Is the Israeli Army Capable of Examining Itself After Gaza?

The IDF has no problem learning tactical lessons, but will it be required to deal with the higher, system-wide issues as well?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.Credit: IDF Spokesman
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A series of study days held last week to sum up the war in Gaza were followed by holiday media interviews by Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. A comparison of the two reveals an interesting gap. The defense establishment, it turns out, has a much better opinion of the results of the war in Gaza and the performance of the troops during the fighting than those observing from the outside. When we compare the statements of Gantz, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and several high-ranking serving officers to the analysis presented by most of the conferences’ participants — predominantly retired generals — one might almost wonder whether they are talking about the same war.

That seems to be natural. An army is by nature a conservative, hierarchical organization that has difficulty accepting criticism from outside. Its heads have an obvious need to protect its status (and their own image,) certainly after a war that left many dead and wounded. Not only the bereaved parents, but also the soldiers who fought in Operation Protective Edge are listening closely to every word. A dispute about the defense budget for the next two years, after the enormous cost of the war, is still going on in the background. So it is no wonder that a united front is being presented for external consumption, from Ya’alon on down.

Still, it is somewhat surprising to see how unified the army choir is (the one still in uniform.) Their statements make us miss the days of blunt field commanders, such as Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Yoram Yair or Amram Mitzna, who always looked at the command above them with a mixture of skepticism and sarcasm. It is possible that the roots of this conformity in the face of outside criticism are in the ongoing security work in which the army has been deeply involved in recent decades, a reality in which any military confession of failure after a pinpoint incident is liable to result in public criticism and the dismissal of those responsible.

Another possible explanation is connected to the relative absence of reserve troops from the fighting. Tens of thousands of reservists were called up during the operation, but most of them replaced regular-army units in various sectors or were given various supporting tasks in the fighting itself. Organic frameworks of reserve duty (a few battalions, but not entire brigades) were hardly brought into the fighting. For many years, the troops of the reserve brigades saw themselves as the keepers of the Israeli army’s real tradition: those who saved the country from defeat on Yom Kippur and expressed their protest about the way the first Lebanon war had been conducted. In comparison with the Second Lebanon War, which also drew protest by reservists in its wake, their involvement in Gaza was much smaller. Their unique perspective as half-civilians finds almost no expression in the military summations of the war.

Without detracting one iota from the courage and sacrifice shown by the commanders and soldiers of the brigades that fought in the Gaza Strip (the gesture of Paratroop Brigade Commander Col. Eliezer Toledano, who symbolically named Maj. Hagai Ben-Ari, who was critically wounded in Khan Yunis, a Paratroop Reconnaissance Unit commander, was particularly moving,) it seems that the army is gripped by an atmosphere of exaggerated satisfaction at the end of the war.

Army representatives are being called to the Knesset these days for a series of inquiries into the war by subcommittees of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The officers are beginning to show their resentment of the aggressive questions being directed at them in some of the committees. But that is actually good news. If MKs Eitan Cabel and Omer Barlev, Zeev Elkin and Moshe Feiglin do not make the officers’ lives difficult, the army will convince itself that it won a splendid victory in Gaza and that similar successes are in store for it in the next war, if it should develop, against Hezbollah.

War, they taught us, is a kingdom of uncertainty; during violent conflict with the enemy the unexpected will always happen; there will always be mishaps and tumult will develop. And still, clinging to stories of heroism and comradeship in arms must not be allowed to exempt the army from a profound and thorough investigation of the mishaps and gaps. The army did not meet this challenge after the terrible failure of the war in 2006, and it is doubtful whether it is eager to do so now, after a war in which it racked up several impressive achievements. The army has no problem learning dozens and hundreds of pinpoint tactical lessons. The question is whether anyone will require it to deal with the higher, system-wide lessons as well.

An partial list of questions that come up after the declarations, speeches and interviews of the past few weeks includes the following: How many armed Palestinians and how many civilians were killed in the war? (The various intelligence branches estimate the number of terrorists at 600 to 700, but Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke of more than half of those killed in Gaza — in other words, more than 1,000.)

Was the army prepared in advance for the “July war” with Hamas? (While the Intelligence Directorate utterly denies the term’s very existence and the Shin Bet is giving out mixed messages, soldiers and officers swear that they were told about it as early as the spring.) Why were so many troops allocated to the operation in the West Bank after the three boys were kidnapped if there was already awareness of the danger of escalation in Gaza? (Army officials halfheartedly admit that this was a problem.) Who supervised the use of munitions in the West Bank? (Gantz said after the fact in an interview with Haaretz that “we could have economized,” but now it turns out that the members of the security cabinet were unaware of the severity of the problem at the time.) And what is the binding significance of the Hannibal directive? (While the army insists that it does not include harming the kidnapped soldier, interviews on Ynet with commanding officers of the Givati Reconnaissance Battalion after the battle in Rafiah give the opposite picture.)

The media’s fatigue after almost three months of violence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is understandable. The public will accept holiday interviews and articles about bereavement and commemoration with even greater understanding. But a civil and military inquiry into what happened this past summer is not only a historical necessity. It is particularly relevant to the next conflict. Over time, and given the apparent lack of motivation on both sides to reaching an agreement that will resolve the situation in Gaza, the violence there could reignite. The situation on the Lebanese border is potentially even more grave.

The war against Hamas exposed once more the limitations of aerial force. Not even the excellent Israeli Air Force, backed up by the most pinpoint intelligence available, could subdue Hamas’ will to fight before the ground troops went into battle (and, even then, it took more than twice the time that had been planned.) What does that say about the solutions available to the army if there should be a war with Hezbollah? Will heavy bombardment or even wide-scale ground maneuvers in Lebanese territory lead to cessation of the rocket fire? These are questions that should weigh upon the government, the Knesset members and the public, particularly after the war in Gaza.

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