Commentary

Gaza Inquiry Criticizes 2014 War Conduct

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Views from the Region

The publication of a report by the Israeli comptroller on the government’s conduct of the war in Gaza in 2014—Operation Protective Edge—has produced a number of pointed reactions among Israeli and regional media. The report highlights some of the failures leading up to the conflict, as well as blunders made during the conduct of war, focusing in particular on the government’s lack of proper discussion on the risk posed by underground tunnels used by Hamas fighters. Some Israeli observers have criticized the report for being disconnected from the reality of warfare, while others look with some wariness towards the horizon, concerned about the prospects of renewed conflict with Hamas.

The Gaza inquiry has met withering criticism from some inside Israel, including Israel Hayom’s Boaz Bismuth, who blames it for emboldening Hamas and not crediting the Israeli army for its achievements: “Operation Protective Edge was not a failure. The IDF did not lose. It even met its given objectives. With that, we would have preferred a quick ‘knockout.’ Israel has the necessary superiority, weaponry and military to defeat a terrorist organization like Hamas and its satellites in less than 51 days. ... Israeli society does not like wars, even if it is very proud of its army. It does not like terror, it does not like Hamas and Hezbollah, and it also does not like grieving for fallen sons and daughters. However, what it likes the least are attempts to harm its ‘sacred cow,’ the IDF. Israeli society sees this comptroller's report as nothing more than self-pity and self-flagellation. ... Before the report was ever published, we already understood there was a light at the end of the tunnel. This light is not a diplomatic alternative, but a decisive victory over Hamas, if and when it makes the grave mistake of trying to harm us again. Hamas on Tuesday claimed that it emerged victorious from Operation Protective Edge, but that is certainly not because of its performance on the field of battle. It is more because of the report.”

Mazal Mualem, in an article posted on Al Monitor, deems the report inconsequential, arguing that it does not focus on the main issues of the military operation: “By focusing on tactical issues, the report succeeded in turning a public discussion about the hostilities into a political battle. That is unfortunate. The public received and continues to receive vast amounts of information, including conflicting versions of events and accounts of infighting in the media. What the report failed to provide is a focused discussion about serious issues, which is, in itself, a huge disservice to the families of the 73 soldiers and civilians who died during the operation. That is also why discussions surrounding the report are only accessible and meaningful to a very limited group of interested parties, those being the very people who pull the strings. ... In other words, the report will not have a corrosive effect, whether on the right or the left. In that sense, it is a sharp contrast to the Winograd Commission Report after the Second Lebanon War.”

Gabi Avital’s concern, expressed in the Hebrew-language Israeli daily Israel Hayom, is about the nature of the investigation itself, which according to him ignores the realities on the ground and the “fog of war”: “The comptroller's report artificially reduces the disparity between what we would like and what we actually have. In other words, the report lays out demands that a war be a simulated one fought by supercomputers that never err, which take aim at imaginary targets and not at flesh-and-blood enemies. The inquiries conducted by representatives of the state comptroller resemble an academic project on urban warfare without enemies, and do not take into account the factors in the field that the opposition railed about: dangerous diplomatic isolation, the prohibition on firing without need, and the lives of civilians in Gaza almost taking precedence over the lives of our soldiers. A foreigner reading the report would get the impression that it is strictly forbidden for a civilian or a soldier to be wounded in battle, that in a war, the evil enemy is defeated 100:0. Perfection like this is the ultimate demand, and in this lies the danger. ... Administrative questions fall under the auspices of the state comptroller, while matters of strategy and battle belong to the military, which is subject to decisions by the government. That is what our fathers taught us.”

But with conditions in Gaza worsening each day, there is a real concern that another military confrontation between Hamas fighters and Israel may happen sooner than later. Yedioth Ahronoth’s Alex Fishman urges Israeli policymakers to be proactive rather than reactive: “The fact that Hamas is starting to realize that Israel has a formula which allows it to deal with its surprise and deterrence weapon efficiently may shorten the decision-making process in the organization and cause Hamas to ignite the region before it loses its key offensive abilities—especially as it sees the activity being performed by Israel along the border on a daily basis. ... Military officials believe—just like they did on the eve of Operation Protective Edge—that neither Israel nor Hamas are interested in an armed battle. At the time, a series of military activities on both sides led to misunderstandings of the situation and to a comprehensive battle. We are in a similar situation today. We shouldn’t wait for an uncontrolled deterioration. The ministers who sat in the Security Cabinet during Protective Edge are now whining: We didn’t know, we didn’t hear, we weren’t told. Now, as part of the lessons being learned from Protective Edge, a clear political decision must be made on the direction we are headed in and on what we want from the Gaza Strip. That may be the way to avoid another commission of inquiry—or another state comptroller’s report—in a few months from now.”

In an op-ed for Al Monitor, Ben Caspit takes issue with the Netanyahu government, not just for the lack of preparedness should another conflict break out, but for the complete lack of any strategy to disincentivize such a conflict: “According to the report, Israel has no strategy whatsoever in dealing with Gaza — or with its other fronts, for that matter. Israel marches forward without any idea what it wants to happen in Gaza. It has no strategic objectives, and as a result, it is not at all prepared for new developments and situations there. ... While this situation is now crystal clear to the Israeli leadership, the situation has not changed. Netanyahu has yet to come up with a policy on how to handle Gaza and Hamas. He has not yet decided whether he wants the Hamas regime to continue ruling Gaza in the long term. There is no serious Israeli effort to improve living conditions in the Gaza Strip. Yes, there is a lot of talk, such as remarks by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who said that if Hamas stops digging its tunnels and dealing in terrorism against Israel, Israel will agree to the construction of a seaport for Gaza, the gradual lifting of the closure and maybe even allowing laborers from Gaza to enter Israel for work. But there is very little activity.”

Yaakov Katz sheds light on another aspect of the comptroller’s report, which is the conclusion that the Israeli government’s security cabinet was kept in the dark over intelligence on tunnels used by Hamas fighters. In an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, Katz notes: “Terrorist tunnels are dangerous. They can be used to infiltrate a kibbutz and massacre dozens of people. But they do not pose an existential threat to the State of Israel. The fact is, Israel has never been stronger in its nearly 69 years of statehood. Israel is an economic superpower and a vibrant democracy, and has the most powerful military in the Middle East, Africa and beyond. ... Does that mean there are no threats? Not at all. There are. They simply need to be viewed in the right proportion. The security cabinet needs to become a place where political considerations are checked at the door. The cabinet of 2014, according to the comptroller’s report, was dysfunctional. Israelis have a legitimate reason to be concerned ahead of a future war. The fact that the military and the Shin Bet hid their original assessments about the effectiveness of the tunnel air strikes shows their contempt for what is supposed to be Israel’s most secret forum, the place where the real decisions are made. This is an unhealthy atmosphere that needs to be corrected. Tunnels are a threat to Israel, but the bigger threat is the government’s tunnel vision. It is time to correct that.”

It appears that the report has come at a very crucial time for Israeli policymakers and the public at large. According to a Haaretz report by Almog Ben Zikri and Jack Khoury, “[m]ilitary Intelligence chief Herzl Halevi told Knesset members Wednesday that the economically ailing Gaza is nearing a crisis under Hamas. Halevi was speaking a day after the state comptroller harshly criticized Israeli political and military leaders for their performance before and during the 2014 Gaza war. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that while Israel has no intention of launching a military operation in Gaza, it will not ignore rocket fire. ‘I suggest Hamas take responsibility and calm down,’ he said. ... A barrage of rockets were fired at the Red Sea resort town of Eilat  and at least three were shot down by Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system nearly a month ago. The attack originated in the Sinai and an ISIS affiliate in Egypt claimed responsibility for the rocket fire."


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