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Gantz warns Middle East is seeing an arms race

Awarding defense prize, Gantz says military tech limited civilian deaths in Gaza

President, defense minister give top security prize to four classified projects, dealing with intelligence, the air force, cybersecurity, and a new technological capability

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz awards Israel's Golomb Security Prize to an unnamed Military Intelligence Officer, alongside President Reuven Rivlin, right, and Defense Ministry Director-General Amir Eshel, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on July 5, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz awards Israel's Golomb Security Prize to an unnamed Military Intelligence Officer, alongside President Reuven Rivlin, right, and Defense Ministry Director-General Amir Eshel, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on July 5, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

President Reuven Rivlin and Defense Minister Benny Gantz awarded Israel’s top defense prize to four classified projects on Monday — one more than usual — that were deemed to have substantially contributed to the country’s security.

In his speech, Gantz said these four programs gave Israel military capabilities that allowed it to operate more precisely during May’s 11-day conflict in the Gaza Strip, known in Israel as Operation Guardian of the Walls.

“We saw these advantages during Operation Guardian of the Walls, with accurate strikes, unprecedented intelligence and a campaign that saw minimal harm to bystanders in relation to the extent of the aerial operations, and precision in strikes against terrorists that was effective and powerful,” the defense minister said.

A precise breakdown of the number of combatants compared to civilians killed in the campaign has yet to be released by Israel or Palestinian authorities in the Gaza Strip. According to the United Nations, 256 Palestinians in total were killed during the fighting in May, though the UN did not identify how many of them were civilians or how they died. At least a portion of those killed were hit by rockets fired by terrorist groups that fell short of the border. A private Israeli think tank with close ties to Military Intelligence has estimated that roughly half of those killed were members of terror groups. The Israel Defense Forces has indicated that the casualty count is likely higher than the UN tally, maintaining that it killed over 200 terrorist operatives during the fighting.

Gantz warned that the Middle East was poised to enter an arms race driven by Iran’s nuclear program, which is of significant concern not only to Israel but also to the Islamic Republic’s other opponents in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Persian Gulf.

“The entire Middle East is on the verge of an emerging arms race should Iran continue to advance toward a nuclear threshold. Our eyes are open to all these threats: our defense systems, most of which were developed in Israel, are deployed, and intelligence is working more hours to locate targets and identify intentions,” he said.

Palestinians inspect the damage following an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 19, 2021 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The defense minister noted the ongoing violence along Israel’s Gaza border, despite the May conflict, and appeared to reference a recent attack on a cargo ship once owned by an Israeli businessman, which Israel believes was an attempt at retaliation by Tehran for an attack on an Iranian nuclear facility last month.

“We are aware of what’s going on in our region, and our policy is unequivocal: We will not accept violations of Israeli sovereignty, not by incendiary balloons or rockets [from Gaza] and not anything else by Iran and its proxies. We will respond forcefully, based on our needs and at the time that’s right for us,” he said.

The specific natures of the four projects that received the Israel Security Prize were kept classified, though the organizations involved in them were identified by the Defense Ministry.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on July 5, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

One project was led by Military Intelligence’s signals intelligence Unit 8200 — equivalent to the US National Security Agency — which the ministry said developed a new, “breakthrough” technology that gave the military “an additional significant capability.”

Another came from the Israeli Air Force, the Defense Ministry’s Research and Development Division and two defense contractors — Rafael and the Israel Aerospace Industries — which worked on the project for over a decade.

A third award was given to a variety of computer-focused units, including the IDF’s Teleprocessing Directorate’s Spectrum and Cyber Defense Division, the Shin Bet security service, the Defense Ministry’s Security Directorate, the National Cyber Directorate, the Mossad spy agency and the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate.

According to the Defense Ministry, this team developed a capability to defend against “the threat of cyber attacks, which are becoming a significant, daily threat in recent years.”

The fourth prize was awarded to another team made up of representatives from a variety of national security organizations, including Military Intelligence’s Unit 81, which develops new technologies for the IDF, the Mossad, the Israeli Air Force, Rafael and the Israel Aerospace Industries.

“This project achieved a professional, specialized, significant capability for the IDF,” the Defense Ministry said.

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on July 5, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Rivlin, who is ending his tenure as president this week, praised the four prizewinners, saying the individuals who made up the teams were what mattered most.

“The person behind the system is the foundation and is the most important thing, without which the most high-tech developments wouldn’t be able to defend us. The person behind the machine and their spirit — the spirit of dedication and belief in the justness of their path — these are what make the difference and they are what make you, my esteemed ones, the best among us,” Rivlin said to the winners.

In addition to Gantz and Rivlin, the ceremony was attended by IDF head Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and Defense Ministry Director-General Amir Eshel.

The Security Prize has been given yearly by the president since 1958. Though the prize is sometimes given for lifetime achievement, generally the recipients are responsible for the creation of a new piece of technology or for a specific operation.

Ordinarily, three recipients are chosen for the award, which is named after Eliyahu Golomb, one of the key figures in the development of the Haganah militia, the forebear of the IDF.

Over the years, the prize has been awarded both to individuals, like Uzi Gal who received the first Israel Defense Prize in 1958 for creating the Uzi submachine gun, and to entire teams, like the group responsible for the development of the TROPHY anti-missile system that protects Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers, which won in 2014.

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