Analysis

A Botched Gaza Raid May Rewrite How Israel Runs Its Special Operations

Findings on the failed op, which ignited a two-day conflict, will soon land on the IDF chief's desk

File photo: Hamas militants attend the funeral of seven Palestinians killed during an Israeli special forces operation in the Gaza Strip, November 12, 2018.
Said Khatib/AFP

The Israel Defense Forces' new chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, will find on his desk in the near future detailed reports on the investigations into two grave incidents that occurred toward the end of the term of his predecessor, Gadi Eisenkot. The lessons to be learned from a failed operation in Gaza in November, which resulted in the death of an Israeli officer, and from the drowning death of a paratrooper in a training exercise accident in January could have far-reaching implications on the army's operations.

In the incident in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, a lieutenant colonel was killed; his name, most unusually, has not been released for publication. He was killed after a special Israeli force was detected by Hamas, but that incident has swiftly dropped out of view. A thick blanket of fog imposed by the military censor does not allow a discussion of the details – or of the tight spot the force got caught in, or of the heroism and resourcefulness that enabled the rescue of the fighters; no Israelis were captured and the only casualties were one officer killed and another wounded. 

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The incident set off a two-day exchange of blows with Palestinian organizations in Gaza, during which more than 500 rockets and mortar shells were launched from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel. At the end of that, Avigdor Lieberman stepped down as defense minister. Lieberman said this was because of his disagreements with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the chief of staff, who opposed his demand to embark on an extensive operation against Hamas.

The repercussions of the operation, as discussed in a report by a team headed by Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, with representatives of Israel's intelligence agencies, could be wide. They will necessitate a reassessment of special ops missions behind enemy lines, of the assignment and coordination of missions among the various intelligence agencies, and of the setting of authority and responsibility at Military Intelligence. 

In many respects, it seems the effects of this incident will be even greater than those of other botch-ups attributed to Israeli intelligence, including the assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010 and the capture of intelligence cells in Lebanon a year earlier.  

Meanwhile, a team of experts headed by Col. Oren Simcha, which has been looking into the death of paratroop commando Sgt. Eviatar Yosefi in a flood at Hilazon Stream in the north, is expected to present its work. Kochavi met last week with the military team and sent it to clarify a number of points. 

File photo: Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi reviews an honor guard in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 15, 2019.
Ariel Schalit/AP

Many errors that led to Sgt. Yosefi’s death have been revealed in a series of investigative reports by Yaniv Kubovich in Haaretz. Also, a probe by  military investigators is underway that could end in criminal proceedings against some of the people who helped direct and supervise the navigation exercise.

But even before that, as early as next week, the chief of staff will take some command decisions of his own. The IDF understands the gravity of these mishaps – there were more than enough warning signs that should have prevented the fighters' entry into the stream during bad weather. Many people close to Kochavi assume the new chief of staff will use the accident to set high expectations of commanders, particularly those from his own unit, the paratroopers. He may decide on an early end to a tour of duty, possibly at the level of battalion commander, or a delay in promotion, up to the rank of the brigade commander.

The battle over the home front

The dispute over the division of authority regarding home front defense is far from over. Last month Haaretz reported that the conflict between the Home Front Command and the National Emergency Management Authority at the Defense Ministry is stinging the home front’s preparedness for war. The heads of the Federation of Local Authorities and the regional councils forum sent an urgent letter to Netanyahu in his additional capacity as defense minister, asking him to impose order between the organizations.

At the end of his time in office, Lieberman adopted the conclusions of a committee he appointed to examine the issue, which recommended concentration of authority with the Home Front Command and the restoration of the National Emergency Management Authority to its original status, as an administrative headquarters. (Lieberman also considered changing the name of the authority to the National Emergency Administration but decided that this was a bad idea because its initials in Hebrew would be the same as those on the election ballots for Likud.) The committee, which was headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Avi Mizrahi, found a duplication of roles and activities at the Home Front Command and the emergency authority, a considerable waste of funds and bad blood between the two organizations.

The committee’s conclusions have not been put into effect to this day because of the holding action by the new head of the emergency authority, Brig. Gen. (res.) Ze'ev Zuk-Ram, who as a member of the Mizrahi committee also signed its recommendations. The result is a total disconnect between the Home Front Command  and the emergency authority, and between the former's commander, Tamir Yadai, and Zuk-Ram. This, incidentally, is Zuk-Ram's second term in the position after a break of seven years, during which he held senior positions at the National Security Council. In his previous round, too, there was a rift between him and the home front commander at the time, Yair Golan.

Netanyahu recently ordered Defense Ministry Director General Udi Adam to work toward implementing the Mizrahi committee's recommendations. If the obduracy of the head of the emergency authority continues, it's possible there will be a decision to institute changes at the top of that organization. If Zuk-Ram is impressed by this, he hasn't shown it. 

Two days after the Federation of Local Authorities' letter, a reassuring letter went out signed by six district heads of the emergency authority, stating: "There is no local or civilian authority whose preparedness has been negatively affected by a reason connected to the working interfaces between NEMA and the Home Front Command."

This week, the emergency authority conducted an extensive three-day drill while totally ignoring the recommendations of the Mizrahi committee. Representatives of all government ministries took part in the drill, but there were no representatives of the Home Front Command, the organization that will have to work hand in hand with the emergency authority during a war.  

Mizrahi has told Haaretz that the non-implementation of the committee’s recommendations "is causing real security damage. This is clearly harming home front preparedness. Lieberman had already adopted all our diagnoses, but on the ground they have not been implemented to this day. This is simply a power play: NEMA is trying to dress itself up as Home Front Command 2, in complete contravention of our conclusions."

The Defense Ministry said that ministers have approved the Mizrahi committee's recommendations, whose implementation "is now being discussed by all relevant officials."