Analysis

How Israel Missed and Underestimated Threat of Hamas' Terror Tunnels

State comptroller's draft report vindicates Habayit Hayehudi leader’s warnings about Hamas attack tunnels prior to 2014 conflict. However, in retrospect, it turned out that army didn’t have detailed plans for dealing with them anyway.

Reuters

The draft version of the state comptroller’s report into how the defense establishment and government performed during the 2014 Gaza war disappeared from news headlines only days after completely dominating them. In a country where the intensive news cycle is replenished every 48 hours at most, this isn’t so surprising. However, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s report into the war will return with a vengeance at a later date.

The leaking of this sharply worded draft only promises to intensify the arguments regarding the final version. The heavily criticized senior members of the defense establishment – Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, former Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and former Military Intelligence chief Aviv Kochavi (currently the head of Northern Command) – will appeal Shapira’s conclusions. Undoubtedly, military and civilian lawyers are already at work on the matter.

Kobi Gidon

An already-reported basic flaw noted by Shapira relates to the functioning of the security cabinet prior to and during the 50-day Gaza operation. Shapira accepted the claims of cabinet members that they were excluded from receiving essential information regarding the Hamas attack tunnel threat before the war began in July 2014, and that they were unable to participate properly in decisions during the fighting as they were unaware of the gaps in intelligence coverage.

These claims were shared by many cabinet members, regardless of party affiliation or whether they are currently members of the coalition or opposition (Netanyahu dismantled the government several months after the war, following which ministers Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman found themselves in the opposition).

Reuters

Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) told the comptroller there were inbuilt flaws in the way in which cabinet members obtained information, making it harder for them to contribute to the decision-making process. Erdan argued that ministers must be granted time and given the opportunity to prepare for cabinet meetings.

He also complained that ministers who hadn’t come from the ranks of the defense establishment were marginalized. Erdan also thought cabinet discussions slid into tactical-level discussions of the war due to the unwillingness of senior politicians to deal with strategic considerations at that forum.

Erdan and Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) both claimed that the cabinet wasn’t warned during Operation Brother’s Keeper in June 2014 – in which an ostensible search in the West Bank for three kidnapped Israeli teenagers was also used to arrest hundreds of Hamas activists and shutter their institutions – that this may also have implications for the Gaza Strip. Lieberman added: “We didn’t know anything until Operation Protective Edge,” using the Israeli name for the Gaza war.

His party colleague, former Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, told the comptroller he couldn’t remember any substantial discussion being devoted to the issue of the tunnel threat.

Yesh Atid leader Lapid criticized the National Security Council, accusing it of not preparing ministers by transferring relevant material to them before cabinet discussions during the war. He said the main discussion devoted to Gaza, four months before the war, was meant to convince the cabinet that it wasn’t in Israel’s interests to topple the Hamas government in the enclave.

Cabinet members also that just before the war and during its first 10 days, the cabinet heard several times from the defense minister, chief of staff and senior intelligence officials that Hamas wasn’t interested in an escalation. Military Intelligence disputed the claim that it didn’t present ministers with alternative scenarios, but the comptroller seemed to believe the ministers’ version.

Backing Bennett

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (R) and then-IDF chief Benny Gantz during Operation Protective Edge ,July 30, 2014.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

During the war, Netanyahu and Ya’alon clashed repeatedly with Lieberman – who recommended occupying the entire Gaza Strip – and with Naftali Bennett, who demanded an offensive to destroy the tunnels. When reports of these disputes leaked, the prime minister and Ya’alon’s bureaus claimed that Bennett was exaggerating, inflating his part and retroactively changing reality in order to grant himself prophetic powers. The draft report, based on minutes of the meetings, supports Bennett’s version.

Shapira also accepted Bennett’s claim that since the coalition was established in March 2013 and up to July 1, 2014 (the day after the bodies of the three Israelis were discovered, and a week before the flare-up in Gaza), the assault tunnel threat was not introduced in detail to the cabinet aside from one brief mention by Netanyahu during the annual intelligence assessment at the end of 2013.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking in the Knesset, March 28, 2016.
Emil Salman

On June 30, when the three bodies were discovered, Bennett warned that Hamas had dug dozens of tunnels into Israel and the group was preparing to use them for a strategic attack. Netanyahu instructed the army to present him and the cabinet with a plan to deal with this threat. But the comptroller says that despite Netanyahu and Bennett’s words, the other cabinet members didn’t demand any further details.

The next day, the ministers heard of a growing escalation around a tunnel Hamas had constructed near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, by the southern border with Gaza. And it was only on the next day, July 2, that the entire tunnel threat was explained in greater detail. Shapira sharply criticizes the delay in presenting the tunnel threat and operational response to it before the cabinet.

IDF Spokesperson's Unit

In the cabinet meetings over these three days, Bennett demanded that a discussion be held on a possible ground operation against the tunnels; he also asked to see operational plans. Netanyahu and Ya’alon denied his request by using various arguments. Bennett raised another question, which proved essential: Would aerial bombing of some of the openings make it harder later to identify the course of the tunnels and then destroy them effectively in a ground operation? After the war, Gantz admitted, in a conversation with Haaretz, that this was indeed the case.

Still, in order to know what transpired after all these arguments, one needn’t wait for the final version of the comptroller’s report. In retrospect, it turned out that the army didn’t have detailed plans for dealing with all the tunnels – only some of them. When the full severity of the threat was revealed on July 15, after 13 Palestinian terrorists emerged from a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa, the Israel Defense Forces had to improvise a plan to deal with 33 assault tunnels. This effort, which wasn’t well prepared, took more time than expected, resulting in more Israeli casualties than the military leadership had estimated or the public had imagined.