The Israeli death toll during the summer war with Gaza could have reached as high as 700 had Jerusalem sent troops into the heart of Gaza City during the operation, a former senior Israeli intelligence officer said recently.
The Israeli army’s refusal to be drawn into the maze of tunnels beneath Gaza City was the biggest of Hamas’s many disappointments in the war, Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shalom Harari said during a recent talk at the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.
According to Harari, there were kilometers of tunnels beneath the city and its approaches — some of them booby-trapped, others harboring suicide bombers and teams prepared to foray out and capture soldiers to be used for prisoner exchanges.
But despite what Harari called Hamas’s “honey traps,” which could have claimed the lives of 500-700 soldiers, the retired army official claimed that two cabinet ministers urged the army to nevertheless attack the Gaza-based group’s stronghold.
Harari was apparently referencing Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, both of whom lobbied publicly for Israel to go deeper into Gaza to destroy the network of tunnels beneath the enclave.
Israel lost 67 soldiers during the 50-day war, most of them during fighting inside the Strip. Some 2,100 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, according to Palestinian and UN tallies. Israel says about half of them were fighters.
Although Hamas could boast of some successes in the conflict — including being able to remain in the fight for seven weeks — even its leaders recognize that they suffered a stinging defeat, Harari said.
“We won 7 to 2,” he added, using a soccer metaphor.
“This is the first time a modern army has succeeded in this kind of urban warfare,” Harari asserted, pegging the success on diligent planning and ample munitions. He noted that such a victory eluded the American army in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During the war, reports surfaced of an assessment presented to the Israeli security cabinet that estimated a death toll in the hundreds if Israel attempted to reconquer the Strip. Other possible casualties of the widened action, which would cost tens of billions of shekels per year, included peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, according to the assessment.
According to Channel 2, some ministers doubted the report, telling Israel Defense Forces officials it was “pessimistic” and was intended to dissuade them from action. The military responded that the report’s estimates were sound.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked if any of the ministers were in favor of retaking the Strip, none of the ministers raised their hand.
In his talk, sponsored by MEMRI — the Middle East Media Research Institute, a US-based watchdog — Harari insisted that last summer’s round of fighting with Hamas was not triggered by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli youths in the West Bank, as is widely believed.
He said that Hamas, even before the kidnapping, had been planning a major raid through a tunnel near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, aimed at causing numerous civilian and military casualties and taking hostages. When Hamas fighters entered the tunnel in preparation for the attack, the Israeli Air Force bombed the site, killing many of them.
IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said earlier this year that Military Intelligence had passed along information indicating a large attack against civilians was planned using Hamas’s cross-border tunnels, which were destroyed during the war.