IDF and Shin Bet Clash Over Gaza Tunnel Intelligence

Both sides agree on one point: During the fighting itself, the intelligence agencies gave the troops high-quality information that facilitated attacks on the enemy and saved soldiers’ lives.

More than a week after the fighting in the Gaza Strip ended, a battle is raging in Israel’s intelligence community over what caused the war and some of the things happened during it. The Shin Bet security service thinks Hamas’ military wing intentionally started the war, while Military Intelligence thinks it was an unplanned escalation that Hamas’ leadership in Gaza would rather have ended earlier.

Both sides agree on one point: During the fighting itself, the intelligence agencies gave the troops high-quality information that facilitated attacks on the enemy and saved soldiers’ lives. MI, the Shin Bet and other intelligence agencies cooperated quickly and closely; the bureaucratic walls between the agencies came down, and all were given full access to the shared pool of information.

But they are at odds over three other things: What Israel really knew about Hamas’ tunnels, whether Hamas started the war intentionally, and whether Israel misjudged Hamas’ willingness to continue fighting a war that ultimately lasted 50 days. These disagreements have already sparked personal tensions between senior Shin Bet and MI officials and have even drawn in some cabinet ministers.

On the tunnels, it seems MI is on fairly solid ground, and it will be hard to criticize its performance. But the other two issues are murkier, and even some senior cabinet ministers have criticized the intelligence community’s performance on them.

The tunnels: During the first week of the war, the danger posed by the tunnels went virtually unmentioned; the focus was on Hamas’ rocket attacks. On July 15, despite knowing of the existence of more than 30 attack tunnels – of which between a third and a half (another point of disagreement between MI and the Shin Bet) already extended under the border into Israel – the cabinet accepted an Egyptian cease-fire proposal. But Hamas rejected it, and two days later, launched an attack inside Israel via one of these tunnels, near Kibbutz Sufa.

Only then did the threat posed by the tunnels fully penetrate Israelis’ consciousness. The terrorists were spotted as they emerged, and bombed from the air. But that night, the cabinet approved a ground operation focused on destroying all 32 tunnels within three kilometers of the border. In the ensuing fighting, 65 soldiers were killed. Hamas also launched several more tunnel attacks inside Israel during the war, which accounted for the deaths of 11 of those 65 soldiers.

Both MI and the Shin Bet had a great deal of information about these tunnels. Way back in early 2013, a detailed report on all the known tunnels and their routes was disseminated to the prime minister, defense minister and the heads of the security services. Thus when the war began, the army knew with relative accuracy where all the tunnels were located.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a few discussions on the tunnel threat and even appointed a task force headed by his then-National Security Advisor, Yaakov Amidror, to deal with this issue. What this task force did was never reported, but apparently, the answer is not much.

Yet even though all this information about the tunnels existed, the Israel Defense Forces never translated it into an operational plan. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, GOC Southern Command Sami Turgeman and senior MI officers all warned about the tunnel danger, and some even let themselves be photographed at the opening of one tunnel into Israel discovered before the war began. But no comprehensive operational plan for destroying the tunnels was ever developed.

Thus when the forces finally entered Gaza to do the job, they lacked the proper equipment, training and combat doctrine. In the end, the IDF had to get help from civilian companies, and the tunnels were mainly destroyed via a series of improvisations. This, explains Ya’alon’s ludicrous prediction that it would take only two to three days to destroy the tunnels. In reality, it took two and a half weeks.

Because this was a clear and present danger, the intelligence agencies had an obligation to ensure that the army made operational plans to deal with it. Simply disseminating the information and mentioning the tunnels alongside a dozen other threats in their annual presentation at the Herzliya conference wasn’t enough.

he second weak spot is the interface between the intelligence and the political echelon. There is no doubt that Netanyahu and Yaalon knew all the details, but the cabinet ministers were left in the dark. The first serious discussion on the question of the tunnels took place only days before the outbreak of the war, when a number of ministers discovered to their surprise that Hamas had dug more than 30 tunnels near the border fence. The IDF admits that in retrospect “apparently the information did not penetrate the consciousness” of the cabinet, given the various security issues that the cabinet members dealt with.

While Hamas was engaged in digging tunnels it entered a strategic crisis that began with the fall of the Moslem Brotherhood government in Egypt in July 2013 and takeover of the government led by Al-Sissi. The new government changed its policy toward the Gaza Strip. The generals despise Hamas, which they regard as a branch of the Moslem Brotherhood and were happy to have close military cooperation with Israel. Along with this, the limitations imposed on the Rafah crossing almost completely blocked traffic in the tunnels and smuggling from Sinai to Gaza. Gaza residents found themselves in an increasing economic stranglehold.

Hamas lost twice: It was deprived of income from taxes it collected from smuggled good and it lost its main channel for smuggling weapons through Sinai. The organization quickly found itself unable to pay the salaries of its 43,000 employees in Gaza. Given the crisis, Hamas was forced to sign the reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian Authority, in the hope that the PA would supply the needed funding. But then that hope evaporated too, with the banking limits that the U.S. imposed, prodded on by Israel, which prevented the transfer of funds from Qatar to Gaza. At the same time, Hamas was continuing to develop the military option which was by then looking more promising.

Differences in interpretation between intelligence organizations is not a new phenomenon. When the second intifada erupted, for example, the positions on the sides were reversed: Military Intelligence identified a major scheme by Yasser Arafat, while the Shin Bet security service contended that the violence that erupted was unplanned. But an analysis of the system after the fact points to difficulties in deciphering the intentions of Hamas prior to the outbreak of the war and an under-estimation of Hamas’ readiness and determination to continue fighting. And that is in an area that is under the Israeli intelligence’s hand, just kilometers from the border, and against a relatively weak enemy. The outcome raises questions about the ability of intelligence to understand with precision complex processes in places that are farther away like the Iranian reactor and the Islamic State offensive in Iraq and Syria.

Another question concerns the relationship between the intelligence and the cabinet. The prime minister and defense minister control the intelligence material and understand their implications. Not so the rest of the cabinet members, who do not have access to their own system for analyzing material and making consultations. The only picture the cabinet members are in on is the one in the TV studios -- and not the picture of what is actually going on.