J.J. Goldberg

Israel's Latest Fib: 'Gaza Tunnels Were Surprise'

By J.J. Goldberg

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Nahum Barnea, commonly described as Israel’s most respected political journalist, has spent much of the past two weeks with the troops in Gaza and talking to general command in Tel Aviv. His weekly column in today’s Yediot Ahronot weekend supplement, which I have translated below, happens to say some of the things I’ve been writing over the past few weeks, so a bit of what you’ll read might sound familiar. But his sources are better than mine, better than anyone’s in fact, and he brings you up to date.

But the third section of his column is something new: He says Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has known for a long time about the network of tunnels under Gaza and the threat they pose, but he punted because he had other things on his agenda. Now he’s shockedshocked! — to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza!

The first section of Barnea’s column echoes my most recent column about Israel’s search for an elusive exit strategy. His second section recapitulates, in telegraphic form, a part of the chain of misadventures leading to unintended war that I described a few weeks ago (“How Politics and Lies Triggered an Unintended War in Gaza”). He doesn’t address the early events described in my article — the government putting out misleading messages about “operating under the assumption that the boys are alive” when it was pretty clear they were dead and placing the gag order over the evidence — because it’s ancient history and pretty much common knowledge among those who follow the news in Israel. (For those still wondering about my sources on that, I can cite a few of the early reports that said the same thing, here, here, here and, regarding the Hebron branch of Hamas acting as a rogue player, here.)

Anyway, Barnea is already moving on to the latest — um, questionable assertion, namely that Israel was surprised (find the claim here and here) by the tunnels, or the extent of the tunnels, and therefore had to ratchet up its Protective Edge campaign unexpectedly at the last minute. Barnea argues, in the third section of this article, that the government had a very clear picture of the tunnels and their extent a long time ago but decided not to act on them because it had other things on its plate. He’s pretty scathing about the current “gap between rhetoric and reality,” as he puts it. Worth a read.

Elsewhere in the Friday supplement, Yediot’s indispensable military analyst Alex Fishman writes that the army began facing the Gaza tunnel problem as early as 2001, and the government’s failure to act on them was the topic of a report by the government comptroller in 2007. I’ll try to translate Fishman’s report in a later blog post. Other sources report that pressure is already building in Israel (see here and here, for example) for a postwar commmission of inquiry into the failure to act earlier on the tunnels.

Barnea concludes, as I did this week, with the argument that Protective Edge strengthens rather than weakens the argument for a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Unlike me, he sees signs that Netanyahu is thinking the same thing.

Here’s Barnea, starting with the exit-strategy question:

How Do We Get Out of This

The cabinet [i.e. the 8-member security cabinet], which convened Wednesday for one of its nighttime discussions, was waiting for the utterances of one man, Khaled Meshaal. Meshaal, the head of the political bureau of Hamas, upgraded his position this week. The fate of the cease-fire that so many players are hoping for is in his hands. John Kerry, the foreign minister of the world’s mightiest superpower, used his connections in Qatar to placate him; Kerry believed he was doing this on behalf of the Israeli government and with its blessing. Abu Mazen tried. Turkey tried.

Meshaal had two paths between which to choose: either to accept a complete cease-fire, which would end the fighting, send the Israeli troops home and open a new era in Gaza, or to accept what was termed “an extended humanitarian cease-fire” — five days of easing in belligerent actions on both sides, during which negotiations would be conducted on the rules of the game for the day after.

Meshaal chose not to follow either path. It could be that he wanted to bargain over the details. It could be that he wanted to pay back the Egyptians, who had publicly humiliated him. It could be that he had no mandate — that the military arm in Gaza agreed but the organization’s members in Qatar wanted more. The fact that in the meanwhile Palestinians were getting killed in Gaza, including no small number of children, didn’t cause him to rush.

The maximum that Meshaal is willing, or able, to give the world right now is an agreement to a truce of several hours, to let the population in Gaza breathe and stock up on necessities.

I suspect that waiting around for Meshaal’s decision causes the prime minister of Israel considerable discomfort. In 1997 he ordered the Mossad to assassinate Meshaal on Jordanian territory. The location was a terrible mistake, the operation went wrong and Netanyahu was forced to send the hospital in Amman an antidote that saved Meshaal’s life. Meshaal is his unlucky charm.

Israel is looking for a formula to end this. That was the spirit of the cabinet discussion. Yes, there are more tunnels to destroy, but there’s apparently no way to destroy them all, and in the meantime more names are being added to the ranks of the fallen and anxiety grows over the possibility of a game-changing disaster befalling Israel’s soldiers or the civilian population of Israel or of Gaza.

The indefatigable Kerry formulated a cease-fire proposal that seesaws between the Egyptian proposal, which ground Hamas’s face into the dirt, and the Qatari proposal, which allowed Hamas to declare victory. He proposes an agreement on a temporary truce during which Hamas’s demands will be brought up for discussion. Israel will have to negotiate over them under the watchful eyes of Kerry and the Europeans. This is a bitter pill for Israel — and Meshaal still hasn’t responded positively.

There are forces both in the military and in the political leadership that are tired of being dragged after Hamas. They’re aiming to end the operation in a unilateral Israeli decision. Israel will withdraw its ground forces from Gaza, but if the firing from Gaza doesn’t stop, firing will continue from Israel’s air force, navy and artillery. There have been such unilateral decisions in the past, at the end of Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank, at the end of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and others. Deterrence worked and brought calm. Deterrence is the decisive factor even when there’s an agreement. The Second Lebanon War ended when the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1701, with Israel’s and Lebanon’s consent. Hezbollah violated the clauses about demilitarization from the very first day, but it didn’t fire rockets at Israel — not because of the agreement, but because of fear.

This time, too, Israel seeks demilitarization: that Gaza no longer produce missiles. Netanyahu has enlisted this demand, which was first proposed by Shaul Mofaz, in the service of the international public relations campaign. It might be good for public relations, perhaps even for bargaining with the Americans, but nobody in the military believes Hamas is going to beat its swords into ploughshares. Resistance is in Hamas’s nature, one general says, it’s in their DNA. Agreement or no agreement, rocket production will resume at half-past wartime.

In brief, the time has come to take the initiative into our own hands. We have our own DNA, no less than Hamas, and it doesn’t rejoice in placing our fate in the hands of others.

How We Descended

An analysis of the cycle of events that led the two sides into the confrontation in Gaza recalls, in miniature version, certain chapters from historian Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.” Intelligence assessments on the eve of the operation said that Hamas was battered: It couldn’t pay salaries, it couldn’t supply the population’s basic needs, the Arab world other than Qatar was boycotting it, and the reconciliation with Fatah was stalled. The assessments were correct. And then came the kidnapping of the three boys and Operation Brother’s Keeper.

Israel rearrests the prisoners freed in the Shalit deal and comes down hard on Hamas’s infrastructure in the West Bank. Hamas in Gaza doesn’t fire a shot. Rocket fire begins, but not by Hamas. We fire back. We interdict two attempts to attack soldiers, and in the third interdiction a Hamas operative is killed.

This was the first step in the cycle. We try to calm things down. They start firing. When they get to 25 or 30 rockets per day, we feel the need to respond. And we and they fall into the second step and then the third, the ground campaign.

This is the history of Operation Protective Edge: Not a Hamas plot, not an Israeli conspiracy. A stumbling from one step to the next, like a ball that got away from its owner, caught by gravity.

The First To Warn

When the Cabinet agreed to the Egyptian cease-fire proposal in the middle of last week, was it aware that Gaza was teeming with tunnels, dozens of which reached into Israeli territory? The answer is, Yes. In an extended effort, over a period of years, Military Intelligence mapped out the underground world of Gaza. Not all the tunnels were identified, not all the openings and routes were located, but the magnitude of the threat was known. It was found not only in the secret material that reaches the prime minister’s desk, but even on YouTube: Military Intelligence chief Aviv Kochavi included the story of the tunnels in a lecture he gave at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

The forces that entered Gaza were equipped with addresses. They didn’t need GPS. They navigated to the places that, according to information gathered by Military Intelligence, were suspected to be tunnel entrances.

Netanyahu agreed to the cease-fire despite the fact that he knew about the tunnels and the threat they represented. His decision, and the cabinet’s, moved within the realm of legitimacy. Naftali Bennett, who voted No because of the tunnels, thought differently, but other considerations had been laid on the cabinet table as well.

What’s not legitimate is the gap between rhetoric and reality. Netanyahu was not the first to war against the tunnels. He takes the name of the tunnels in vain. As prime minister he hadn’t seen the tunnels as a threat that justified a military operation — before and during Pillar of Defense in 2012, before and during Protective Edge in 2014. He chose to take a risk. When he said, in reply to a question from Udi Segal of Channel 2, that he hoped the problem of the tunnels would be solved through diplomatic means, he knew the sentence had no grounding in reality.

Netanyahu, like others in the Cabinet, was surprised by Hamas’s offensive capability, by its fighting spirit and the number of losses among our soldiers. Only he can answer the question of whether knowing the price would have prevented the ground campaign. I’m not sure he’s built to answer that sort of question — even in his own thoughts.

Within the army, the operating assumption is that after a period of calm there will be another round between the IDF and Hamas. Because the destruction this time has been very great — Hamas lost 3,500 rockets, most of the tunnels that lead to Israel, part of its chain of command, war rooms, ammunition dumps and more — the calm until the next round will be a long one.

The question is whether the residents of the Israeli communities along the Gaza frontier, and of the South in general, are ready to live from round to round. It seems to me that they deserve more than that.

And so the government should strive for a basic change in the reality in Gaza, and perhaps, on this festive occasion, for a change in the reality of our relations with the Palestinians as a whole. The statements of Netanyahu during the course of this operation indicate that he’s beginning to speak of Abu Mazen not just as a problem, but also as a solution. Israel’s attempt to isolate the West Bank from Gaza, to divide and rule, has not succeeded. A vision is needed. Hope is needed. Not just for Israelis: also for Gazans. The more we run away from them, the more they’ll chase after us.


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