This Lawmaker Won't Let the Gaza War Be Pushed Under the Rug

Some Israelis may have forgotten last summer’s war in Gaza, but Ofer Shelah, an MK and security expert, hasn’t. He claims Operation Protective Edge was a failure that revealed ingrained political and military flaws.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Some 10 months after the fact, last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip has been largely erased from Israeli public consciousness. The confrontation with Hamas – in which more Israelis were killed than in any war since 2006, which completely disrupted life in much of the southern part of the country, and during which rockets were fired at Tel Aviv and the country’s international airport was paralyzed for a day – was barely present on the agenda of the election campaign that ended on March 17.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu easily shook off whatever criticism was aimed at him over the war’s indecisive results, and promised to “be strong” against Hamas next time, too. The general repression of the subject was aided by the Israel Defense Forces’ insistence that the war was a success, if not a victory, because the army ostensibly fulfilled all the missions it was assigned by the political echelon. Actually, there was more criticism of the war – which the state stubbornly continues to term an “operation” – while it was happening than afterward.

The IDF has still not made public its lessons and conclusions from the 50-day campaign, in which Israel had difficulty establishing a military advantage over the weakest of adversaries.

Instead of a critical analysis, we have heard mostly self-praise from the IDF General Staff and words of admiration of the troops’ heroism. The government, of course, has fallen into step with this. True, the state comptroller is examining some of the key issues relating to the war, but it will be many months (during which we can only hope there’ll be no additional wars) before those reports are published.

What remains is the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. In September, shortly after the war ended, it announced that it would conduct a comprehensive examination of the events. Briefly, it seemed that a surprising consensus had emerged among the former security personnel and experienced civilian observers on the committee, from both coalition and opposition, who harbored many doubts after what they were told by senior ministers and officers during the fighting. Their work began in earnest, including hearings in which senior figures from the defense establishment testified – but all this ended abruptly when Netanyahu decided to call an early election.

As a result, says committee member MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), the body will not issue a report about the war.

“It was clear that Likud members of the committee would not be able to sign off on findings that criticized the government’s performance, even though there was relatively broad agreement about the war’s results,” Shelah says now.

A year ago, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid tried to collect an old debt from Netanyahu and get Shelah appointed chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The prime minister refused, and in retrospect, it’s clear why: Shelah’s analysis of the war, in the interview that follows, is the best-grounded and most thorough critique of the way it was handled by the military and political leaderships.

Every citizen should be concerned about what Shelah gleaned from the testimonies he heard in the committee and supplemented with information he gathered on his own: Israel’s political leadership is full of ambitious plans for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat, but the IDF is bogged down in the quagmire of policing the West Bank. Decision makers see periodical rounds of fighting in the Gaza Strip almost as something decreed by fate, yet they do not prepare the country or the army for these rounds – and worse: Apparently, they are not drawing the necessary conclusions from past confrontations for a possibly more serious clash in the future with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

Operation Protective Edge’s most acute failure, according to Shelah, “lies in the absence of a complementary political process, without which a military operation always lacks a context and can make no real achievements. Netanyahu’s refusal to initiate a regional move to further Israel’s interest of curbing Hamas and demilitarizing Gaza – while rehabilitating it – has thrust us back to square one. Hamas is building up its strength again and remains in an Israeli and Egyptian stranglehold. If there’s no change, the next round is a matter of time, and it will be grimmer than Operation Protective Edge.”

Even though it was “a war foretold,” the Yesh Atid MK continues, “Israel and the IDF were not prepared for it, either politically or militarily. A prime minister who evades any concrete discussion, and defense ministers who were shaped by the army and cling to archaic paradigms, are directly responsible for the fact that the IDF was not prepared for this war and for Israel’s failure to achieve anything. Because everyone is burying his head in the sand, next time will be the same. Chief responsibility lies with Netanyahu. In his six years at the helm, along with his Iranian obsession and reckless handling of affairs of state – he didn’t articulate an appropriate policy for dealing with this challenge, and didn’t address the requisite changes in Israel’s security approach or the army’s preparedness.

“Responsibility is shared by Ehud Barak,” Shelah notes. “He was defense minister for five years, during a period of budgetary stability and relative quiet. But instead of taking advantage of the circumstances to make the necessary changes, he let the army become bloated, and didn’t prepare it for a war that was obviously on the cards. His successor, Moshe Ya’alon, faced a tougher situation, but he too was shaped by the defense establishment and is incapable of transforming the military. It’s not just them, though; there is a whole conception that has lost its meaning, a whole system that is incapable of self-correction.”

Unanswered questions

A reservist officer in the Paratroops, Shelah was seriously wounded in the Lebanon war of 1982. Before entering politics, he was a journalist who devoted much of his time to writing about the IDF, and in particular its inability to examine itself thoroughly and change accordingly. During the 2014 war, he advised his good friend Lapid, a member of the inner “security cabinet.” He also attended frequent briefings of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and collected information from an extensive network of friends and acquaintances. Shelah soon realized that the army’s conduct in the confrontation would unavoidably yield undesirable results. “I feel like someone in one of our books,” he told me then, deeply frustrated. (Shelah and I were the authors of competing books about the second intifada and afterward about the Second Lebanon War.)

After the war a fierce argument broke out between the Shin Bet and Military Intelligence regarding which of them had been the first to warn about such a confrontation. Could you determine out who was right?

“I don’t want to comment on what I heard in the committee. But both organizations, and in their wake the media, are dealing with the wrong issue. People always talk about whether there was a single piece of intelligence ‘gold.’ But in retrospect, everyone agrees that Hamas prepared itself for the confrontation, and it was understood that in a particular scenario it would be prepared for one in summer 2014, whether it wanted it or not.”

Shelah is referring mainly to the intelligence community’s understanding, in the wake of a Shin Bet warning last April that Hamas was deploying for a terrorist strike through an attack tunnel. In June, the IDF made intensive efforts to thwart such an attack.

“If you know about this danger,” Shelah notes, “the big question is how you prepare for the possibility that it will actualize and drag you into a war. For example, why wasn’t this considered in the debate about suspending training [of certain IDF units] in June 2014, during the defense budget crisis, when the IDF was demanding increased funding?”

On June 12, 2014, three Jewish yeshiva students were abducted in the West Bank by a Hamas cell from Hebron, which murdered them within minutes. Israel launched Operation Brother’s Keeper to find the boys and undermine the Islamic organization’s infrastructure in the West Bank. The operation ended June 30, when the three bodies were found.

“How can one explain Israel’s behavior during Operation Brother’s Keeper?” Shelah asks. “You know there’s a danger of a possible flare-up in Gaza, but is that taken into account when you escalate the offensive against Hamas in the West Bank? The IDF arrested hundreds of Hamas activists in the West Bank, including dozens of senior figures and more than 50 who had been freed in the Shalit deal [a reference to the prisoner swap that led to the return of captive soldier Gilad Shalit], and also struck at Hamas’ civilian networks across the West Bank. This was totally unrelated to the effort to find the three boys.

“Why does Israel announce, while the operation is still ongoing, that the goal is to dismantle the Hamas-Fatah conciliation government? Israel knows that this means it will be impossible to pay salaries in Gaza, thereby pushing Hamas even more strongly up against the wall, even as it’s deployed for an attack via a tunnel at Kerem Shalom.

“Strategically,” Shelah continues, “It’s clear that Hamas is escalating the situation on the border because of the siege of Gaza by Israel and Egypt. And why do you take all the infantry brigades and the army’s most elite units and for three weeks deploy all of them to search for the teens’ bodies and arrest Hamas figures, when you have a war to plan for in Gaza and you know that Hamas is completing its own plans for an attack – and you have serious intelligence gaps in that regard? And most serious of all, the Gaza context doesn’t even come up in the security cabinet’s meetings in June. The security cabinet considers the danger of the Gaza tunnels only in general terms, while the West Bank operation is going on.

“Only after the bodies are found is the security cabinet told about the warning of a tunnel attack. And even then the question of whether we want to bring about a confrontation isn’t raised. For example, do we want to launch our opening strike under better conditions? Most of the damage the IDF inflicted on Hamas in Operation Cast Lead [December 2008] and in Operation Pillar of Defense (November 2012) came in surprise opening strikes. If we’re headed for a deterioration in Gaza, willingly or not, why on the one hand do we let it roll along and on the other hand do nothing to prepare for it?”

One’s impression is that the security cabinet lacked influence and only approved IDF plans and Netanyahu’s approach.

Shelah: “This is ostensibly the body that manages the war, but in practice it’s void of content. That was true in the Second Lebanon War as well, but Netanyahu took it to new heights this time. It’s a deliberate posture by a suspicious prime minister who has no confidence in his ministers – and some members of the forum [Shelah is referring to Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman] did everything to justify his suspicions. Netanyahu followed procedure by convening the security cabinet every two-three days. The meetings were long and exhausting and dealt with the least relevant issues for a wartime security cabinet. The peak was the final cease-fire, declared on August 26: Netanyahu didn’t even convene the security cabinet to discuss it, and of course there was no discussion of what sort of diplomatic process would firm up the gains of the war.

“The problem starts with the composition of the security cabinet: the busiest ministers from the biggest ministries. Apart from the prime minister and the defense minister, none of them has a military secretary or outside adviser to help process and analyze intelligence material. They have no way to collect information independently and then to process it into insight, other than by intravenous nutrition from Military Intelligence. They get information but can’t convert it into knowledge to aid decision-making.”

The enemy within

Shelah: “Netanyahu does not view the security cabinet as a policy-making body. During the term of his last government, he did not initiate one serious discussion about Gaza in the security cabinet. There was one, very general, discussion. The MI reports about the tunnels, which were available to Netanyahu and Ya’alon from the beginning of 2013, were not made known to the security cabinet. The ministers came into Operation Protective Edge having almost no idea of the tunnels.”

The security cabinet is Israel’s supreme security body, but you would never know it from the way Netanyahu treats it. According to the state comptroller’s reports on the episode of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla (2010) and on the performance of the National Security Council (2012), in his second government Netanyahu convened the seven-member security cabinet – a body that had no operative powers – 57 times in 16 months to discuss a “strategic issue.” That is the comptroller’s cautious term for Israeli policy on Iran’s nuclear project. During that period, the security cabinet did not discuss a multi-year plan for the IDF (a concept that has been frozen for the past four years), and it neglected many of the country’s security issues. Discussions of critical issues were frequently postponed, according to the state comptroller, due to objections by the defense establishment.

Three members of the outgoing security cabinet, from different parties, corroborate Shelah’s take on this subject.

“Foreign journalists were taken on a tour of the tunnel whose opening on our side was discovered a year before the war, but not most of the security cabinet,” he explains. “Its members didn’t know about Hamas’ subterranean project. When the war broke out, they knew absolutely nothing about Hamas or about the IDF’s ability to cope with the organization. It’s the same in other sectors. The security cabinet meets to authorize specific operations. There’s no discussion of possible scenarios and of how to respond in case of a deterioration, even though it’s clear that in Gaza, at least, a war is in the cards.

“There were no surprises of the October 1973 kind [a reference to the Yom Kippur War]: Everyone knew there would be another confrontation in Gaza. We knew Hamas was preparing and that it was caught in a strategic trap that could induce it to act.”

In the case of Gaza, Shelah says, “the security cabinet ministers come into the room like virgins. That’s deliberate on Netanyahu’s part. So all a security cabinet member has, in the best case, is personal experience and common sense. The nasty thing is that this situation serves both sides. It allows Netanyahu and Ya’alon to manage an operation by themselves, and it allows the members of the security cabinet to say, irresponsibly, things that contradict what they themselves said in the cabinet room. I won’t comment on what came up in the discussions of the security cabinet, but it should be clear to you that no one said, in those closed meetings, ‘We have to conquer Gaza,’ as some had argued publicly. The result was great hostility between Netanyahu and the security cabinet during the war. He treated his security cabinet as an enemy.

“The situation is compounded by the National Security Council’s weakness,” Shelah adds. “The IDF simply ignores the council’s ideas. The army takes a completely unified stance, the prime minister and the defense minister fall into step and the security cabinet has no chance of intervening. It has no information about basic matters that underlie decision-making, such as the IDF’s preparedness.”

Did the security cabinet receive credible intelligence assessments about Hamas’ situation during the war?

“At quite an early stage, IDF intelligence assessed mistakenly that Hamas was close to the breaking point, and was looking for a way to end the fighting quickly. Moreover, it was said, when Hamas’ senior personnel emerge from their tunnels and bunkers – during a temporary cease-fire – and see the scale of the destruction Israel wrought in Gaza, they will rush to a final cease-fire, even at inconvenient terms. That’s the reason for the endless series of cease-fires, with the security cabinet being told, ‘Either a cease-fire or the conquest of Gaza.’ Other options were not discussed.

“In practice, Hamas kept breaking the cease-fire, because it wanted to achieve more, contrary to MI appraisals. MI did not excel in analyzing and predicting Hamas decisions, especially regarding the last few weeks of the operation. The assessment was conceptually biased, as it was based on an exaggerated view of the damage inflicted on Hamas and its impact on the organization’s will to keep fighting

“In the war itself, more than half the targets that were attacked from the air were either the homes of Hamas commanders – who were underground at the time – or rocket storerooms and launching pits. Those attacks achieved no effective goal and did not affect the rocket fire into Israel. Only toward the end of the war did information surface about the whereabouts of senior Hamas figures, which made it possible to assassinate them.”

In recent months, it became clear that the commander of Hamas’ military wing, Mohammed Deif, survived yet another Israeli attempt on his life – an August 19 missile attack.

Tunnel bungle

Shelah corroborates the findings of an Haaretz investigation (“Haaretz probe: IDF lacked training, equipment to tackle tunnels in Gaza war,” October 17, 2014) regarding the IDF’s preparedness for combat in the tunnels. When embarking on the war, the IDF had no operative plan to deal with the tunnels, no means to demolish them, no relevant combat doctrine, and nor had its infantry units undergone training to meet the challenge. Senior IDF officers maintain that the 32 offensive tunnels known to MI and the Shin Bet were destroyed, though they are not certain the destruction was total. Moreover, the operation took longer than originally estimated and entailed heavy losses.

“The intelligence information about the tunnels was not translated into the insight that a war that would involve them was imminent, that Hamas would exploit the tunnels for offensive strikes on Israel and that thorough preparedness was necessary,” Shelah says. “We had known that there were dozens of offensive routes [available to them], and we uncovered four tunnels in the 18 months before the war. We knew that this was Hamas’ flagship project.

“In 2008,” the MK continues, “the IDF drew up a first ‘road map’ for dealing with the tunnels, but most of the effort went into developing means to locate them. Practically, the IDF did not have even one serious facility for training the infantry in subterranean combat. My son [who serves in the Paratroops’ engineering company] told me that one time he descended by rope into a tunnel the IDF dug on an army base, in an exercise whose method was not utilized during the war. The IDF’s subterranean combat was one big improvisation.

“Not until July 17, after the army foiled the infiltration of 13 Hamas terrorists via a tunnel into Kibbutz Sufa, was an urgent meeting held and a decision made to mount an operation against the tunnels. Until then, there was no real discussion of the tunnels in the security cabinet. When questions were asked, Ya’alon and the army replied that dealing with the tunnels would involve a large-scale operation with multiple casualties. Ya’alon estimated that demolishing the tunnels would take 48 hours, but in practice the ground operation took two-and-a-half weeks – meaning that they had no idea how much force would be needed to deal with the tunnels or how to manage the operation. And this was something known in advance, just across the border. It’s not like we were sending troops to Entebbe.”

There was “a huge conceptual failure,” Shelah maintains, which was as much defensive as offensive. He elaborates: “The IDF had no method of observation to scan Israeli territory on our side of the border, to meet a surprise offensive via the tunnels. Eight years after Gilad Shalit’s abductors infiltrated Israel via a cross-border tunnel and took Shalit’s tank crew by surprise from behind, more than a third of the 67 IDF soldiers who were killed in the [Gaza] war were casualties of defense: attacks via the tunnels into our territory and mortar fire at bases close to the border.”

‘Toying’ with security

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claimed that the Netanyahu-Barak government spent 11 billion shekels (currently $2.8 billion) on preparations for a possible attack on Iran. Shelah adds more data about that period: “Over a period of five years, salaries for IDF career personnel rose by more than 20 percent, and the number of career soldiers increased by 12.2 percent, until the budget-cutting decisions of 2013 and afterward. Most of that money was not spent on items that are relevant to any war we face.

“Another classic example,” he notes, “was the plan to buy from the United States, using American aid funds, six V-22 vertical-liftoff planes at a combined cost of $1 billion. The plan was frozen, because the funds were needed to purchase munitions for the air force and ground forces. Until then, the plan was to acquire six exotic platforms that would upgrade the IDF’s capability for very specific purposes. The expensive procurement plans focused on toys.”

As reported in Haaretz, the Gaza war made vast, sometimes exaggerated use of combat means and munitions. The full data are secret. Shelah offers a paraphrase.

“It’s an unfair comparison,” he says, “but it’s the best I have. In the first three weeks of the conquest of Iraq, in 2003, the U.S. armed forces captured cities and destroyed 1,600 armored vehicles of the Iraqi army, half of them tanks. In Gaza, the IDF fought against an enemy that had no armored vehicles, and Israeli soldiers probably saw no more than a few hundred armed Hamas militants. On average, an Israeli tank fired seven times as many shells a day as an American tank in Iraq. We fired more antitank missiles from the ground than the Americans, and twice as many Hellfire rockets from helicopters – Israel requested more of them during the war, but the Americans delayed their supply.

“With no economic management of the war, there is tremendous waste and inefficiency. The IDF is always talking about the need to shorten wars, but that’s unlikely to happen in the next confrontation.”

Even now, Shelah says, “The IDF does not have a full and appropriate doctrine for coming wars, in either the north or the south. We are facing a decentralized enemy with almost no control centers that, if silenced, would break him. Conquering territory is liable to turn out to be a problem rather than a solution, because of their ability to harass us and due to mounting civilian casualties.

“During Gabi Ashkenazi’s tenure as chief of staff, which ended in 2011, the view was that the IDF should prepare for an all-out war, because anything else will follow from that. But that is a conceptual blunder. The campaign against Hamas is unrelated to a 1973-style general war... so the officers invent all kinds of ideas about how wearing down a guerrilla organization is like vanquishing the enemy.”

In practice, Shelah notes, “The IDF did not suppress the firing at the Israeli civilian rear throughout the Gaza war. A completely different combat doctrine is needed. The IDF has made praiseworthy efforts to reduce the killing of civilians in aerial attacks. That was especially noticeable in Operation Protective Edge, and involved the use of means costing millions of shekels. But when you add that outlay to such a large number of targets that do little to achieve the war’s goals – the entire combat doctrine becomes dubious.

“At the same time, the ground maneuver, which was conducted with large forces, the lack of tactical surprise and the use of tremendous firepower to cover the movements of the troops – all this unavoidably causes vast property damage and civilian casualties [on the Palestinian side]. The only way to protect the soldiers during such a maneuver is with large-scale fire and smoke. As a result, the combat method is ineffective, and we’re also saddled with the consequences of unintended killing of innocent people and causing damage on a scale intolerable to the international community. Within a few days the supply of aerial targets runs out, but only then is the whole ground force massed for a broad maneuver. And then it becomes a public question of courage or cowardice: Are the security cabinet and the General Staff ready to send the ground troops in?”

Shelah notes the IDF’s use of the “roof knocking” technique – a telephone warning to the family of a Hamas commander, after which a warning rocket is fired at or close to the house, to signal the family to leave. When it’s ascertained that the family has left, the house is bombed and destroyed. The IDF boasted about the method as being humane and reducing casualties. Shelah calls it “a military practice on the brink of the absurd. A fighter plane circles in the air for a long period, and multiple means of photography and observation are implemented, all in order to level the house of a Hamas company commander whom you know is not there. You also rightly invest every effort to ascertain that his wives and children will not be hurt.

“After the war you have to rehabilitate the fleet of planes because of the wasted hours of flying time. The moral effort is praiseworthy, but the method is insane and entails a tremendous investment for meager results. While the planes are in the air, the pilots are not training. This reflects a combat doctrine that defies logic.”

No discussion of Gaza is complete without mentioning the detrimental effects of the IDF’s ongoing policing activity in the West Bank on its combat professionalism. As after every war, Shelah says, “The IDF complains about the harm done to training in the years before the war due to budget problems. The commanders, fearful of entering a political minefield, conveniently ignore the fact that the protracted service in the West Bank has a far more deleterious effect on the forces’ capability.

“After the Second Lebanon War, many field commanders admitted that they had a hard time transitioning from the mentality and methods of routine security in the territories to the type of combat called for in Lebanon. For the same reason, units sent into Gaza were also unprepared for the warfare they encountered. Commanders and troops have to learn as they go, with serious consequences, including casualties.”

On July 11, 2006, the day before the Second Lebanon War broke out, the then-new prime minister, Olmert, visited the General Staff forum. In the meeting, Maj. Gen. Yishai Bar warned that the ground forces’ level of capability was like a check that’s going to bounce – “at some point the bank will call.” The IDF, Bar told Olmert, is “an army with no training. That’s an invention of global proportions. Maybe we should patent it.”

Much was fixed in the IDF after that war, but much also remains unchanged. According to Shelah, it’s essential to deal with the situation as it exists now, in the way that Bar’s warning should have been dealt with then, but for which there was no time: as a wake-up call ahead of the next war, even if no one knows for certain if and when it will erupt. Without a change, the personal report presented here by one MK will become largely the point of departure for a future commission of inquiry.

Clip and save for the next war.

Gaza, during last summer's war.Credit: AFP
Netanyahu and Ya’alon.Credit: Avshalom Sassoni

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