Israel’s state comptroller took military and political leaders to task for their failure to prepare adequately for the threat of attack tunnels ahead of the 2014 war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, in a pair of long-awaited, highly critical reports published on Tuesday.
The reports found significant gaps in the military’s intelligence in the lead-up to the war, as well as a lack of clearly defined operational plans for how to destroy the tunnels. Those failings may have led, the report said, to the unnecessary deaths of Israeli soldiers during the 50-day conflict.
But the Prime Minister’s Office bore the brunt of State Comptroller Yosef Shapira’s criticism, for its failure to sufficiently brief members of the security cabinet about the subterranean threat.
While the reports were only released to the public on Tuesday, most of the critiques they contain have been reported on widely for months, as versions of the scalding documents circulated among relevant politicians and defense officials — and were leaked by them — as early as May 2016.
One report deals with the performance of the government and military during the conflict, dubbed Operation Protective Edge in Israel, and in the lead-up to it in general, with special attention paid to Hamas tunnels and Israel’s lax preparations for dealing with their threat. A second, shorter report deals only with the tunnel threat, but in far greater detail.
The 50-day conflict came on the heels of Operation Brother’s Keeper, a large-scale counterterrorism crackdown in the West Bank prompted by the abduction and disappearance of three Israeli teenagers on June 12, 2014.
As Israeli troops rounded up hundreds of suspected terrorists, most of them affiliated with Hamas, the Gaza-based group began firing dozens of rockets at Israel’s southern communities in retaliation. Hamas, at the time, was also in the midst of a funding crisis, as the Palestinian Authority froze payment to tens of thousands of its employees.
The IDF responded to the rocket and mortar attacks with limited airstrikes at launch sites, weapons caches and attack tunnel entrances.
After the three teens’ bodies were found north of Hebron on June 30 (confirming they had been killed in the hours after their abduction), rockets continued to rain down on Israel’s south and the army turned its attention from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip.
On July 7, the cabinet approved a Gaza operation. Over the next 10 days, that operation, which began as a response to rocket fire, instead turned into a tunnel-destroying mission as the gravity of the threat they posed became clear.
By the war’s end on August 26, 2014, the IDF had targeted over 30 tunnels, of which 14 had crossed the border into Israel. Thousands of rockets had been fired by Hamas and other Gaza terror groups indiscriminately into Israel. A total of 74 people — 68 soldiers, 11 of whom were killed in cross-border tunnel attacks; and 6 civilians — died on the Israeli side of the conflict. In Gaza, more than 2,000 people were killed, with Israel putting the percentage of civilians killed at approximately 50 percent and the Palestinians estimating it to be closer to 70%. Israel said the high proportion of civilian Gazan deaths was the fault of Hamas, which embedded military infrastructure, including tunnel entrances and rocket launchers, in residential neighborhoods.
In the dark on tunnels
Though tunnel destruction became a central objective of the campaign, the comptroller accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of having kept senior ministers in the dark about the subterranean threat prior to the war and only seriously addressing it in cabinet meetings after the operation began.
Netanyahu, for his part, has denied the accusation, saying the issue of Hamas’s subterranean attack infrastructure was in fact presented as a strategic threat to the cabinet.
Responding to an initial draft of the report, the Prime Minister’s Office provided eight dates, beginning in November 2013, when the issue of tunnels was raised in the cabinet. But Shapira found those discussions to have been cursory and perfunctory and not representative of the full extent of the risk posed by the tunnels.
The tunnel threat report also accused Netanyahu and Ya’alon of endangering Israelis living near Gaza by halting government funding for their local security teams, and pulling out the soldiers who used to stand guard outside their communities in the year and a half leading up to the operation.
While Netanyahu drew considerable rebuke in the report, he was not the only person put in its crosshairs. The National Security Council, the security cabinet, then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, and the IDF were also implicated.
The NSC, known in Hebrew by its acronym Malal, was led at the time by current Mossad head Yossi Cohen. It was found to have not fulfilled one of its central duties: to provide the cabinet with a variety of opinions, and potential courses of action, beyond what is offered by the military and security services.
The prime minister frequently sets the agenda for meetings of the security cabinet, his inner circle of senior ministers, which take place on an ad hoc basis. However, the NSC is also entitled to raise issues at the meetings, something it failed to do with regards to the tunnels, according to the report.
The security cabinet, which is meant to function as an advisory body to the prime minister, was accused of failing in that role. According to a former cabinet minister who spoke on condition of anonymity, the ministers acted as a symbolic “rubber stamp” — the cabinet has no actual approval power — and accepted the plans presented to them by the military.
While the cabinet members felt at the time that they were seriously involved in the war effort, the unnamed former minister, in retrospect, said he realized how little power and influence they actually wielded.
Bennett vs. Ya’alon
Throughout the fighting in Operation Protective Edge, and in the two and a half years since, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a member of the security cabinet, was an outspoken critic of how Netanyahu, Ya’alon and then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz managed the conflict.
Those three and, more recently, Ya’alon’s successor, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, have taken aim at Bennett for “playing politics” with national security discussions, all but accusing him outright of leaking information about cabinet meetings.
“There are those who leak and those who fight,” Ya’alon said this week, in a preemptive parry ahead of the report’s publication. It was a clear reference to Bennett.
Last month, Bennett, who leads the right-wing Jewish Home party and was the economy minister at the time of the campaign, said the report would be an “earthquake” that would reveal the failures of the country’s leaders during the conflict.
Ya’alon responded the next day, referring to Bennett (without using his name) as a “minister of leaks” and accusing him of emboldening Hamas with his claims that Israel wasn’t victorious in the 2014 conflict.
Bennett, meanwhile, has painted himself as a Cassandra, crying out alone about the impending threat of Hamas tunnels, only to have those warnings fall on deaf ears.
According to the report and former cabinet members, Bennett’s account is correct, but only to an extent.
Before the start of the conflict, on July 2, 2014, Bennett had demanded the army come up with plans to demolish the tunnels. In the early days of the fighting, he called for more aggressive action, with an emphasis on destroying Hamas’s subterranean infrastructure.
On July 27, Bennett admonished Gantz as he was speaking before the cabinet, telling him that military leaders should be like “galloping horses” that need to be restrained by the government, not like “lazy bulls,” which require prodding to take action.
He also visited the IDF’s staging areas near the Gaza Strip and spoke with officers in the field, hearing from them about the tunnels. For this, Bennett drew criticism from the cabinet. As defense minister, Ya’alon chastised him for trying to subvert his authority. Yair Lapid, who was finance minister at the time, accused him of “playing with the generals,” according to cabinet meeting transcripts leaked to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
Bennett’s repeated requests that the army focus on the tunnels were rebuffed at the cabinet meetings, as were the urgings of Liberman, the then-foreign minister, for the army to completely conquer the Gaza Strip.
Former cabinet members confirmed that Liberman’s statements were completely disregarded at the meetings.
Several ex-ministers contradicted Bennett’s claim that he had discovered the threat of the tunnels.
Livni, the former justice minister, scoffed at the notion.
“No one ‘revealed to anyone that there were tunnels,'” Livni told The Times of Israel in a statement. “It was known to everyone involved that Hamas was digging tunnels in Gaza — that’s how Gilad Shalit was captured.”
Eight years before Protective Edge, Shalit, an Israeli soldier, was smuggled from Israeli territory into the Gaza Strip through one such tunnel, after Hamas operatives killed three of his tank crewmates and abducted him in a surprise attack near the border.
As for the specific border crossing tunnels targeted by the Israeli military during the campaign: While the cabinet was not briefed on them until the operation was already underway, the IDF, Shin Bet and other security services were aware of them and the threat posed by them, she said. The decision to refrain from targeting them initially was deliberate and tactical, not due to ignorance of their existence.
“It’s not that the State of Israel didn’t know, but that the cabinet didn’t know,” the former cabinet member said.
The ministers were not prevented from inquiring about the threat of tunnels on their own, independent of the cabinet meetings. But ultimately, the report said, the National Security Council is responsible for preparing the senior ministers, a practice that has apparently become more common since the 2014 war.
How to take out the tunnels
By 2014, Hamas attack tunnels were well known to the Israel Defense Forces. The Egyptian military had been hard at work for months to demolish smuggling tunnels connecting the Sinai Peninsula to Gaza. Tunnels were discussed in media reports and publicly by politicians.
Two of those cross-border tunnels were found and destroyed in October 2013, with their discovery widely reported by both local and international press. The army even invited journalists and Hollywood celebrities to tour the Hamas tunnels. A third was found in January of that year as well.
Troops had also stumbled upon a Hamas tunnel ahead of a smaller-scale 2012 operation in the Gaza Strip, known in Israel as Pillar of Defense.
Yet, according to the report, the army had not formulated clear guidelines for how to uncover and destroy such tunnels in wartime; rather, the procedure was created on the fly during the course of Operation Protective Edge.
The army’s improvised tunnel destruction attempts were found by the report to have been “problematic.”
Despite initial objection by Ya’alon and the full knowledge that the measure would only be partially effective, the military began to conduct airstrikes against tunnel openings in Gaza on July 7, 2014.
According to the report, the military and political leaderships’ assessment of the utility of airstrikes on tunnels was mixed going into the Gaza operation. Bennett and then-head of the Southern Command Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman were opposed to aerial bombardments, while most others saw the tactic as having both benefits and costs. Netanyahu said he was unsure and followed the advice of his army chief and defense minister.
Ya’alon said he opposed airstrikes on June 30, 2014, but later came around to the idea and approved such operations a week later. Targeting the tunnels from the air allowed the military to at least partially “knock out” Hamas’s capabilities without seriously risking Israeli lives, he told the comptroller after the war.
“I’d rather try and block two or three terror attacks from tunnels, than lose 67 soldiers,” he said in March 2015.
But those aerial bombings later made it more difficult for soldiers to enter and fully demolish the tunnels during the ground operation, as their entrances were obstructed by rubble, Gantz said during a cabinet meeting on August 8.
“If we hadn’t attacked the [tunnels]… it would have shortened the time [needed to fully demolish them],” he said.
The report did not connect those delays to any soldiers’ deaths, though any extra time spent stationed in one location, guarding a tunnel opening, would presumably increase the chances of attacks by Palestinian fighters.
An internal army investigation leaked late last year also noted that the military, particularly the Engineering Corps, was not prepared to confront Hamas’s underground infrastructure during the fighting.
Who knew what when?
With the reports’ release, arguments among Israeli lawmakers over what the cabinet knew about the tunnels, and when it was briefed on the threat, are sure to only increase. So, too, will discussions of what the army knew about Hamas’s underground network and, more importantly, what it didn’t.
On November 26, 2013, about a month and a half after the two border-crossing tunnels were discovered, then-Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi was supposed to brief the cabinet about “the threat of the tunnels in a way that would show its meaning and gravity,” according to the report. That did not happen, for an unspecified reason.
But immediately before and during the conflict, the issue of the tunnels was brought up repeatedly in cabinet meetings.
On July 1, 2014 Ya’alon told the cabinet he believed that Hamas would not make extensive use of its attack tunnels and would instead save them for a more opportune time to strike.
“Hamas does not have any intention of activating its tunnels of its own initiative,” Ya’alon told the ministers. “We must be wary of making a miscalculation.”
Once the operation began, Hamas did, in fact, make use of its border-crossing tunnels on four occasions. (There were also other incidents of the terrorist group using its underground infrastructure within the Gaza Strip, including in the capture of Lt. Hadar Goldin’s body.)
One such attack, on July 17, 2014, involved over a dozen Hamas fighters who crossed into Israel near the Kerem Shalom crossing in southern Gaza. The incursion was prevented by IDF troops, but it served as a catalyst for the army’s ground invasion, which began later that night.
The other three cases involved smaller Hamas teams who performed “hit and run” attacks, one of them with regular firearms, the other two with anti-tank missiles. Those attacks can be seen as successful, to a degree, as 11 Israeli soldiers were killed in them.
They did not represent the doomsday scenario of tunnel attacks — dozens of Hamas terrorists infiltrating an Israeli community and either massacring the inhabitants or taking them hostage. Turgeman told the State Comptroller’s Office after the war that such an attack was specifically described in Hamas documents discovered during the operation.
However, over the course of the conflict, the army also noted that it believed soldiers may have been the intended targets of Hamas cross-border tunnel attack, not civilians.
Going into the fighting, the military knew it had only incomplete intelligence concerning the tunnels specifically and the Gaza Strip in general, according to the report.
Gantz is ‘ready to go to the next campaign with the same intelligence that we had in the last one’
Yet the army “did not present the intelligence gaps,” a former cabinet minister said.
Assessments made based on “significantly lacking intelligence” are especially dangerous “with issues critical to military operations,” Shapira, the state comptroller, wrote in the tunnel report.
On Sunday, former IDF chief Gantz defended the military’s intelligence during the conflict, saying that though it was “not always perfect,” he would be “ready to go to the next campaign with the same intelligence that we had in the last one.”
Where are we now now?
For parts of Israeli society, Operation Protective Edge remains a gaping wound.
The bodies of two soldiers who were killed in the fighting — Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul — are believed to still be held in the Strip by Hamas. Three Israeli men who crossed into Gaza since 2014 are also suspected of being imprisoned by the terrorist group.
Last month, Maj. Hagai Ben Ari, who was seriously injured in the operation, succumbed to his wounds.
The people of Gaza have yet to fully rebuild their homes, hindered by Israel’s naval and land blockade, which the Jewish state says is necessary for its security, as well as Hamas’s nasty habit of confiscating building materials for use in new tunnels instead of new apartment buildings.
In the time since the operation, the army and government have put into practice some, but not all, of the recommendations made by Shapira in his reports. Notably, the military has put a greater emphasis on tunnels, naming them as a primary threat in army chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot’s “IDF Strategy” paper.
“The tunnel issue is a top priority for the IDF, and the military has already begun putting the majority of the report’s comments and suggestions into practice,” the army said in response to the comptroller probe.
The elite combat engineering unit, known by its Hebrew acronym Yahalom, has been doubled in size since the operation, and the unit’s base in Sirkin, outside Tel Aviv, is now equipped with an exact replica of a Hamas tunnel for training purposes. It was made by an Israeli construction company to the same specifications as in Gaza — 5.6 feet (1.7 meters) tall and approximately two feet (0.6 meters) wide, with a rounded top.
In training ground troops, the army has also begun putting more emphasis on preparing them for urban and populated areas, as opposed to the older exercises of conquering hilltops in open fields, according to military officials.
The army has poured more than NIS 2 billion ($546 million) and many tons of concrete into the ground surrounding the Gaza Strip to prevent infiltrations and tunneling efforts, as part of a massive project whose details are still largely under military censorship.
“The IDF has invested efforts and resources in the research, development and equipping of technological systems in accordance with their operational readiness… and with the classification of the level of the threat,” the army said on Tuesday.
“The IDF and defense establishment have been dealing with drawing lessons and rectifying what needs fixing from the day after the campaign. We have a strong army and the readiness of the army and reservists is at one of its highest levels in decades,” Liberman, the defense minister, said Monday.
The security cabinet and National Security Council have also been revamped since the war, with ministers enjoying better access to information than in the past, according to senior officials who asked to remain unnamed.
However, cabinet members still complain that they are not consulted on larger, strategic issues, but are instead focused on more quotidian issues like airstrikes against Hezbollah weapons convoys.
Tuesday’s reports did not address the government’s alleged lack of an overall strategy for the Gaza Strip. The coastal enclave’s terrorist Hamas rulers are anathema to Israel, and the Jewish state has recognized the rapidly approaching humanitarian crisis in the Strip. Yet, no comprehensive solution to the problem was offered by the government at the time of the 2014 operation; nor in the years afterward.
‘Israel doesn’t have a strategy vis-à-vis the Palestinians generally or Gaza specifically’
“Israel doesn’t have a strategy vis-à-vis the Palestinians generally or Gaza specifically,” said Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni, who served as justice minister during the war in 2014, on Monday. “We don’t have to reach an agreement with Hamas, but we need to rally the world against Hamas so Israel has the legitimacy to act against the tunnels in any future operation.”
Did Israel win?
The IDF’s mission in 2014 was not to topple Hamas or locate every piece of weaponry in its possession; rather, it was to deal considerable damage to the terrorist group’s capabilities, notably its cross-border tunnels, and to create some form of deterrence that would force Hamas to keep the Strip’s more radical organizations in check.
Those goals were accomplished to a certain extent: In addition to the demolished tunnels, once-frequent rocket attacks have dwindled to perhaps one or two a month, including one on early Monday morning.
“The results since the war speak for themselves,” Netanyahu said ahead of the report’s publication. “The current IDF chief of staff has said that the Gaza border hasn’t been this quiet since the Six Day War [in 1967]. Hamas suffered a devastating blow. The Gaza border communities are flourishing.”
The prime minister’s glowing assessment does not overlap fully with those put forth by the State Comptroller’s Office.
Shapira’s two reports are in total 176 pages long. In them, there are few compliments.
‘The current IDF chief of staff has said the Gaza border hasn’t been this quiet since the Six Days War. Hamas suffered a devastating blow’
The tunnel threat report noted that, in addition to the criticism detailed above, the IDF only completely “destroyed or neutralized” half of the tunnels it designated as requiring “treatment.” The other half were either damaged or left in working order.
“The IDF… thus did not complete its mission,” according to Shapira’s tunnel threat report.
Hamas is said to still possess at least 15 tunnels that extend into Israel and is believed to have restored its military capabilities to pre-Protective Edge levels, filling its stockpiles with both imported and locally produced missiles, mortars and small arms.
How, then, can victory truly be declared over Hamas if ministers and defense officials refer to the next round of conflict with it as a matter of when, not if? That is one question the state comptroller reports do not address.
Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.