Analysis

Top Security Panel Asks Israeli Army for Classified Report on Botched Gaza Op

The state and the intelligence community disapprove of outside intervention in the investigation of security breaches, but elements of the botched Gaza op demand thorough examination

Blurred image of the photos publicized by Hamas

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has asked the security establishment to hand over a classified report on the circumstances of the Israeli army's mission in Gaza two weeks ago, in which Lt. Col. M. was killed and another officer was wounded in a clash with Hamas operatives.

Under such circumstances, the one providing the briefing is usually either the defense minister (who happens to be the prime minister now) or the chief of staff. The idea is for the update to be made to a restricted forum, apparently the intelligence subcommittee of the Knesset, which headed by MK Avi Dichter of Likud. Yet to date, the subcommittee has not been briefed.

Ever since the November 11 incident east of Khan Yunis, in which seven Hamas people were also killed and seven more wounded, Israel has imposed broad restrictions on media reporting of the incident. The Palestinian side, by contrast, has been publishing a great many details of the hunt Hamas is conducting for anyone else who was involved in the Israeli team’s activity, and about Hamas’ effort to figure out how exactly Israeli soldiers were able to operate deep within the Strip. However, Israel’s military censor has asked the media not to publish the pictures that Hamas distributed.

According to reports from the Strip, the people in one of the vehicles the Israelis used were stopped for inspection when it aroused the suspicion of a Hamas security patrol, and that’s when the gun battle erupted. The Israeli army said after the incident that it was conducting an internal investigation of it.

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The Gaza Strip incident is at least the third time in the past decade in which Arab media claimed that a significant secret Israeli intelligence operation was exposed; it is the only time Israel has acknowledged that it was indeed its operation. The two previous incidents were the 2009 revelation of extensive spy networks in Lebanon, and the assassination of senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in 2010, following which the authorities in Dubai claimed to have identified members of Mossad who were involved in the attack.

Palestinians inspect the remains of a vehicle destroyed in an Israeli air strike, Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip November 12, 2018.
Suhaib Salem/Reuters

In previous perceived failures of the intelligence community too, the relevant intelligence services held internal investigations. These investigations were often accompanied by power struggles between the various intelligence agencies, disputes about the boundaries of what each agency is responsible for, and sometimes accompanied by mutual recriminations. Since the entire Israeli intelligence community is involved in various actions across the border, and since they often carry out these operations jointly, there could be value to joint investigations of actions that went awry.

By the nature of special operations, the defense establishment doesn't want to share with the public the details of the lessons learned from a flopped operation, or to explain what went wrong. Nevertheless, there is value in external parliamentary oversight of internal investigations by the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Traditionally, both politicians and the intelligence community have reservations about sharing the details of such inquiries with outsiders. The official reason is the fear of damage to security, but in practice, it may also sometimes be related to the leaders’ fear of being held responsible for the failures.

In any case, even without knowing the details of the operation, it seems that there are a lot of issues that require fundamental examination, such how decisions were made at the political level about the operation's timing, in the midst of efforts to reach an accord in Gaza; how the Israeli team was exposed; and the possible effect of structural changes to monitoring and control over operations in recent years.

In parallel, it seems that Hamas – possibly working with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards – will probably continue to analyze the Israeli action and see if it can draw any conclusions. Iran is particularly skilled at “reverse engineering,” analyzing events of the kind in order to improve its defense and security apparatuses – and those of the organizations it helps.

The botched operation by Khan Yunis will not bring Israel’s secret operations in Gaza to an end. Defense officials say actions of the kind are necessary and will continue, as soon as the lessons from the latest mishap are learned. Nevertheless, like the downing of the Russian spy plane in western Syria two months ago, this is an incident that will probably have implications.