While Netanyahu Is Busy Bragging to the Press, Hamas Is Building Army Outposts

This week the threat posed by Hamas' Gaza tunnels was a focus of debate among politicians and army brass, as well as bereaved parents still pained by the government's handling of the 2014 war.

An Israeli army post in front of a Hamas post on the Gaza border, June 2016.
Eliahu Hershkovitz

Early this week, the security coordinator of one of the communities bordering the Gaza Strip issued an urgent message to all residents to stay in their homes. Shortly afterward, the order was canceled and residents were told to go back to their routine. The security officer had apparently attributed more severity than necessary to the general warning by the army about the underground tunnel threat. Still, the threat remains a palpable danger for area residents.

The work being done by Israel Defense Forces bulldozers along large sections of the Gaza border fence, in an attempt to uncover more Hamas tunnels, was very noticeable during a visit to the area this week. IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot says the defense establishment has already invested 1.2 billion shekels (some $450 million) in seeking ways to thwart the threat. The Defense Ministry estimates that another 2.7 billion shekels will be needed to build a new fence and underground barrier that could effectively seal off the tunnels on the Gaza border.

In the past year, just 300 meters into Palestinian territory in the Strip, across from the IDF observation posts, Hamas has established a series of outposts and positions that look like they were “cut and pasted” from the array of Israel’s forces. These new positions have a dual purpose: monitoring and collecting information on what is happening on the Israeli side, and demonstrating Hamas’ authority over the Palestinian side by controlling what occurs near the fence and preventing violent demonstrations or attempted terror attacks that have not been ordered or supervised by the Gazan government.

But the attack tunnels are still the top priority for Hamas’ military wing; indeed, the bulk of the organization’s financial resources and energy is directed to this massive digging project. A decision as to when to activate the tunnels has apparently not yet been made, but the Israeli defense establishment believes that the leaders of the military wing – Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa – will make that decision next time without first informing Hamas’ political leadership. One lesson Hamas learned from Operation Protective Edge two years ago was that having too many people in on the plan to attack Israel via the tunnel near Kerem Shalom resulted in the operation being known to Israeli intelligence before the Islamist organization could fully exploit the element of surprise.

The issue of the tunnels will continue to be a focus for Israel, on two levels: the debate over how well the threat was dealt with during the war in 2014, and the question of how Israel will respond the next time, should Hamas choose to employ its chief offensive asset again. As both Eisenkot and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted this week, the two years since the last IDF operation ended have been the quietest along the Gaza border since the Six-Day War. But instead of highlighting this fact as justification for his policies during Protective Edge, Netanyahu chose to butt heads with his rivals on the political playing field, as he strenuously sought to rebuff their claim that the government and army weren’t properly prepared to deal with the tunnel threat.

At the end of last week, a number of bereaved families, including about half of those who lost loved ones in Operation Protective Edge, came together to demand a national commission of inquiry into the management of the 2014 war. On Monday, in an unusual move, and at very short notice, Netanyahu summoned military reporters to a meeting, a large chunk of which he devoted to presenting various dates and milestones – such as the nine cabinet meetings between November 2013 and July 2014 at which the tunnels issue was raised, as well as the large number of discussions held by the IDF on the same subject. The session with the media seemed somewhat detached from reality, given the fact that the general public is not very focused on the Gaza war these days. But the prime minister was clearly thinking ahead. As Yair Lapid once noted, Netanyahu always concentrates his efforts on repelling the most immediate political threats, and not necessarily the most important one.

Netanyahu at a ceremony marking the conclusion of an operation to fortify Gaza border communities.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The talk with reporters came a day before the annual memorial service at Mt. Herzl for the fallen of Operation Protective Edge. When the prime minister got up to speak, he was interrupted by the angry shouts of two bereaved fathers. When he responded that, as a bereaved brother, he understands their pain, some of the parents present responded with disdain. Suddenly, Netanyahu, who eagerly fanned the flames of protest of reservists and bereaved families at the end of the Second Lebanon War, found himself in his predecessor’s shoes. Indeed, it was easy to picture former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in his cell at Ma’asiyahu Prison in Ramle, seeing a measure of poetic justice here.

The similarities between the two don’t end there. Netanyahu is dealing with the start of a criminal investigation (excuse me, an “examination”) that is steadily expanding. And a certain uneasiness seems to be hanging over the Prime Minister’s Office lately. Despite the major achievements that Netanyahu can point to – the relative security calm in the midst of severe regional turmoil, and improved coordination with moderate Arab states – abrupt shifts and hasty reactions on the part of the premier have been on the rise. This is reflected in the divisive sort of politics being conducted by the government, in the clumsy attempt to disrupt the launch of the new public broadcasting corporation and, most importantly, in the delay in reaching an agreement with the United States on the defense aid package. After nearly a year of deliberate postponements and disregard for the warnings from his own defense establishment, Netanyahu is now about to cave in and accept most of the conditions that the Americans presented from the start.

The emotional aspect of the tunnels issue is manifested in the protest of the bereaved parents, but the real battle here will be against the state comptroller, who is expecting answers next month to the draft report he sent out in May about how the 2014 war was conducted, including preparations for dealing with the tunnel threat. The final report will be published sometime before the end of the year, and it’s hard to gauge how big an impact it will have. The principal parties involved in bickering about it today – Netanyahu, Minister Naftali Bennett and, as of this week, former Minister Lapid – are clashing over every word of it. Senior IDF personnel also have reason to argue with the comptroller, but so far that is only happening behind the scenes, via lawyers.

Netanyahu is taking a surprising approach. First, according to other cabinet ministers, he is citing what were in effect passing references to the Hamas tunnel problem in meetings held up to the end of June 2014 (the war began on July 8), and the fact that they were superficial will be provable as soon as the comptroller publishes what he knows, on the basis of the full minutes of those meetings. Secondly, the IDF itself admits that its preparation for dealing with that problem was flawed and incomplete, as the total reform in the handling of the tunnel threat since the war attests.

An Israeli operation to uncover tunnels on the Gaza border, July 2016.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

So it’s not entirely clear why Netanyahu is so keen to take credit for the operation to destroy the tunnels – an operation that lasted three weeks instead of three days, as promised at the start, and which ended with only partial success at best. And third, Netanyahu could have chosen to make another argument altogether. He could have said: I dealt with this issue extensively, but mainly in discussions I had with the IDF (as was indeed the case). I kept the cabinet in the dark because I didn’t trust them, knowing how they like to leak everything (just look at their behavior now!). Admittedly, we did not have complete success with respect to the tunnels, but look how far we’ve come since then.

Thus it seems that instead of trying to remain statesmanlike and rise above the fray, the prime minister is intent on getting into a wrestling match with Bennett. On Monday, Netanyahu called Bennett’s comments – about the cabinet not being fully informed about the danger of the tunnels – “the opposite of the truth.” Bennett responded the next day with a fairly restrained statement in which he said that, “Every platoon commander in the army looks for the lessons to be learned at the end of an exercise,” adding that, “before the next campaign, we must learn from the mistakes of the past, not deny them.”

Then Lapid entered the fray, as well. In an interview on Channel 2, he said that cabinet discussion of the tunnels prior to the 2014 war was brief and superficial and dealt mainly with Hamas’ so-called defensive tunnels – not its attack tunnels, which penetrated Israeli territory. “Whoever was there knows that it [Netanyahu’s version of events] is not true,” Lapid asserted.

It’s hard to imagine State Comptroller Joseph Shapira being eager to decide on the winner of the argument, but the prime minister is probably fooling himself if he thinks he can portray the limited discussion by the cabinet of the tunnel issue prior to late June 2014 as sufficient.

Gaza, then and now

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been repeating his assertion that the next conflict in Gaza will have to culminate in a total victory for Israel and the ouster of the Hamas government. Ben Caspit reported in Maariv that the new defense minister was surprised to find out that the IDF has no detailed plan for replacing the government in Gaza, and immediately instructed the General Staff to draft one.

Lieberman’s sense of the situation here is a matter of interpretation. In cabinet meetings during Operation Protective Edge, when he was foreign minister, Lieberman charged that the timetable presented by then-IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon for seizing control of all of the Strip was deliberately exaggerated in length. Ya’alon replied: The problem isn’t taking over Gaza in five or six weeks, but in ridding it of terrorists and weapons, which could take five or six years. In other words, there was some operational plan in place. But, perhaps it needs updating.

Lieberman did not come into the Defense Ministry to set the Middle East on fire, but rather to bolster his stature as a public figure ahead of a future run for prime minister. Two months in, the General Staff sees that the minister mostly lets the army do its work and is focusing his attention on a relatively small number of areas. The thing is that one of these areas is a change of government in Gaza.

In the absence of a clear political directive regarding the Strip, could Israel slide into a new confrontation with Hamas? Essentially, the last war in Lebanon in 2006, as well as the three wars in Gaza (2008, 2012 and 2014), all erupted as a result of an unanticipated deterioration, and not because the government wanted things to develop that way.

Protocols of meetings during Operation Protective Edge show that Netanyahu and Ya’alon did their utmost to end the war without a ground incursion deep into Gaza, on the premise that Israel had nothing to gain from that. To this day, Netanyahu does not support Lieberman’s ideas about ousting Hamas, because he’s not sure there is any reasonable governmental alternative to it in the Strip. Moreover, in the coming weeks, despite the defense minister’s objections, the prime minister will once again bring up for cabinet discussion Minister Yisrael Katz’s proposal to build a port on an artificial island off the Gaza coast.

The year 2020, which the UN is warning will see a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, has been frequently cited lately in political consultations in Israel. But much of what will happen depends upon the cabinet. In its present composition, with less checks and balances, and in the absence of experienced figures like Ya’alon, Ehud Barak and Dan Meridor, it seems that the margin for error has only increased. Following the recent changes at the helm of the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service, Chief of Staff Eisenkot is now the old-timer among the heads of the security branches. The responsibility he bears is tremendous, as is that of the General Staff forum, whose members Lieberman actually happens to admire (“the best I’ve seen since 1996,” he recently remarked).

The recent Qatari initiative, which Israel secretly approved, to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of Hamas employees in Gaza, could help keep the situation there from worsening. This, of course, was a new incarnation of a proposal that Netanyahu and Lieberman thwarted just before Operation Protective Edge. To judge by actions rather than words, the defense minister is so far showing more steely resolve toward Army Radio than against Hamas. One might almost suspect that someone in Military Intelligence thought it would be funny to replace the picture on Ismail Haniyeh’s case file with that of another bearded fellow, Army Radio commander Yaron Dekel.

Soldier Elor Azaria attends his trial at the Jaffa Military Court on Tuesday, July 26, 2016.
Nir Keidar

Public furors

It was another turbulent week for relations between the IDF and Israeli society. The bounty this time included the clarification-without-apology by Rabbi Yigal Levinstein of the Eli pre-military academy for his anti-LGBT remarks; the cross-examination phase of the trial of Elor Azaria, the so-called Hebron shooter; the appointment of a new head of the IDF Education Corps; and the chief of staff’s appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in which he expressed deep concern about an erosion of public trust in the army. The latter observation raised some eyebrows among committee members, who naively thought that the IDF’s No. 1 concern was how to deal with Hezbollah, Hamas and ISIS. But Eisenkot is closely attuned to what is going on in society, because he is keenly aware of the potential damage that may be caused as the army is repeatedly dragged into the heart of political and ideological disputes. Despite the media’s tendency to portray him as a rigid man of principle, the chief of staff has also gradually been demonstrating some decent political skills.

The appointment of Brigadier General Zvika Fairaizen as the new chief education officer attracted media attention mainly because of the skullcap he wears. The grumblings from the left are baseless, as were complaints from the right a few weeks ago about deliberate discrimination by the chief of staff regarding the promotion of religious officers. Fairaizen is a combat navigator who commanded an air force drone squadron and has held a number of classified posts. In the distant past, he was a student at the Karnei Shomron hesder yeshiva (combining army service and religious studies). Unlike Levinstein, or IDF chief rabbi-designate Eyal Karim, Fairaizen has not made any statements that are controversial from an ideological point of view. His (secular) former commanders describe a very sharp, thoughtful and courageous officer.

Eisenkot did not anticipate the uproar surrounding some of Karim’s past statements, but he won out in the end: He was able to clip the wings of the incoming chief military rabbi, who had to sign what amounted to an ideological surrender prior to having his appointment approved. And now Eisenkot has appointed a kippah-wearing Education Corps chief, thereby shutting down possible criticism from the religious camp.

Still, the chief of staff is probably not deluding himself into thinking that the culture wars in the IDF are over. This week the LIBA research institute, associated with the Hardali (nationalist-ultra-Orthodox) stream of religious Zionism, published a paper harshly criticizing the IDF’s Education Corps. That report and subsequent articles paint the current chief education officer, Brigadier General Avner Paz-Tzuk (whose terms ends next summer), as a charismatic, dangerous and all-powerful manipulator who has deliberately undermined soldiers. Neither his commanders nor the chief education officer himself had any idea that he was like that.

The level of Hardali commitment and effort in waging this battle is impressive. About a decade ago, when this camp was just recovering from the withdrawal from Gaza, some of its rabbis – including a few from the Eli pre-military academy – launched a media campaign to opposed allowing women to serve as combat soldiers. Their effort failed, and the rate of women serving in combat roles has since grown fivefold (and nowstands at 7 percent of all women soldiers).

Like Levinstein’s statements accusing the chief of staff and senior command of having it in for religious officers and the rabbis, the report on the Education Corps and the subsequent follow-up articles are suffused with a sense of victimhood. In fact, the Hardali stream still wields a lot of influence, even if the chief of staff decided to curtail some of the military rabbinate’s activities that he thought were out of line.

In any event, the influence of the rabbis from the pre-army academies will endure, thanks to their major achievement: educating thousands of combat soldiers and commanders. There is also an economic aspect to this whole battle. New tenders will soon be issued for educational programs to be acquired from outside organizations. The Hardali groups do not want to see the involvement in such initiatives of such liberal organizations as the Shalom Hartman Institute and the Bina pre-army academy, which the groups portray as constituting a clear and present danger to the IDF’s values.

If there’s any question about the newly appointed chief education officer, it doesn’t have anything to do with his kippah. Combat navigator Fairaizen will replace Paz-Tzuk, an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit who went on to specialize in the command of technological forces. These officers from elite units have no previous experience grappling with the sorts of daily dilemmas faced by soldiers in the Kfir Brigade, like Azaria, who are stuck in the alleyways of Hebron. The ongoingo trial of the soldier who in March shot and killed a disarmed Palestinian attacker in Hebron, continues to preoccupy the army. In early September, the defense is expected to call to the stand reservist generals who will criticize the commanders’ treatment of the soldier who shot the incapacitated attacker.

Eisenkot said this week in the Knesset that he would not permit a “gang ethos” to take the place of the IDF’s rules of engagement. The next day, speaking at Bar-Ilan University, Moshe Ya’alon accused his successor Avigdor Lieberman of showing up last spring in the military court where Azaria’s trial is being held like a “gang leader.” Since his appointment, Lieberman has stayed away from the courtroom, but his close associate Sharon Gal is handling the family’s public relations and it has been reported that the defense minister’s son donated money to Azaria’s crowd-funding campaign. This is a message too, although it ultimately may not be of any help to Azaria. A number of experienced lawyers who witnessed his testimony this week say that things are only getting more complicated for him.