of bloody conflict with the Palestinians to an end.

Columnists from three Israeli newspapers were called in for a briefing with "senior military officials," later identified by Israeli television and radio stations as Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the military chief of staff.

The newspapers said Yaalon warned that the heavy restrictions imposed in the West Bank by the military -- at the orders of the Defense Ministry -- could backfire. After twin suicide bombings last month, the army clamped a total closure on the West Bank, banning Palestinians from entering Israel, and also halted Palestinian traffic on West Bank roads, confining hundreds of thousands of people to their towns and villages.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz announced a slight easing of the restrictions Wednesday.

The military has repeatedly recommended the restrictions be eased significantly, the columnists wrote.

"The senior military officers are worried by the possibility that maintaining widespread pressure on the Palestinian population will lead to a humanitarian crisis and increase Palestinian hatred of Israel," wrote Uzi Benziman of the Haaretz daily.

No hope for Palestinians

Nahum Barnea of Yediot Ahronot quoted the official -- later identified as Yaalon -- as saying the result of the tough restrictions is that "there is no hope, no expectations for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, not in Bethlehem and Jericho," two West Bank towns where the military recommended lifting most restrictions because no terror attacks have originated there in recent weeks.

"In our tactical decisions, we are operating contrary to our strategic interest," Barnea quoted the official as saying.

A Defense Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the ministry wants to go more slowly than the military in easing restrictions on the Palestinians.

Maj. Sharon Feingold, an army spokeswoman, denied Yaalon criticized the government, but added there is a debate over "how to continue to pressure terrorists without alienating the civilian population. He thinks we need to look at all the angles when we come to discuss this question."

Relations between Yaalon and Mofaz have been reported tense for some time, with frequent reports in local media of clashes over policy toward the Palestinians, though both favor a hard line. However, this was the first time that Yaalon was said to have harshly criticized government policies.

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