In Washington, Israeli Army Chief Shares Lessons From Gaza Conflict

With Jerusalem relatively calm, Israel's attention – and forces – are focused on an illegal West Bank outpost ■ Why so many uniformed officers are seen these days at a Tel Aviv office building

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Aviv Kochavi at a ceremony in Arlington, Virginia on Monday.
Aviv Kochavi at a ceremony in Arlington, Virginia on Monday.Credit: Anna Moneymaker / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In discussions with the Americans, the defense establishment has already put out feelers regarding the character of the expected compensation package, if indeed a new Iran nuclear accord will be signed. Defense Minister Benny Gantz raised the question during his last visit to Washington last month. Israel will expect understandings, and perhaps defense acquisitions, that will help it deal with Iran in case it becomes clear that it is violating the accord again.

Even before that, Kochavi urgently needs to reach agreement on a more burning issue, refilling the military’s stocks after the recent conflict with the Gaza Strip, Operation Guardian of the Walls. Israel used during that operation a large amount of precision air weapons and a substantial number of Tamir interceptor missiles for its Iron Dome batteries. It needs to resupply quickly in order to be prepared for an additional clash with Gaza, or for the less likely scenario in the north. Different analysts believe Israel needs an additional $1 billion on top of the annual $3.8 billion in aid the Americans committed to providing during the Obama administration era. Where the money will come from in the budget has yet to be worked out. Opposition is beginning to build up on the leftist wing of the Democratic Party against such a move, highlighting the killing of Palestinian civilians by Israeli bombings in Gaza.

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Kochavi shared with his hosts initial lessons from the operation in Gaza. One of the professional issues that interest the Americans relates to the breakthrough that the Military Intelligence branch and the Israel Air Force achieved in using advanced technology to locate targets and launching sites belonging to Hamas in Gaza. It is part of the intimidating “target factory” that Israel’s general staff is assembling, which will be front and center of the military’s attack capabilities in future. The head of the intelligence branch in the general staff, Gen. Tamir Hayman, hinted as much this week in a conference dedicated to the memory of one of his predecessors, Gen. (Res.) Shlomo Gazit, who died last year. He said that there was an “initial attempt” during the operation in Gaza to integrate a very broad assimilation of cutting-edge artificial intelligence with the work of intelligence officers and commanders in the field.”

Hayman added: “The idea of collaboration between machine, computer and humans requires us to change. The added value of the person is the imagination. The machine has no imagination. It is devoid of judgment. Whatever goes into it is what will come out. The machine knows how to synthesize an unlimited mass of informational details, to imitate the intelligence officer’s work and to provide a product that an intelligence officer could not have known how to do, but it will always remain the product of a machine.”

The Gaza Strip itself has taken a lower profile in the news this week, despite Israeli media efforts to turn every incendiary balloon into an acute national problem. The number of fires in the area surrounding Gaza greatly declined, although no progress has yet to be reported in indirect talks being held with Hamas, using Egyptian mediation. The group’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, expressed frustration after a meeting with the UN envoy and threatened renewed escalation, but at least in the meantime he is demonstrating reserve and restraint. Egyptian intelligence officials are promising Sinwar a solution in the near future. The most urgent problem regards the influx of Qatari money, which is still being delayed in wake of Israel’s demand to institute a new mechanism in partnership with the Palestinian Authority in place of the current system by which the money is transferred in cash-laden suitcases.

The cost of provocation

In the West Bank, Israeli security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority renewed immediately after Operation Guardian of the Walls. As long as Jerusalem remains relatively calm, the gas fumes are hovering around the illegal outpost of Evyatar, located south of Nablus. Haaretz documented its construction and expansion over a period of weeks, exposing its establishment this month. The fact that settlers rushed to establish a settlement with permanent housing overnight in the heart of the lands of Palestinian villages, attracted opposition from the surrounding areas. The battle over the outpost became a symbol of the national and popular struggle for the Palestinian residents nearby.

The outpost of Evyatar on Wednesday.Credit: Amir Levy

The disturbances around Evyatar occur daily and peak every Friday, after prayer in the mosques. So-called night harassment squads have begun operating, clashing with soldiers in the evening hours, as Hamas used to do during the protests against the separation barrier in the West Bank. Soldiers have shot to death four Palestinians in the disturbances so far.

The Channel 12 news program reported that the IDF tried to initiate an evacuation of the outpost when the Netanyahu government was still in power, but the police objected on the grounds that it lacked sufficient forces to deploy for the task. The head of Central Command, Gen. Tamir Yadai, is the one who sought to exploit the outposts buildings’ status as a “fresh invasion” that enabled a quick evacuation. Army officials are convinced that a speedy response would have saved a lot of blood and headaches.

Now the outpost is a bargaining chip for the right against Bennett. It could become the right’s new Amona. Settlers have a number of days to file a petition against the evacuation order to the High Court of Justice. It will be filed, and probably rejected, but until then the evacuation will be postponed and more blood will be shed. As usual, it will be mainly Palestinian blood, but Israelis are also liable to get hurt.

The tension in Evyatar, and in the adjacent villages, has already become the main mission of the police’s Shomron District brigade, which is pulling in many forces. Besides the soldiers from Givati’s patrol battalion and Border Police, the area has been recently reinforced by two companies from the Egoz unit out of fear of a shooting attack in the area. The rest of the unit was also urgently called in, departing from its training program. In other words, instead of training for war, an elite army unit, which was established to fight Hezbollah, is wasting an unlimited amount of time in the West Bank because of a provocation by settlers.

A new institute for new thinking

An unusually large number of people wearing army uniforms have been seen lately on one of the floors of a luxury office building in central Tel Aviv. The military chose the spot for Military Intelligence’s new research institute, the Gazit Institute. The head of military intelligence introduced the institute and its goal in the conference dedicated to the memory of Gen. Shlomo Gazit.

An iron dome battery this past month.Credit: Emil Salman

The backdrop to the founding of the institute is the gap between the substantial capabilities of Military Intelligence on the ground, as seen from the fighting in Gaza, and the difficulty the entire intelligence community is having in analyzing the enemy’s intentions. Civilian experts from various fields, including academics and former intelligence officials, will run the institute.

This gap was illustrated before the Gaza fighting, when the military was of the opinion that Hamas wanted to maintain the quiet with Israel, an opinion that only changed when rocket fire was aimed at Jerusalem on May 10, which set off the military clash.

The head of the intelligence branch in the general staff, Gen. Tamir Hayman explained in his speech that “a machine will not be able to account for things like imagination, strategic thinking, understanding your rival’s soul, his logic, his desires, irrational actions.” He added that the institute’s goal is “to try to connect technological tools to elicit deep, research-based insights. It’s a necessary development. ... This is the matter for which the Gazit Institute has been launched.”

Hayman said the institute, to be based on civilian experts, sought to follow in the footsteps of Gazit, who after the Yom Kippur War founded Military Intelligence’s control (“dissent”) department. Gazit, he said, sowed “the seeds of dissent in establishing the control department.” He noted, “Only an external, contrary view can force us to ask questions.”

Hayman said that in recent years, including the last operation in Gaza, he learned that even when you have decidedly superior intelligence, “as we fortunately had,” it doesn’t absolve one of the need for research. “It even makes it harder,” he observed. “The tiniest details sometimes make it harder to create a story, to make a generalization that allows for assumptions, anticipating the future. It does not take away one iota from the need to research history, even when you have decisive superiority. The institute will also take an additional step in the field of research methodology, including for the first time a computerized system that will assist with the research. This is a reorganization of the hewn stones that Shlomo [Gazit] put down before us. The spirit is the same spirit. The tools have developed, mainly in artificial intelligence and computer networks."

Hayman’s step looks necessary. The limits of time and attentiveness, and perhaps as well the maturity of young intelligence officials, make it hard for the military to replicate in the strategic field the capability it acquired in gathering and analyzing operational intelligence. Added to this is the continuous neglect of studying Arab language and culture, which the IDF is making great efforts to correct.

However, the move also entails a big gamble. Military Intelligence is basically privatizing part of its strategic analysis work and outsourcing it. The American defense establishment is aided for similar needs by the RAND Corporation, but that institute has many customers besides the Pentagon. The costs of the project are high, too. According to one source, the Gazit Institute’s annual budget will be 16 million shekels ($5 million). A retired military intelligence officer who was supposed to run the institute decided at the last moment to not take the job. The extent of success and the benefit of the move that Hayman made to establish the institute will only become clear in a number of years.

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