Israel's former top soldier sets his sights on West Bank control

Raphael (Raful) Eitan, a primary architect of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, has set his sights on finalizing Israeli control over the West Bank. The controversial ex-chief of staff announced in October that he will head a new movement called Tzomet. This literally means ''intersection'' in Hebrew and is an acronym meaning ''renewed Zionism.'' Its primary purpose will be to encourage Jewish settlement on the West Bank and Jewish immigration to Israel.

Unlike previous chiefs of staff who immediately entered party politics or became captains of industry, Mr. Eitan, a carpenter by trade, has retired to a village in biblical Jezreel Valley, a strategic center of decisive battles for the domination of Palestine.

Interviewed a few months ago at his modest bungalow - neatly cluttered with military memorabilia - Eitan himself is a direct, unpretentious man. He is short and stocky, with tufted eyebrows that accentuate attentive and piercing eyes. He comes from the ''moshav'' agrarian tradition of rugged individualism and private responsibility for working the land.

The controversial ex-chief of staff views the West Bank as an integral part of historical Israel. He says it is critical to the nation's defense. ''We waged the war for Beirut to eradicate the PLO's strength on the North Bank [southern Lebanon] . . . [and] to settle things on the West Bank,'' he said.

Eitan argues that the best way for Israel to overwhelm Palestinian nationalism would be to settle the West Bank intensively so its Arab occupants would be stunned into acquiescence ''like drugged cockroaches in a bottle.''

Tzomet, whose popularity is growing, emerges at a time when many Israelis are questioning the settlement of the predominantly Arab-populated West Bank. According to a poll published Wednesday in the daily Haaretz, 48 percent of Israelis oppose the establishment of new settlements, with 37 percent in favor. Previous polls had shown wide support for the government's program, which it has intensified. Critics term the process de facto annexation.

Like the settlement policy, Eitan himself remains controversial. A commando leader of legendary bravery on the battlefield, he was regarded as an unsophisticated but thoroughly professional soldier. A taciturn disciplinarian, he was deeply respected by the soldiers he commanded but was never regarded as a potential chief of staff. But he emerged as a hero during the 1973 war and was promoted to major general. In 1978, he was appointed chief of staff.

Setting new standards of discipline, he imposed a strict dress code. He instituted rigorous budget restrictions, even insisting that the copper casings of bullets be recycled. Eitan reduced training casualties by 40 percent. Perhaps his most notable accomplishment was a special education program that affected more than 10,000 recruits, known as ''Rafulnakim'' (those of Raful), who previously would have been considered unsuitable for the Army.

He surprised almost everyone by becoming one of Israel's most politicized chiefs of staff. Soon after assuming the post, he issued a declaration affirming Israel's right to the West Bank. And he began appointing high-level officers whose views were similar to his own.

West Bank settlers were urged to set up their own self-defense units, were supplied with official Army weapons, and were allowed to do their own policing. Eitan termed this the time-honored Zionist policy of territorial self-defense. But he went further, tolerating occasional provocation against local Arabs. Illegal Jewish settlers were not only spared prosecution, but also were sheltered in Army camps.

He continually supported the militant, annexationist policies of the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) settlement movement, which stressed the religious, nationalist meaning of a ''Greater Israel.'' He surpassed even then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin in his support for the ''Gush.'' Mr. Begin implicitly trusted Eitan as a ''soldier's soldier.''

Eitan is convinced of an unrelenting Arab hostility toward Israel. Believing the axiom that ''the Arabs only understand force,'' Eitan condoned its use. In the midst of a recent court-martial of soldiers charged with maltreatment of Arabs on the West Bank, Eitan wrote a standing order: ''It is found necessary to exact punishment by deportation and to establish detention camps for deportees, without regard for regular prison conditions.''

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz excoriated Eitan in an editorial early this year: ''The government is responding to the unrest of the Arab population with a savagely repressive policy, including the encouragement of settlers and soldiers to shoot to kill. . . . In fact, following these directives by the chief of staff, more Arabs - including children - have been killed than in all the occupied territories since the 1967 war.''

The demands for Eitan's dismissal were overshadowed several weeks later by the conclusions of the Kahan Commission of inquiry into the September 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps. The commission found the killings were committed by the Damuri Brigade of the Christian Phalange militia, a force Eitan and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had nurtured in hopes of creating a Lebanese authority that would collaborate with Israel.

The commission found Eitan guilty of a ''breach of duty.'' It said he had ''disregarded the danger of acts of vengeance and bloodshed being perpetrated by the Phalangists'' . . . and that it was ''difficult to avoid the conclusion that the chief of staff ignored this danger.''

Eitan, refusing to draw any personal conclusions, stated the ''Phalangists had overdone it.'' He resigned from his post and left the Army two months later, in April 1983, leaving a troubled legacy.

''The moment Raful left, self-doubts expressed themselves at the heart of the military command,'' says Amir Oren, former chief military correspondent of BaMachane. Mr. Oren, like many professional military commentators, charges that Eitan did not ready the Army for the 1980s or for the invasion of Lebanon.

Eitan, meanwhile, insists that all objectives were reached on time, that the Army performed well, and that all criticism was purely political.

He also defends himself against charges that he ordered troops to break the cease-fire in Lebanon in order to enlarge the war beyond the ostensible 45 -kilometer perimeter of the ''Operation Peace for Galilee.'' Critics have charged that Mr. Sharon and Eitan provoked fighting and misled the government about their tactics to allow the Israel Defense Forces an opportunity to attack the Palestine Liberation Organization in Beirut.

Eitan denies the Army received an order to stop at 45 kilometers: ''This idea came from the thoughts of the security defense establishment. The war was planned in stages and the transition point was approximately 50 kilometers, but it was more or less an incidental line. On the first day it was clear to all to proceed to the Beirut-Damascus Highway and seal off Beirut.''

''Provocation? It's a lie, a very interesting lie,'' Eitan said angrily. ''The Syrians and the Palestinians wanted a cease-fire they could exploit, as the Arabs always have. They wanted to break the momentum of our forces to engage us in a war of attrition of their choosing. But this time the Army advanced when fired on. They shot here, we moved there. . . .

Eitan is furious with what he considers the double standard he is subjected to. He contrasts himself to Haim Bar-Lev, a former chief of staff who is now a prominent Labor Party figure: ''Bar-Lev, now he talks. When he was chief of staff, Israel lost 800 soldiers in a war of attrition with the Egyptians on the Suez Canal [1967-1970]. We stood still, just exchanged fire, and lost our men. There were no demonstrations, no mothers, no fathers, nothing. . . . The left was silent.''

Eitan insists that criticism of the war stems from politics. ''It is propaganda that is spread by the left. . . . They have a mechanism exactly like the communists - you take a small lie and inflate it into a great bluff. . . .''

Critics dismiss Raful's explanations as rationalizations. In the aftermath of every war there is a ''war of the generals'' when each high officer seeks to reinforce or redeem his image. Generally the debates are of a strategic or tactical nature. This war was no exception.

One debate centers on the decision to wait four days before attacking the Syrians. Eitan insisted the Syrians be avoided as long as possible, fearing an encounter with the Syrians would mean Soviet involvement and Soviet demands for a quick cease-fire, which would allow the PLO to escape destruction.

This point is disputed by Brig. Gen. Avigdor (Yanush) Ben-Gal, who was Eitan's close comrade in arms for many years. ''The Syrians should have been the strategic target from the beginning,'' he said. ''This was not a border retaliation - we could not keep the operational scope narrow. By waiting four days it was inevitable that we would have to fight the Syrians at a great disadvantage, losing the element of surprise. . . . It cost us dearly in lives.''

General Ben-Gal has also broken ranks with Eitan over the Palestinian issue. ''Our problem with the Palestinians is an ideological one. It cannot be solved by war. This does not mean I have become a dove - I still see the PLO as a terrorist organization . . . but if in a tactical sense we will still have to fight them on a strategic level, we must experiment to find a basis for dialogue and understanding.''

Eitan dismisses his comrade as naive. ''Yanush doesn't know the Arabs. . . . Because one fights the Arabs doesn't mean one understands them.

''We broke the PLO's military strength in Lebanon to break their political power,'' Eitan explained. ''. . .where are they today? Nowhere.''

Eitan contends that Israel's resolve is being tested. ''The threat to our existence is a composite threat. There are things other than an external threat. Now our social, cultural, and economic structure is critical.''

In founding a movement, Eitan is testing his values. Observers of Israeli politics believe his call for a ''Renewed Zionism'' will not attract more than 2 to 3 percent of the public. Eitan says he does not expect to enter electoral politics, despite rumors that he will support the Tehiya (Renewal) Party, whose members are extremist Revisionist Zionists. Instead, Eitan's vision is one of popular education and the mobilization of public opinion.

Israelis are deeply concerned with the increasingly violent nature of Israeli political culture, whether it be ''vigilantism'' in the occupied territories or the fatal grenade attack on a Peace Now activist during a political demonstration. Given the country's increasingly polarized political attitudes, the entry of Eitan's Tzomet into political life bears careful scrutiny.

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