IDF general: Lack of understanding led to unwanted Gaza war
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'What most shaped the war was cabinet's decision that Hamas remain in power at the end of it'

IDF general: Lack of understanding led to unwanted Gaza war

Nimrod Shefer says Israel failed to grasp Hamas had little to lose, while the Islamists misjudged Israel’s willingness to fight

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Maj. Gen. Nimrod Shefer is far left, alongside other former and current members of the IDF General Staff (photo credit: Flash 90)
Maj. Gen. Nimrod Shefer is far left, alongside other former and current members of the IDF General Staff (photo credit: Flash 90)

Israel did not adequately understand Hamas and key misperceptions by both sides snowballed into a war neither party wanted, the army’s head of strategic operational planning said Monday.

The poor communication between the two parties plunged both sides into the 50-day military confrontation and played a pivotal role for the duration of Operation Protective Edge, Maj. Gen. Nimrod Shefer said.

Neither side wanted a wide-scale, long-lasting conflict,  he told a security conference. “There was no such desire.”

Instead, he maintained, the fact that both sides were operationally prepared for battle – IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz instructed the army in advance to be ready for a July conflict in Gaza, he said – along with their mutual lack of understanding, spurred the armed confrontation.

Israel, Shefer said, failed to internalize how little Hamas had to lose while Hamas failed to recognize how willing Israel was to fight, including via ground invasion and not just from the air, in order to attain its goals.

A Hamas operative describes the campaign in Gaza over the summer (screen capture: YouTube)
A Hamas operative describes the campaign in Gaza over the summer (screen capture: YouTube)

Moreover, despite a steady stream of expert commentary during the war, Shefer said, Israel perhaps “did not satisfactorily understand what Hamas is as a system.”

Had Israel understood Hamas better, this would have led to different approaches to the conflict and thus shortened the war

He suggested that a deeper understanding of the organization would have led to different approaches to the conflict and thus shortened the war. For instance, he submitted, Israel may well have underestimated the influence of Qatar and of Khaled Mashaal. “How might pressure have been brought upon [Mashaal]? Or how could he have been communicated with?”

He recommended that those possibilities be examined, even now.

Shefer also noted that the war may have lasted unnecessarily long since, as opposed to previous conflicts, the UN Security Council did not interfere. Furthermore, he contended, the neighboring Arab states did not much care about what was happening in the Gaza Strip.

Most crucially, though, he said, the decision that shaped the war was the cabinet’s determination that Hamas remain in power at the end of the conflict, as per the Gaza status quo.

“When you set [military] goals based on Hamas still being the ruling party, that very much impacts the nature of the fighting,” he said.

Weapons found inside a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa on the Israel-Gaza border on July 17, 2014. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office/Flash90)
Weapons found inside a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa on the Israel-Gaza border on July 17, 2014. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Office/Flash90)

He dismissed the criticism of the IDF that said its offensive moves appeared to lack creativity, and asserted that the inherent restraints of a strategy that seeks to maintain the status quo prescribed the army’s largely defensive posture and limited usage of force in the Gaza.

The army was surprised by the complexity of the tunnel threat

Shefer, a former pilot who now occupies a role thought to be reserved for the army’s top thinkers, said the air force used only 10 percent of its power and the ground forces did not advance much more than a mile into the Strip.

He noted that the army, once on the ground, was surprised by the complexity of the tunnel threat, which he indicated the army had known about but not fully understood.

“We thought it would take four days,” he said. “It took a lot longer.”

Shefer urged Israel to investigate the legality of its wartime activities, but cautioned the international community against accusing Israel of war crimes.

The Islamic State, he said, today fights “like the Mongolians” of yore, streaking across wide stretches of territory and inflicting unfathomable fear and horror. But if Israel is prosecuted for the manner in which it waged war against Hamas, he warned, then IS and every other terror organization will sink themselves into the civilian population secure in the understanding that Western states that act against them will end up facing trial for their operations.

This, he said, would “neutralize the free world’s ability to defend itself” and would, “in my opinion, be the greatest potential damage to emerge from this campaign.”

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