Analysis

Gaza War Report: Netanyahu's Claims Regarding Hamas' Terror Tunnels Have Been Obliterated

The State Comptroller's report contradicts claims IDF was prepared for Gaza war and Netanyahu informed cabinet of tunnel threat, but Shapira misses the main point: The hasty deterioration into war could happen again today.

File photo taken on March 03, 2015 shows a Palestinian militant from the Islamic Jihad's armed wing, the Al-Quds Brigades, standing in a tunnel, used for storing weapons, as he takes part in military training in the south of the Gaza Strip.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

During the round of meetings Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held with a large number of media outlets last summer, he presented two main claims in response to the draft version of the report, released in full Tuesday afternoon, from State Comptroller Joseph Shapira on Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014.

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First, said Netanyahu, in contradiction to Shapira’s conclusions, the security cabinet was actually aware of the full significance of the tunnel threat – and as evidence of this, he presented a list at the meetings of the many instances in which the tunnels were mentioned in the security cabinet sessions. Netanyahu also claimed that the plans prepared by the Israel Defense Forces with his approval to deal with the threat were adequate, as the results showed: The destruction of the attack tunnels.

Shapira completely rejected both of these claims in his final report, which was released very late and only now, exactly two and a half years after the war in Gaza ended.

Olivier Fitoussi

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The detailed report makes it clear that the members of the security cabinet were not fully informed about the severity of the threats, and the long list of mentions of the tunnels was nothing more than mumbling in passing, incidental to broader discussions of other security risks that Israel must deal with.

In other words, Shapira adopted completely the position of Education Minister Naftali Bennett in the main political dispute over the tunnels. Netanyahu was aware of the threat and prepared for it along with the heads of the defense establishment, but most of the members of the security cabinet were left in the dark. Only Bennett’s insistence led to discussion of the tunnels starting from June 30, 2014, the day on which the bodies were found of the three Israeli teens who had been kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists in Gush Etzion.

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Shapira shattered Netanyahu’s second claim, too. The IDF was not properly prepared for the tunnel threat. The military did not meet the test, as opposed to the misrepresentations made to the public at the end of the fighting. Only about half of all the attack tunnels dug by Hamas into Israeli territory and identified by intelligence (32 or 33) were destroyed. The plan the IDF began the war with, “Forward Defense,” dealt only with the destruction of a handful of tunnels, so the army needed a series of improvisations in order to try and carry out its mission.

Moreover, Shapira concluded that the threat from Gaza was placed only low down on the list of priorities of the intelligence community, and the prime ministers did not decide who bore primary responsibility for gathering and analyzing intelligence on Gaza after the disengagement in 2005. And the IDF was lacking the appropriate means, training and combat doctrine – as well as adequate and precise intelligence – to deal with the tunnels.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF commanders visiting a Hamas-dug tunnel on Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, in May, 2016.
Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

All these failures, for which Shapira spreads around the responsibility, from Netanyahu down, all the way to the heads of the intelligence and operations branches in the IDF, contributed to the drawing out of the campaign. The operation to destroy the tunnels took some three weeks, instead of the three days that then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon expected.

Even though Shapira does not state it explicitly, without a doubt the failures covered in his report certainly cost the lives of soldiers. He quotes the deputy IDF chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, from a discussion in a different context: The IDF must not repeat its faulty conduct in the preparation for the tunnel threat from Gaza.The great majority of findings in the Comptroller’s report seem to be precise and relevant, both as to the clarification of the failures during the war, and for the preparations for coming wars, which could break out (under rather similar conditions) in Gaza or Lebanon.

Netanyahu and Ya’alon, the two main casualties of the report on the level of the political leadership, have two claims worthy of being heard in response. The more general one concerns the results of the campaign in Gaza. The relative quiet there over the past two and a half years is quite exceptional in comparison to any other similar period over the past few decades.

The second explanation concerns the security cabinet. The present  security cabinet is pictures as a weak forum, and only a few of its members have shown familiarity with what is happening, or a willingness to learn the defense issues in depth – though this of course is partly Netanyahu’s fault too. Under these circumstances, it is doubtful that sharing information with them and having them participate in decision making would lead to any better results.

Another part of the conclusions that are in dispute concern the functioning of Military Intelligence concerning the tunnels, and to a lesser extent that of the Shin Bet security service. Shapira deals in detail with lack of intelligence preparations for the tunnel threat.  It seems the level of demands he sets for the intelligence community is a bit too high, even if we take into consideration the great number of threats they are supposed to be prepared for.  On this question, former Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said the claim that the IDF had inadequate information on the tunnels is similar to criticizing doctors who found ways to treat “eighty types of cancer, but not eighty other types.” 

The causes of the conflict have not changed

An Israeli soldier during a tunnel training drill at the Nahal army base, September 28, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

Shapira says almost nothing about another critical issue concerning the war in Gaza, and in particular the deterioration in the situation that led to it; and the press coverage of the report also found little to comment on it: Looking back, Military Intelligence says today that the war broke out as a result of “miscalculation,” a series of misunderstandings between Israel and Hamas. 

On the strategic level, even though the two sides were not looking for a conflict in Gaza, a series of decisions in Jerusalem and Gaza led to the escalation that ended in the confrontation.

On the tactical level, a series of incidents in the area along the Gaza border from Kibbutz Kerem Shalom to the city of Rafah served as the explosives that led to the breakout of the fighting. The Shin Bet provided intelligence on Hamas’ preparations for large-scale attack across the border in Israel, which could have included a wave of killing and kidnappings by terrorists who came out of a tunnel.

The Air Force bombed the estimated route of this tunnel. In response, Hamas took steps to prepare for an attack, it seems partly out of fear that Israeli actions would eliminate its ability to make use of this operational asset.

The Israeli bombings killed seven terrorists from the Hamas tunnel force, who were in the tunnel waiting, along with another member of the Hamas force that was actually responsible for preventing the firing of rockets at Israel by smaller Salafist organizations. At this stage, both sides were then dragged into a cycle of rocket fire and bombings in response, which within two days led them into a real war.

But was there a way to prevent this war? Shapira notes in brief that Israel did not examine diplomatic alternatives. It delayed defining its strategic goals in Gaza and the discussion in the security cabinet on the IDF’s operational plans for Gaza was not part of the strategic debate.           

Add to this a series of Israeli decisions that also contributed to the deterioration in the situation: The apathy in Jerusalem concerning the continued blockade of the Gaza Strip, which became worse after the Egyptians closed the Rafah border crossing; the prevention of the transfer of funds to pay the salaries of thousands of government employees in Gaza, with the aid of Qatar and the United Nations; and the decision to arrest over 50 former prisoners in the West Bank who had been released as part of the Gilad Shalit deal, in response to the kidnapping and murder of the three teens. It seems that Ya’alon’s voice, who today criticizes these arrests, was not heard loudly enough in June 2014.

Shapira quotes a warning given by Maj. Yoav Mordechai, the IDF's coordinator of government activities in the territories, two weeks before the beginning of Protective Edge. Mordechai said the hardship in Gaza was unprecedented and could affect the security situation in the south.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion, who served as the head of strategic planning in the IDF Planning Directorate during the war in Gaza, on Tuesday suggested putting the tunnels into perspective. "This is an operational infrastructure for fighting, whose influence on morale and awareness is much greater than its operational or strategic importance," he told Haaretz.

The Israeli security doctrine and the IDF's strategic plan contain a fundamental principle of distancing the next conflict and increasing the period of time between conflicts, said Orion. Factors contributing to the conflict included the growing economic hardship in Gaza, electricity supply problems, paying salaries and widespread unemployment. Despite this understanding, Israel put off actions to relieve this distress and later increased the military pressure on Hamas in response to the kidnapping of the youths, he added.

Orion, now a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, rightly notes that despite the significant growth in the passage of goods from Israel into Gaza after the war, the serious crisis of infrastructure and unemployment in the Gaza Strip has not changed. In other words, many of the components that contributed to the 2014 conflagration could well repeat themselves and lead to another flare up this coming summer, or the next. The next one also could occur without any direct intent by either side.

It is worth remembering another fact on this matter that Shapira only hints at: the technological-engineering answer to the Gaza attack tunnels. Israel has previously announced its intention to spend at least 2.5 billion shekels ($677 million) on such a solution, which is still in its infancy. The work has started in a specific region along the Gaza border, but no one in the defense establishment can guarantee the project will necessarily lead to an effective solution to the tunnel threat, which the IDF has known about for over 15 years.