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Israeli Military Brass Stung by Gaza War Report - and Netanyahu Should Brace Himself

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Netanyahu and then-defense chief Ya'alon during a tour on the Gaza border, 2015.
FILE PHOTO: Moshe Ya'alon and Benjamin Netanyahu during a tour of the Gaza border, 2015.Credit: Ariel Hermoni, Defense Ministry

The State Comptroller’s Report on how the home front was handled during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 is just an initial strike - the first in a series of reports the office is issuing on the last war in the Gaza Strip.

The main report is due to come out in early January, and will focus on issues that were both of central concern to the Israeli public, and at the heart of disputes arising between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ministers Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni. Among others, those issues include preparedness for the underground tunnel threat, and the efficacy of the cabinet's functioning and the intelligence situation during the war.

As reported in Haaretz last week, the report will cite three failings on Netanyahu’s part: insufficient examination of alternatives to launching a war; failure to inform the cabinet of the seriousness of the tunnel threat; and lack of oversight of preparations by the Israel Defense Forces to address that threat.

Efforts are still being made to persuade the comptroller, retired justice Joseph Shapira, to soften the almost-final draft sent to individuals mentioned in the report, in November.

Shapira and his staff know that once the entire report is published, they can expect an aggressive media response from Netanyahu’s people. In the prime minister's current state of mind, with spirits buoyed after Donald Trump’s election, he and his staff have embarked on every such public confrontation with a take-no-prisoners attitude. If Shapira refuses to bend, Netanyahu will make yet another attempt to have large portions of the report labeled classified for information security-related reasons.

In regard to the home front report, publicized Tuesday, the prime minister is not the main object of criticism. The comptroller is focused more on the IDF leadership, the Defense Ministry and the person who was its helm at the time, Moshe Ya’alon. But if Netanyahu hoped, as he recently stated, to bask in one day of praise, Shapira et al are not about to supply it.

In the report, the head of the security division in the state comptroller’s office, Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Beinhorn, lists a series of flaws ranging from the work of the cabinet and the government in general, to actions in the field.

Authors of the report also point to the weakness of the cabinet as an oversight body: Until June of this year, it had not held a single extensive discussion regarding the preparedness of the home front – one of the most critical issues for the country in any future conflict, whether in Lebanon or Gaza.

In this sense, the home front report echoes the main, forthcoming report (and publication of the initial report also highlights the absurdity of efforts to censor the second one; the same forum and same issues are involved in both).

The government does not get off particularly easy here either. No multiyear plan for the home front was presented until this past July – more than a year and a half behind schedule.

Moreover, the issue of the division of responsibility concerning the home front, following the closure of the Ministry of Home Front Defense in 2014, has yet to be properly addressed, according to the comptroller. The various authorities and rescue forces are split between the Defense Ministry and the Internal Security Ministry, while the National Emergency Management Authority – subordinate to the Defense Ministry – has had difficulty obtaining full cooperation from government ministries.

In his report, the comptroller addresses what happened in southern Israel during Operation Protective Edge, but he’s essentially looking northward as well. Between the lines is a message that the public may not have adequately grasped: The severity of the threat posed to the home front in a future war with Hezbollah bears no resemblance to what Israel experienced during the combat with Hamas, in the summer of 2014.

The impressive success of the Iron Dome system, which intercepted 90 percent of the rockets that threatened populated areas during the war in the south, could lead to a feeling of complacency regarding the threat in the north.

Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets, including some that are highly accurate and some with a range that covers all of Israel. According to the comptroller, during the war in the Strip, the IDF had trouble providing comprehensive physical protection and sufficient early warning to residents living near the border with Gaza. This spurred thousands to find ways on their own to distance themselves from the line of fire, particularly once Hamas identified their vulnerability and began raining shells down on border areas in the final days of the conflict.

In the course of the war, it emerges, the National Security Council cited the need a mass evacuation of residents, but this issue was never brought up for discussion by the government.

The situation in the north is even tougher than that the south, where over the past decade the population has become more practiced at coping with incoming threats. But when the IDF Home Front Command presents encouraging data about the number of people who live in close proximity to a protected rooms or public bomb shelter, it turns out that it also counts structures lacking convenient access or unsuitable for a stay of more than two hours. So the overall picture it gives is too rosy.

The plans recently promoted by the IDF for evacuating communities from areas of friction, have also not been sufficiently coordinated with the relevant authorities and government ministries.

Other dangerous shortcomings cited in the comptroller's latest report were noted in connection to early-warning systems, even in areas in which sirens could be heard. Moreover, the Tama-38 building scheme (to fortify buildings and add protected rooms to homes), on which the Home Front Command had pinned great hopes, is mainly popular in Tel Aviv, where it is largely exploited to drive up real-estate values. In the peripheral areas, where there are many towns in the high-risk range, there are no resources for and no genuine interest in the plan.

The comptroller also cautiously points out a disturbing operational glitch: The air force admits that its detection systems will have difficulty spotting and issuing effective warnings about an attack by short-range rockets in the future. In other words: Iron Dome protection for towns and cities close to the northern border will be limited from the get-go.

This picture does not seem to match the public perception of what a conflict in the north will be like. Which could help explain the gap between the Israel's tough rhetoric vis-a-vis Hezbollah, and Netanyahu’s practical (and justified) approach of trying to keep the danger of a war in Lebanon at bay as much as possible.