In the beginning of July 2014, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his security cabinet: the IDF had discovered the bodies of three Israeli teenagers abducted by a Hamas terrorist cell in the Etzion settlement bloc, and rocket fire from the Gaza Strip was escalating.
In a private meeting just days earlier, then defense minister Moshe Ya’alon told Netanyahu that he was against striking terrorist tunnels in Gaza from the air. The effectiveness of such strikes was limited, he said, and would impair the ability to locate the tunnel’s full route and destroy it.
At the security cabinet meeting, though, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yoram Cohen recommended bombing the tunnels. “We need to try and attack,” Cohen told the ministers.
Despite Cohen’s support, the cabinet refrained from making operational decisions. A massive bombardment of Gaza would escalate the volatile situation, and there was still hope that war could be avoided.
At the next security cabinet meeting on July 7, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz again raised the option of attacking Hamas’s terrorist tunnels. Air strikes, he told the ministers, “would have results, but they would be limited.” Cohen backed up Gantz and said that if rocket fire continued from Gaza, Israel should bomb the tunnels.
Netanyahu summed up the meeting. If rocket fire continues, he told the participants, the IDF will escalate its bombings including against the tunnels. “Unless you tell me otherwise,” he said turning to the defense minister. Ya’alon did not respond.
A day later, on July 8, Naftali Bennett, then economy minister, asked if air strikes would make it difficult for ground forces to later outline a tunnel’s full route. Tunnels, Bennett reminded everyone, had one main opening but then split into different lines and shafts, some of which also independently reached across the border. That meant that even if you bomb the main entrance, the tunnel could still be used in a cross-border attack.
“It makes it difficult, a bit,” Gantz replied. Later, Gantz, Ya’alon and Cohen all recommended bombing the tunnels.
Cohen, at the time, based his recommendation on a presentation the air force gave the cabinet and Gantz’s support for it. If Gantz was behind the IAF, Cohen later explained, he should be too.
The problem was that this across-the-board support for the air strikes went against everything the defense establishment had thought until the Gaza war. In January 2013, for example, Cohen met privately with Netanyahu and told him that air strikes against tunnels were only partially effective. Military Intelligence agreed. In a top-secret document its research division circulated in March 2014, it called the air strikes “problematic.”
None of this though was known to the security cabinet whose members were hearing for the first time not just about the existence of the tunnels and the threat they posed to Israeli communities along the volatile border, but also about the options to destroy them.
Bennett had learned about the existence of the tunnels weeks earlier, and had been pushing since late June for the IDF to present a plan to destroy them. On June 30, the day the bodies of the three teenagers were found, Bennett asked the IDF if it had an operational plan to destroy the tunnels. Netanyahu ended the meeting by instructing Ya’alon to bring him a plan the following day.
A few days later, Bennett again asked if the IDF was going to present a plan. Netanyahu said that the army was first discussing it internally. “I thought that was yesterday’s homework,” Bennett quipped.
A few days later, at another cabinet meeting, Bennett again raised the tunnel plan. Ya’alon said he was reviewing options and would rule on the best way to deal with the threat. A plan was finally presented to the cabinet on July 10, nearly two weeks after it had first been requested.
This short story is one of many revealed in great detail in the State Comptroller’s Report published this week on the 2014 Gaza war, also known as Operation Protective Edge.
The war started on July 8, and for the first 10 days the IDF bombed Gaza from the air. On July 17, Israel launched a ground offensive into Gaza, aimed at locating and destroying some 30 Hamas tunnels believed to cross the border into Israel. The war would carry on for another 40 days.
Is it possible that without air strikes the tunnels would have been located and destroyed faster? It seems so, although we will never really know. But what this story does show is just how complicated wars are, and how they never really go the way you plan them.
Israel has a talent for self-flagellation, for beating itself up after every war or operation. After the Second Lebanon War in 2006, for example, there was the Winograd Commission that led to the eventual resignation of a prime minister, a defense minister and a chief of staff. Now there is the comptroller’s report.
I wonder, though, if Israelis would have felt such rage after the Lebanon war had they known in 2006 what they know today – that the war would create over a decade of unprecedented quiet in the North. The nearly three years of quiet since Protective Edge might be fragile, but they cannot be taken for granted.
People tend to forget that wars are fought on a battlefield and not in a laboratory or classroom. They are fought against an enemy who – no matter how good the intelligence is – will always maintain a high degree of unpredictability.
The one and only probability to genuinely expect in war is the unexpected. In the Gaza war of 2014 Israel encountered the tunnels. In the next Gaza war it will likely be something else.
That is the nature of asymmetric warfare in the 21st century, and why preparing for a future war and not the last one is one of the biggest challenges for militaries today. But this is difficult since the last war is a military’s last point of reference – it is hard for commanders and soldiers to forget their tangible experiences.
Does that mean that post-war probes are unnecessary? Of course not. They are fundamental for learning lessons and preparation. But that is exactly what they need to be used for – improving, training and ensuring that the outcome of the next war will be even better. They should not be used for political gain.
This one story demonstrates that essentially, the system in Israel is broken. The dynamic between the prime minister and the security cabinet, between the security cabinet and the IDF, and between the different ministers in the cabinet is a recipe for mistakes and mishaps.
Take the security cabinet as an example. Sitting around the table during the 2014 war were Ya’alon, Bennett, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, four politicians whose aspirations to replace Netanyahu and become prime minister were no secret. Can we really expect the prime minister to be open and vulnerable in front of this group? I have no doubt that in times of war these people are first and foremost concerned with the country’s security. But they are still politicians, and in the back of their minds they will always think like politicians. The same with the prime minister.
The bigger question though remains unanswered, and has to do with long-range strategic policy: what does Israel want from the Gaza Strip? Israel is not responsible for the current situation in Gaza. Hamas is. But Israel can take steps to ease the economic pressures there. All members of the security cabinet seem to agree that the dire economic situation in Gaza gives Palestinians a feeling that they have nothing to lose, so why not engage in terrorism? As with many other issues, Israel has to decide what it wants.
But it also needs to look at the tunnel threat from the right perspective. Terrorist tunnels are dangerous. They can be used to infiltrate a kibbutz and massacre dozens of people. But they do not pose an existential threat to the State of Israel.
The fact is, Israel has never been stronger in its nearly 69 years of statehood. Israel is an economic superpower and a vibrant democracy, and has the most powerful military in the Middle East, Africa and beyond.
Iran might one day obtain nuclear weapons and become an existential threat, but that is not yet the case. Additionally, there is no conventional military in the region capable of conquering territory in Israel. As bad as Hezbollah’s missiles are and the devastation they can cause, the Lebanese guerrilla group cannot conquer and hold onto a single kibbutz along the northern border for an extended period of time. The same goes for Hamas with its tunnels and rockets to the south.
Does that mean there are no threats? Not at all. There are. They simply need to be viewed in the right proportion.
The security cabinet needs to become a place where political considerations are checked at the door. The cabinet of 2014, according to the comptroller’s report, was dysfunctional. Israelis have a legitimate reason to be concerned ahead of a future war.
The fact that the military and the Shin Bet hid their original assessments about the effectiveness of the tunnel air strikes shows their contempt for what is supposed to be Israel’s most secret forum, the place where the real decisions are made.
This is an unhealthy atmosphere that needs to be corrected.
Tunnels are a threat to Israel, but the bigger threat is the government’s tunnel vision. It is time to correct that.