The Gaza War in 2014 — A Failure of Israeli Leadership, Or They Did the Best They Could?

[This analysis was written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince — and the current history of Israeli intelligence and security, Spies Against Armageddon (published by Levant Books).]

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not only concerned, he is worried and angry, which has led him to go on the offensive.

Netanyahu (government photo)

Netanyahu (government photo)

He is concerned by the request — by most of the bereaved families of Operation Protective Edge (50 out of 67) — to establish a commission of inquiry into how his government behaved, before and during the 2014 Gaza war.

In addition to this request, which came as a surprise to the prime minister, the state comptroller’s report on the war is expected to be published soon. A leaked draft of the report suggests that it will be critical of the government’s and the IDF’s preparations for the war.

Netanyahu and his aides fear that the bereaved families’ demand for an inquiry and the comptroller report will be used by ministers and MKs in the coalition and the opposition in order to attack him and undermine his authority and position, in particular when he also has a police investigation into corruption allegations hanging over his head.

Therefore, the prime minister held a nearly three-hour briefing with military reporters and analysts on short notice Monday. He laid out before us his strategic viewpoint on Israel’s situation, the challenges facing the country, the threats against it and its capabilities to face these threats.

However, the bulk of the conversation was spent on the prime minister’s attempts to deflect the bereaved families’ criticism. As a bereaved brother himself, Netanyahu understands how sensitive an issue it is to argue with such families and to thwart the comptroller report and similar criticism voiced by ministers such as Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman.

Convening the military correspondents was a smart move by Netanyahu. It was intended to give more “professional” weight to his claims than they would have had if they were conveyed through political or diplomatic correspondents.

The prime minister spoke at times with excitement and at times in anger, accompanied by fist-banging on the table. He presented data and quotes which sought to prove that the government, the cabinet and he personally took the Hamas tunnel threat seriously, as well as the group’s other military capabilities – rockets, naval commandos and aerial vehicles.

In the seven months prior to the war, between November 2013 and July 2014, the cabinet met eight times, almost a third of all of the forum’s meetings in that period, to discuss the tunnel threat. The prime minister also toured the frontlines and held discussions with Gaza division commanders. The cabinet heard situation reports from IDF commanders and senior Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) officials on the subject. At the conclusion of some of the meetings, decisions were made and orders were given, including by Netanyahu himself to the IDF and the defense establishment to prepare militarily for the tunnel threat and to develop technology to thwart it.

In these cabinet meetings, as well as in other forums, there was an intelligence-based estimate that Hamas had dug at least 20 tunnels into Israeli territory. In The Jerusalem Post’s sister publication, Ma’ariv Sofshavua, I published in October 2013 that the IDF had even estimated that there were some 30 tunnels (during Operation Protective Edge 31 tunnels were uncovered and destroyed). If I knew about the threat, then the IDF and the cabinet definitely knew about it.

Therefore, in this respect, the prime minister is right. The claims that the cabinet was not informed, or that the IDF did not know, are baseless. It is true that the defense establishment (and this is also Netanyahu’s responsibility) could have prepared better technologically and started to more quickly look for a solution if they would have listened years ago to the warnings of the geologist Col. (Res.) Yossi Langotsky. The solutions that are now being applied to the fight against tunnels are exactly what Langotsky suggested ten years ago, but nobody listened.

The prime minister, (and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon) managed the war in the correct manner – carefully and calmly, while setting reasonable goals that took into account an exit strategy for the war. Netanyahu’s strategy was to avoid mass casualties on the Israeli side and to minimize the harm done to the civilian population in Gaza, while delivering a harsh and painful blow to Hamas without agreeing to any of the group’s demands.

If the prime minister will be wise enough now to make the decision to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Gaza – the establishment of a seaport is the required step – chances are that the danger of another war will be pushed back several more years, and in retrospect, we will be able to say that Operation Protective Edge achieved good results for Israel.

 

 

July 30, 2016

Israel’s Official Intelligence Projection — Many Dangers, No Major War on the Horizon

by Yossi Melman [written first for The Jerusalem Report]

Is the glass half empty or is it half full? That is the question one is left asking, after hearing about the contents of Israel’s NIE — the National Intelligence Estimate for 2016.  Depending on one’s point of view, or even bias, Israel’s situation can be viewed in different ways. Objective analysis shows there are risks out there, but also opportunities.

The NIE was drafted by the research department of Aman (the large Military Intelligence agency) with input from the research departments of Mossad (the external espionage agency) and the Israel Security Agency (the domestic service – known as Shin Bet). The Estimate is not published, but the major points were described by senior military officers in strictly limited briefings.

Emblem of Aman (Israeli Military Intelligence)

Emblem of Aman (Israeli Military Intelligence)

The most important part of the new report is the assessment that the probability of war this year is low. Senior military sources tell The Jerusalem Report that this applies on all fronts: from Gaza in the South to Lebanon and Syria in the North. Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas have plans or any interest to initiate a war against Israel.

Hezbollah is bleeding in the killing fields of Syria.  Five years from the outbreak of the civil war there, the Lebanese Shi’ites of Hezbollah become ever more deeply embroiled in the conflict — with a permanent contingent of as many as 7,000 fighters, nearly half its conscripts, fighting alongside Iran to defend the regime of Bashar Assad.  The Russian air force has provided significant air support.

These Shi’ites from the neighboring nation also have 15,000 reservists who are called to duty for training or field missions for up to 40 days a year – similar to the IDF reserve system. So far, Hezbollah has lost nearly 1,500 soldiers, killed in action–many of whom belonged to its elite units– and more than 6,000 have been wounded.

Hezbollah’s losses are a heavy blow to its military capabilities and have dented its morale to go to war with Israel. That, of course, is good for Israel.

Furthermore, Hezbollah is suffering from a serious economic crisis. Its annual budget is estimated at around $1 billion, 70 percent of which comes from Iran and the rest from taxes and trade, mainly in drugs and contrabands of cigarettes and electronic appliances. Due to the sanctions imposed on Iran (most soon to be lifted), Tehran in recent years has had difficulties providing much financial aid to its Lebanese proxy.

In the South, Hamas has not yet recovered from the war in the Summer of 2014, which inflicted heavy casualties on its military forces and capabilities and, even more importantly, caused severe damage to the civilian population.

Since the end of that conflict, two dozen rockets have been fired from Gaza into southern Israel. But they all landed in open areas and caused no casualties or damage. None of them was launched by Hamas. All were fired by small renegade groups, either inspired by or identifying with the Islamic State (ISIS), which oppose the Hamas regime and try to provoke Israel into attacking Hamas.

In other words, deterrence is working both vis-à-vis Hezbollah, since the 2006 war in Lebanon, and Hamas, following Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Yet, senior military sources say there is a clear understanding that “deterrence is not forever” and that it is an elusive concept.

Indeed, the NIE takes into account the potential for escalation deriving from a minor incident along the border with either Hamas or Hezbollah that could get out of hand and escalate into a major confrontation.

These scenarios take into consideration,for example, that a rocket fired from Gaza might kill several Israeli citizens. Israel then would retaliate forcefully against Hamas, which it holds responsible for the situation in Gaza. Hamas can’t stand idly by and responds; and the vicious cycle of rockets and Israel Air Force bombings rolls into another major war.

A similar scenario could apply along the northern border if Israel takes advantage of the war in Syria – as it reportedly has done on several occasions – and bombs another convoy of weapons being delivered to Hezbollah or kills another of its commanders near the Golan Heights; and Hezbollah then might retaliate with a salvo of rockets.

Both Hamas and Hezbollah are preparing for these scenarios.

Despite its financial and military troubles, Hezbollah has continued its preparation for a war against Israel, amassing an impressive arsenal of nearly 100,000 rockets and missiles capable of reaching every strategic and military site in the country.

But it’s more the quality — rather than the quantity — that is a major concern for Israel. Hezbollah, with the help of Iranian experts, is working hard to improve the accuracy of its missiles.

Israeli war planners estimate that, if war breaks out, Hezbollah will try, for the first time, to dig tunnels into Israel, to shift the battle to Israeli territory and try to conquer settlements near the border.

Thus, Hezbollah is considered the main military threat against Israel. The organization is therefore the prime target for intelligence efforts to gather information about its capabilities and intentions.

“The next war will be different from the wars we’ve seen in the past 20-30 years. The conflict will be very complex,” a senior military source told The Report. “It may last many, many weeks. Hezbollah has turned the majority of its Shi’ite villages in southern Lebanon into massive strongholds.”

The sources, however, warn that in case of war, Israel will take a different approach and strike, with all its force, against all Hezbollah positions including inside the villages. That, the source said, “will create a huge refugee problem in Lebanon.”

Though Hamas doesn’t want to be dragged into a new round with Israel and is not ready for it, that Gaza-based group also continues with efforts to improve its preparedness. Hamas is manufacturing rockets and prioritizing efforts to increase their range and accuracy. (In Operation Protective Edge, Hamas hit Tel Aviv and fired unsuccessfully in the direction of the northern port city of Haifa).

Though caught between Israeli and Egyptian blockades and close security and intelligence cooperation, Hamas has never given up its efforts to smuggle weapons, explosives, and rockets via tunnels between Sinai and Gaza — though that has become much more difficult. Hamas is also continuing to dig tunnels and the IDF estimates that some– probably more than 10 – are very close to the Israeli border and may penetrate inside Israel.

The NIE also notes, though in very vague words, that the changes and turmoil in the Middle East have improved Israel’s strategic posture.

Though they occasionally mention Israel in propaganda bulletins, the Islamic State movement — even the branch in Egypt’s Sinai — as well as al-Qaeda in Syria, known as Jabhat al Nusra — have no interest or intention to turn their weapons against Israel. They have other priorities and more immediate enemies.

The Middle East is characterized by the growing schism between Shi’ites and Sunnis, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and rifts inside the Sunni world between zealots and terrorists such as Islamic State.

The Iran nuclear deal is also seen by the IDF as an opportunity of sorts, in blatant contrast to the perception and rhetoric of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There are advantages to the nuclear deal,” an IDF source said. “True, a better deal could’ve been reached, and there’s a bit of frustration because the deal doesn’t take care of the Iranian involvement and efforts to increase its hegemonic aspirations in the region. But the fact is that the amount of enriched uranium has been significantly reduced, as has the number of centrifuges, and Iran’s capability to produce plutonium at its nuclear reactor in Arak has also been dismantled. These are dramatic developments with which you can’t argue.”

The intelligence estimate sees February as a critical time for Iran’s future. Elections for the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, as well as the Assembly of Experts – a small but important body that is in charge of electing or removing the Supreme Leader – will be taking place. Twelve thousand candidates registered, but the election committee disqualified 40 percent of them, eventually leaving just 30 moderate candidates.

The constant rifts and battles between the conservatives and reformists that have taken place in Iran since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, nearly 30 years ago, are reaching a peak. The elections will determine the direction Iran will take in the coming years with serious consequences not only for its own people but also for the rest of the Middle East, Israel included.

“It’s clear,” an Israeli military source said, “that the majority of the Iranian people want more freedom and openness to the West and less religiosity, but will the conservatives in the judiciary, in the religious circles and in the Revolutionary Guards allow it to happen?”

In addition, the IDF estimates that Iran is set to receive tens of billions of dollars from its frozen bank accounts abroad and from the lifting of sanctions. Most of the money will be invested in improving the economy. Some will be used to cover past debts. Nevertheless, oil prices have dramatically dropped from more than$100 per barrel to under $30, endangering Iran’s hopes for quick economic recovery

Yet, Iran hasn’t given up the dream of regional hegemony. It will use some of its bonanza to fund Hamas and attempt to gain a foothold in the West Bank. It is also guiding and paying for terrorist infrastructures in the Syrian Golan Heights.

Military Intelligence and Mossad will continue to monitor Iran to follow its expansionist aspirations and to make sure it doesn’t violate its commitments under the nuclear deal.

Regarding the Palestinians,the NIE is also not fully in sync with the government led by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

The estimate talks about a high potential for escalation in the West Bank if the peace process is not resumed. The IDF hopes that the government will at least continue with its current policy of economic incentives by allowing 120,000 Palestinians to work in Israel and in Jewish settlements — and that the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas will continue to permit the cooperation of its security agencies with Shin Bet and the IDF.

Whether all of the above should be seen as cause for optimism or pessimism is a test of one’s worldview.

February 3, 2016

Simmering Crises Surround Israel: U.N. in New York is One Battleground Among Many

In the weeks following Congress’s refusal to block the Iran nuclear deal, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had to reshuffle his deck of diplomatic cards.

Among other aspects of the current game plan are these:

–Netanyahu will give his annual speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Thursday, Oct. 1, two days after the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s speech.  Abbas has promised a “bombshell,” which probably has something to do with declaring an independent State of Palestine even without agreed borders or sovereignty.  But, frankly, no one knows if anything significant will be said by either the Israeli or the Palestinian leader.

–Russia has begun a military buildup in Syria.  Netanyahu, alarmed that Russian and Israeli forces could somehow get into an unintended conflict in Syrian airspace, made a lightning-quick one-day visit to President Vladimir Putin.  Israeli military and intelligence chiefs went along on the trip, and one result was an arrangement to prevent collisions or hostile encounters.

Netanyahu Faces Several Potential Bombshells (photo: at UN in September 2012)

Netanyahu Faces Several Potential Bombshells (photo: at UN in September 2012)

Israel reiterated that its interests in Syria center mostly on preventing the transfer of “advanced weapons systems” to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Yet when it was reported that Russia might be giving Syria’s army some tanks — and perhaps those could be passed on to Hezbollah — Israeli tacticians said they were unconcerned: Tanks are easily seen and hit; and it seems unlikely Hezbollah will deploy them.

–Israel needs a new national police chief, and the leading candidate for the job now is a man known publicly as “R” (the Hebrew letter reysh) — a reminder that identifying employees of Shin Bet (the domestic security agency also known as Shabak) continues to be illegal under Israel’s rickety, leaking censorship regulations.  “R” is Shin Bet’s deputy director, and it is somewhat interesting that he was considered to be the likely successor to the current director — Yoram Cohen.  It is legal to name the heads of the intelligence and security agencies.

–In Gaza, the Hamas leadership claims several of its senior radicals vanished while traveling through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.  Hamas says it has concluded that they are now held secretly in Israeli prisons; adding that Egyptian military commandos snatched the men and handed them to Israel; or Israeli special forces swooped into the Sinai and grabbed them.  No comment from Israel, but it certainly could be true.

–On November 9 at the White House, President Barack Obama will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu.  It is obvious that they will have to kiss and make up — to a degree — after their sharp, public disagreements over the nuclear deal with Iran.

Obama’s Democratic Party is concerned that the Republicans are making huge progress in winning votes among Americans who care deeply about Israel: whether Jewish, or not.  Obama also wants to decrease the chance that Israel will stage a military strike on Iran — which he would see as dangerous destabilization.  So he is expected to offer significant security and military aid to Israel.  We wait to see how Netanyahu handles the offer and the vital Israel-U.S. relationship.

(A self-serving reminder of our book chronicling the history of that from 1948 to 1994: Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance.)

September 27, 2015

Censorship Lifted: Two Israelis Missing in Gaza — Shabby Treatment to at Least One Family

[Yossi Melman wrote this analysis for The Jerusalem Post.]

Once again, Israel’s security establishment proved how it disregards the right of the public to know. But the scandalous efforts to prevent the publication of the case of Avera Mengistu, the young Israeli of Ethiopian origins who went into Gaza — on his own — by climbing over the border fence, is nothing compared to the way the government treated his family and the entire Israeli Ethiopian community.

The family claims they were threatened by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and police officers not to talk to the media about the fate of their son. It turned out that they were rarely briefed by the authorities who were handling the case and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bothered only Wednesday to call them.

The strong feeling is that if the skin color of the missing Israelis would have been paler or had he come from a different socioeconomic class, the security apparatus would have treated the case with less indifference.  We would have seen more care and consideration.

It is true that the government and the military establishment have set an important goal to deprive Hamas of having “assets” and “bargaining chips” — in order to reduce the price Israel would have to pay for the release of Mengistu and another Israeli of Arab origins who also infiltrated into Gaza and is missing.

The government wants to prevent the repetition of past prisoner swaps such as the 1985 Jibril swap, the 2004 swap for Colonel (res) Elchanan Tenenboim, who was lured to a drug deal and kidnapped by Hezbollah, and more recently the Gilad Schalit case with Hamas. On all these occasions, and others, the government found itself pressured by the public, families and lubricated PR campaigns, eventually caving in to both the domestic pressure and to the other side.

This conduct by the security establishment is rooted in a new obsession that began in the last Gaza war.

It is the desire to prevent the kidnapping of Israeli civilians or soldiers at all costs.

When it comes to soldiers in the battlefield, the IDF used an illegal and unethical method coded “Hannibal,” in which it employs unrestricted fire power to prevent attempts to kidnap soldiers, even though it could kill the soldier and many innocent civilians.

Indeed, Professor Asa Kasher, who wrote the ethical code of the IDF, claimed Tuesday that at least one soldier who was targeted for kidnapping by Hamas fighters was killed by Israeli fire. And indeed many Palestinians were killed by IDF fire under such circumstances.

And now we witness the cases of Menigistu and the other Israeli who went into Hamas-ruled Gaza. They are civilians, and not soldiers, and the methods used to hurt them are different: not friendly fire, but court gag orders and heavy censorship.

The overriding goal remains the same – not to surrender to Hamas.

But no matter how important that aim is, the use of dubious measures cannot be justified. If the government wishes to be tough and determined and not to cave in this time, it can do it by showing its will power in negotiations – and there are already secret negotiations underway via Egyptian and German intelligence officials – and not by ignoring the family and making a mockery of basic values in a democratic society.

July 9, 2015


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