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Netanyahu Tries to Spin Destruction of Gaza Tunnels Into a Victory – but It's Not Over Yet

Israel has severely damaged Hamas tunnels, but the success has been overblown in the media by means of tall tales and is leading to unjustified euphoria

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF chief Aviv Kochavi are trying to spin attack on Hamas's Gaza tunnels as an Israeli victory. But the fighting is far from over
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF chief Aviv Kochavi are trying to spin attack on Hamas's Gaza tunnels as an Israeli victory. But the fighting is far from overCredit: Haim Zach / GPO
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

After strenuous efforts – Israel has finally found a victory image around which it is possible to construct a justification for a ceasefire to end the fighting in the Gaza Strip. A successful Israel Defense Forces operation in which the elaborately ramified Hamas underground tunnel systems have been damaged is being leveraged in two directions – first, for the Israeli public, in order to convince it that we have won the battle against Hamas; and secondly, vis-à-vis Hamas, so that it will agree to a truce.  

However, until a ceasefire agreement is achieved, the tension is spilling over into additional arenas: Lebanon (where an Hezbollah activist who crossed the border has been killed), Syria (from which three rockets have been fired into the Golan Heights) and the West Bank (where 11 Palestinians have been killed by IDF fire). The air force, for now, is continuing attacks in the Gaza Strip. As long as there has been no agreement on a ceasefire, the risk of complications in the wake of errors or developments in other arenas is growing dangerously.

>> Latest updates: Massive rocket barrages over central Israel kill one Israel; IDF flattens major Gaza building

Since the start of the fighting in Gaza, the IDF has been concentrating much of its attack activity on the subterranean systems, a network of tunnels hundreds of kilometers long that Hamas has long excavated under the ground, from which it has been conducting most of its operational activity. The system, which Israel is calling “Gaza’s metro,” was constructed as the result of lessons the terror organizations learned from Operation Cast Lead in 2009. In that operation, Hamas suffered heavy losses as a result of Israel’s superiority in the air and in its intelligence capabilities on the ground. Since then, most of the organization’s activity has moved to the underground tunnel system, especially in times of emergency.

However, it appears that over the past several years the IDF succeeded in cracking the core of Hamas' secret and mapped the tunnels and its underground command center systems, with were built at a huge cost. The wave of attacks reached its peak during the night between Thursday and Friday in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. After having hit key operatives and production sites, Israeli planes conducted a massive attack that destroyed considerable portions of the tunnel network. There are varying assessments, which are insufficiently founded, as to the numbers killed in the attacks. However, what is more important is that Hamas has been deprived of a major asset: its self-confidence in its ability to operate underground, where its leaders had felt that they were immune to Israeli attacks.

An Israeli airstrike on Gaza this morning. Israel wants to paint its attack on Hamas' complex underground system of tunnels as victory, but the fighting has yet to end and can still escalate Credit: MOHAMMED ABED - AFP

This is an impressive action undertaken by the air force and intelligence that was carefully planned over a number of years. It embodies the ripening of ideas led by Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi for ensuring swifter and more effective combat action. It joins a series of blows suffered by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad since last Monday. In the air force attacks large parts of the organizations’ weapons production and research and development systems were destroyed. After the battle is over, it appears that they will require more time than usual to replenish their stocks.

Euphoria and tall tales

There are good reasons for the emphasis on this achievement in statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in IDF press releases. After days of rocket barrages on the Israeli home front, which included for the first time hundreds of rockets launched into central Israel, the public is thirsting for good news. Doing this, on its own merits, is successful and legitimate. Without selling it a military success, it will be hard to convince public opinion that the time has come to stop the fighting rather than launch a ground operation in Gaza Strip, a move that neither the government leadership nor the military see as needed or useful.

However, the partial triumph image was translated yesterday into an overblown victory celebration. In the television studios and on the social networks they celebrated the IDF’s sophistication and brilliance, which fooled the enemy and exacted a high price. To fan the euphoria, tall tales were enlisted about a deceptive maneuver by Israel that supposedly caught Hamas unprepared in the tunnels. In actuality, Hamas had already been fearing for a number of days that its subterranean system was in danger, knowing that in previous attacks Israel had exposed and damaged other secret sites it had constructed.  

Worse than the tall tales is the euphoria that overtook the media coverage of the fighting on the weekend. This battle has not yet ended, and won’t be ended until the Egyptian mediator has sounded the final whistle. Anyone who was in the room with Dan Halutz, the proud IDF chief of staff at the beginning of the Second Lebanon War, will never forget his briefing to the press on the eve of Friday, July 14, 2006. Halutz ticked off the list of the IDF’s achievements, headed by a massive hit on the Hezbollah mid-range missile system (the details of which were minimal at the time). He was attempting to convince the reporters that the army had reacted suitably to the abduction of two reserve soldiers two days earlier. All of a sudden, a note was brought to him with news of the hit on the Israeli navy missile ship INS Hanit opposite the shores of Beirut. In a war, surprises aren’t only chalked up in one direction.

This time too, as long as the fighting continues, mistakes and incidents with multiple casualties are liable to occur. To their credit, the IDF top brass reiterated this on Friday in every communication with journalists. Somehow, however, this warning was forgotten on the to the broadcasts themselves.

Protests along the Israel-Lebanon border. Events like these can escalate and cause fighting to spin out of controlCredit: Mohammed Zaatari/AP

Another difficulty concerns events in the other arenas. On Thursday night Katyusha rockets fired from Lebanon landed opposite the Nahariya shoreline, and were apparently launched by a Palestinian organization. On Friday afternoon, demonstrators from Lebanon crossed the border fence near Metula and one of them was shot and killed. Later, it emerged that the man who was killed was a Hezbollah activist. Two years ago, that organization announced a new so-called formula or equation, whereby Israel would pay with one fatality for every fatality on its side, regardless of the circumstances. Close to the time of the incident in Metula, the rockets were fired from the Syrian border into the Golan Heights. In those incidents there were no Israeli casualties and it is unlikely that Hezbollah wants a war with Israel at this time, but it is necessary to be alert to the possible dangers.

Of even greater concern is the escalation in the West Bank, after days of relative quiet. On Friday, 11 Palestinians were killed by IDF fire near the settlement of Ofra. Israel is engaged in an effort to end the violence in Gaza and is hoping for calm in Jerusalem and within Israel proper but the West Bank is another worrisome arena, especially in light of the advanced age and increasing weakness of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Brilliant maneuver or innocent mistake

The operational success of the attack on the tunnels was accompanied by a strange affair.

On the night between Thursday and Friday, with the start of the air attack on the tunnels, the foreign press section of the IDF Spokesman’s Office briefed the foreign correspondents, in a WhatsApp post, that IDF air and ground units were attacking in the Gaza Strip. Correspondents who asked one of the department’s top officers for oral explanations understood from him that the ground forces were indeed operating inside Gazan territory.

Rockets from Gaza are met with Iron Dome rocket interceptor misses over Israel overnight FridayCredit: ANAS BABA - AFP

The briefing was erroneous. In actuality, infantry, armored corps and artillery units operated from the eastern, Israeli side of the border and only created the impression that there was about to be a ground incursion. This does not look like a mistake, because the information was later confirmed by the officer. The foreign press corrected their reports only after checking with their Israeli colleagues and finding out that there wasn’t any substance to them.

During the course of Friday, the Israeli media depicted the misleading reports in the foreign media as another brilliant move by the IDF. This is how we tricked Hamas: The terrorists read the internet sites, they thought there was a ground operation, they fled into the tunnels and there they were caught by our pilots’ smart bombardments. This description is not really accurate. The diversion by the ground forces (which is known as a response stimulus operation) was aimed mainly at exposing the Gazan organizations’ cells on the ground. From the moment they began to prepare to attack the Israeli forces, their people were hit from the air. 

What exactly happened that night? An IDF Spokesman’s representative explained to the foreign correspondents that the error was his and stemmed from “the fog of war.” An unsuccessful choice of phrasing caused him to err by a few meters and he mixed up distance firing, from outside the Gaza Strip, and a ground incursion into the Palestinian territory. 

Was the mistake made innocently, for example as a result of lack of sleep, or was there an intentional deception here, as part of an operation? The IDF Spokesman says that it was all done mistakenly. However, the Israeli media are continuing to report enthusiastically that in the operation “an IDF deception unit” was deployed. No wonder the foreign correspondents are furious.

Israel needs good relations with the foreign media in a time of war. Inter alia, it needs to maintain credibility in their opinion in order to refute Palestinian fake news stories, which are disseminated during every operation and blame the IDF even when civilians are killed for other reasons. However, anyone who has lied once to a foreign correspondent will never be given a second chance to tell the truth. (If only all the Israeli media were to adhere to similar standards.) The sequence of events depicts the foreigners as dupes who fell into an IDF trap or, even worse, as witting collaborators with Israel.

The correspondents’ suspicions seem justified on the backdrop pf the IDF Spokesman’s increasing involvement in psychological warfare campaigns the army has been conducting in recent years. Two years ago, there was a brief kerfuffle when the spokesman intentionally blacked out for about two hours any information about casualties (there were none) in an incident in which Hezbollah fired an anti-tank missile at a military ambulance, because the IDF wanted to mislead the enemy into thinking it had succeeded in its action. In other cases, the army has boasted of using sophisticated means of influencing, which have also included reports in the foreign press.

If what the foreign correspondents suspect did indeed happen, this time the IDF has gone a step too far – and it cannot be suspected that an officer from the IDF Spokesman’s Office acted in that way in an independent initiative. That would be a grave error and damaging to relations with the foreign press. Even worse: It is liable to endanger the lives of foreign journalists reporting from inside the Gaza Strip because the Palestinians will see them as responsible for the harm to their people. This affair is already giving rise to criticism and anger at the leading international media organization. In the IDF they have promised to investigate the incident but there is concern that the story will be obfuscated. The whole matter stinks and is casting a shadow on the impressive operational success that has been chalked up against the tunnels.

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