Defense Minister Naftali Bennett was a guest on Channel 12’s “Meet the Press” Saturday, where he boasted of a series of achievements and successes he had attributed to himself since he took office about three months ago. But an examination by Haaretz reveals that his declarations are far from reality and were mainly designed to create momentum in the lead-up to the election. Bennett refused to respond to Haaretz regarding the matter.
“For decades there has been an Iranian octopus that is located in Tehran, which sends out tentacles of terror to Lebanon, as well as sending Hamas to strike at us, and we send our soldiers to fight against those tentacles. That’s not the right strategy: We have to go to the head of the octopus and weaken it, exhaust it so the tentacles will dry up.”
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Bennett is continuing with the line he has adopted since assuming office – that he's achieving an overall change in the rules of the game regarding Israel Defense Forces activity against the Iranian entrenchment in Syria. For example, in response to a November attack in Syria, which came as a reaction to rockets fired by Iranian forces from Syria into Israel, Bennett claimed in closed talks that this was “one of the large-scale attacks” that led to a strike against 50 percent of Iranian assets in Syria.
Yet it wasn’t a particularly large-scale attack or one that led to exceptional achievements against the Iranians. The IDF spokesperson, himself Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman, suggested that Bennett’s declarations were inflated. On the week of the November attack, he said: “The most important asset for us at the IDF Spokesperson's Unit is credibility. Sometimes a fact is open to interpretation. In the world that I’ve been dealing with in recent months, including an incident this past week where the facts of attacks we carried out in Syria were presented in a misleading way.
“I can share with you that in the briefing I gave on the morning after the attacks, I mentioned that we attacked dozens of targets, including a number of Iranian targets. That’s what I said. In the battle over the narrative of those who write and those who speak, I saw afterwards that they were quoting the army and saying that we attacked over half of the Iranian targets, that we attacked many Iranian targets. There was a claim, that didn’t come from the army, stating that we attacked an exceptional number of Iranian targets, and that’s why we try to be precise, so it will be as factual as possible.”
In addition to the lack of factual accuracy, Bennett’s claim that there has been a strategic change in activity against Iran since he became defense minister is incorrect, since every time Israel was attacked it responded, and even hit Iranian targets. For example, in May 2018, about a year and a half before Bennett’s appointment, the IDF embarked on a large-scale strike in Syria in response to rockets launched into Israeli territory, in an operation called House of Cards.
At the time, military and intelligence sites of the Iranian Quds Force were attacked, along with combat material in the buffer zone, with Syrian anti-aircraft batteries being destroyed. This attack was described as the largest against Iranian and Syrian targets since 1974.
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“There are now far fewer weapons shipments to Hezbollah, far less terrorist capability.”
This statement totally contradicts the statements by senior IDF officials during all the internal budget discussions. According to the senior officials, in the past year there has been a significant increase in the armament of Iran and Hezbollah, and they say that the organization has even succeeded in reducing the gap between its military capacities compared to that of the IDF, including the acquisition of precision missiles.
It is possible that the army is also exaggerating in order to justify the budget increase, but Bennett himself recently gave his approval of the IDF’s multiyear plan, in which the recent increase in Hezbollah’s capabilities are presented.
“We’re bombing Hamas bases after the launching of balloons, something that wasn’t done previously.”
Bennett, who in the past openly opposed the IDF’s ostensible restraint in the face of the launching of explosives-laden balloons, knew when doing so that he was misleading the public. By contrast to these claims of restraint, the IDF responded to the balloons from Gaza, a response which continues to this day. Both prior to Bennett's appointment and today, not every balloon provokes retaliation, and in most cases the attacks are directed at unmanned Hamas outposts.
“If you take three months before I took office and three months after, the extent of firing from Gaza has declined by 80 percent.”
Not true: Bennett became defense minister on November 12, 2019, while in the months prior – August, September and October – a total of 13 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza. When he took office Operation Black Belt began, and in that month alone 584 rockets were fired at Israel. But even if we don’t count the rockets that were launched in an emergency situation, Bennett’s claim is not even true in the context of ordinary days. For example, in the months following the operation – December, January and February (which isn’t over) – a total of 25 rockets were fired, almost double the number that were launched in the months preceding his appointment.
“The rioting at the fence that took place for two years has stopped entirely.”
The demonstrations on the border of the Gaza Strip had already declined dramatically several months before Bennett took office, and stopped entirely three weeks before his appointment.
The reason for the decline, and for the eventual end of the protests, stemmed both from the attempt by Hamas to develop their arrangement with Israel while taking a step back in the scale of their defensive, and from the internal tension in the Strip, which included demonstrations by residents against the high cost of living, with the fury directed at Hamas.
In addition, attacks were carried out by leaders of the demonstrations against members of the organization, in protest against the high cost the demonstrators paid during protests opposite IDF snipers.
“Since becoming defense minister I’ve changed so many things, we’re capturing Hamas members to serve as bargaining chips.”
As of Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, five years before Bennett took office, Israel hasn’t returned the bodies of Hamas members at all. In 2016 and 2017 not a single body was returned to the Gaza Strip, but in 2018 and 2019 three bodies were returned, with none of the dead having belonged to a terror organization, according to the IDF.
Two weeks after taking office, Bennett announced that he had instructed the IDF and the defense establishment “to prepare for a total cessation” of the release of the bodies of terrorists, regardless of their organizational affiliation. He noted that it was part of “a broader deterrence process,” saying that “as long as they don’t release the bodies of our soldiers, we won’t release their bodies.”
Still, there is a broad consensus in the defense establishment that keeping the bodies of terrorists who were not Hamas members would not promote the return of Israeli citizens and the bodies of IDF soldiers being held in the Gaza Strip, and that it is even likely to harm the chances of achieving an agreement that would lead to their return.
In November 2018, Yaron Blum, the coordinator of POWs and MIAs, referred to the criticism about returning the body of a Palestinian to Gaza, and said: “The young man whose body was returned to Gaza is not a Hamas activist and does not meet the parameters for leaving him here. We are harboring dozens of other bodies.”
In November 2015, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said of the issue: “Keeping the bodies in itself does not deter potential terrorists.” In reference to lone-wolf terrorists who are killed, he added: “There isn’t a single professional organization that can find a link between the issue of the bodies of terrorists from the Jerusalem area and the bodies of soldiers being held by Hamas in Gaza.”
After Bennett’s announcement about halting the swap of prisoners, Yitzhak Ilan, the former deputy chief of the Shin Bet security service and a member of Kahol Lavan, said: “Such a step has never helped. A failure to return bodies is like beating a dead horse. It won’t help, and it may even cause harm. We must not lower ourselves to the level of terror organizations.”
“In the past we would kick Hamas members who cross the separation barrier in the riots in Gaza back immediately, and I said no - they crossed - come. If they constitute a risk we’ll imprison them using administrative tools. If they’re dangerous, we can imprison them according to international law, and they are dangerous. We’ve already taken several and released them; we’re playing with the numbers.”
The IDF and the defense establishment believe that most of the Palestinians who have crossed the border fence in the Strip recently are young men, some even minors, who want to enter Israeli prisons in order to flee from the reality in Gaza, but that they are not trying to harm soldiers or civilians. Israel tends to detain such Gazans for questioning and then release them, and in certain instances even arrests them. Whatever the case, the defense establishment is aware that they do not constitute bargaining chips for a future prisoner exchange.