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For months in advance of the Israeli army's 2014 operation in the Gaza Strip, top political, military and intelligence-community leaders concealed information from the security cabinet about a possible strategic attack by Hamas, according to the special report on the war by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira, released on Tuesday. Had the attack been carried out, Shapira notes, it could have constituted a casus belli.
Specifically, says the comptroller in his critical report on Operation Protective Edge, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Israel Defense Forces Chief-of-Staff Benny Gantz and the heads of the Shin Bet security service and Mossad all withheld information about an attack being planned by the Gaza-based Islamist movement. Indeed, this information only reached the cabinet early in July 2014, just hours before an operation meant to foil the attack was to be put on the table for their ratification.
Shapira notes that, according to Shin Bet documents, there was already a substantial amount of evidence about a serious Hamas strike against Israel in the months before the army's operation was launched – information that was passed on to the IDF's Military Intelligence branch.
The report doesn’t specify the nature of the hostile action that was planned, but it presumably involved an attempt to penetrate Israel proper through a tunnel that Hamas had excavated in the Kerem Shalom area, along the Gaza border. The tunnel was bombed by the Israel Air Force on July 7, 2014, the first day of the war.
A Shin Bet summary of a discussion led by Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, then head of IDF Southern Command, which took place earlier in 2014 and dealt with mounting Hamas aggression, stated that an attack on Israel was not a distant threat. Specifically, Turgeman stated at the meeting that the Gaza organization was mulling a strategic and imminent operation that would lead to war, according to the comptroller's report.
In a subsequent internal IDF discussion about preparations for an escalation of hostilities on the Gaza front, then-Chief-of-Staff Gantz said that there was a chance that a hostile scenario would unfold, one with a “strategic effect,” which raised the dilemma of whether Israel should carry out a pre-emptive strike.
Gantz gave orders at that meeting for the army to complete all preparations by July. Nevertheless, at a cabinet meeting held a few weeks later, in early June, about moves toward reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the chief of staff and the heads of the Shin Bet and MI’s research department all failed to report Hamas' belligerent schemes to the cabinet.
During a work meeting about the same time, the comptroller's report states that Yoram Cohen, the Shin Bet chief, updated Netanyahu, telling him that it was possible there would be no early warnings regarding a planned attack from Gaza.
Netanyahu then directed Yossi Cohen, head of the National Security Council, to update the cabinet ministers on that subject that same day. Instead, it turns out that Cohen, possibly along with the premier’s military secretary at the time, Eyal Zamir, convinced Netanyahu that it was not necessary to inform the ministers.
In a cabinet meeting on June 16, 2014, about the army's efforts to locate the three Israeli yeshiva students who had been kidnapped in the West Bank, the head of the IDF’s Operations Directorate, Yoav Har-Even, noted that, “without going into details, we are identifying some activity in Gaza.” Netanyahu asked whether this was the same hostile action that he had known about for several months. “It’s the same warning that you’re aware of,” replied Chief-of-Staff Gantz.
Defense Minister Ya’alon and then-Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who were somehow privy to this information, intervened, saying that the cabinet forum was too large for a discussion of the issue. Comptroller Shapira notes in his report that other than those coded exchanges, which were not understood by most cabinet members, no further details were provided to the cabinet about any looming attack.
Information about IDF preparations for such a scenario was only brought to the cabinet’s attention in early July, when MI decided officially to designate the information it had as a concrete warning – hours before the attack by Hamas was expected to occur.
Senior defense establishment figures later told the comptroller that no harm was done by not updating the cabinet about the warning, but Shapira rejected these claims, stressing that those same senior defense officials had said that the Hamas attack could happen without prior notice and could lead to war.
“Cabinet members did not receive significant information that would have enabled them to take part in the decision-making process, regarding the right course of action,” the comptroller states in his report.
“The decision remained in the hands of the defense establishment and the prime minister," Shapira writes. "Not providing them with information at an earlier stage precluded cabinet members from discussing possible courses of action in response to the planned attack, allowing them to decide in advance, not under the pressure of the beating of the drums of war, thereby making a reasoned and well thought-out decision.”