Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced harsh criticism from bereaved parents Wednesday over his management of the 2014 Gaza war during an emotional three-and-a-half-hour-long hearing, including a series of heated back and forths between politicians and families of those killed in battle.
Earlier, grilled by opposition lawmakers at the Knesset State Control Committee hearing — which was punctuated by heckling from Likud MKs backing the prime minister — Netanyahu painted the conflict as a victory for Israel, contending that the Hamas terror group had “begged” for the war to end.
“Operation Protective Edge isn’t over. Hamas wanted to kidnap soldiers and it still has two of them,” said a visibly emotional Leah Goldin, whose son Lt. Hadar Goldin’s body is being held by Hamas, along with the body of Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul.
Her voice rising, she accused Netanyahu of turning their families into the “enemy of the people,” pitting their desire to retrieve their sons’ remains against the country’s security needs.
As Likud MK Micky Zohar tried to cut in, she told him to be quiet, tossing a cup of water in his direction as the two yelled at each other.
Ilan Sagi, whose son Erez was killed in a cross-border attack launched through one of the Hamas tunnels, said that when the state comptroller’s report on the conflict came out, charging the government with multiple failures, it was “like someone took a knife and stabbed me in the heart” and that in the Wednesday hearing Netanyahu was “twisting and twisting the knife.”
By the time Sagi finished talking, the other parents were sobbing and a reverential silence fell over the room, where only minutes earlier Knesset members were yelling at each other.
Netanyahu acknowledged that he “can’t know what it’s like to be a bereaved father.” He added that he was not prepared to give a full answer to the question of what’s being done to return Goldin and Shaul’s remains, but that Israel has been working on it.
The hearing dealt with a damning state comptroller report, published in February, that found serious failures by the military and government ahead of and during the 50-day conflict, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Yosef Beinhorn, who was part of the team that wrote the report, contended that better decision-making practices could have obviated the need for a military operation entirely.
Responding to the criticism, Netanyahu said: “We didn’t want a war in the summer of 2014 and we tried to prevent it.”
“I wanted to avoid a ground campaign. I wanted to,” he said, citing the cost of soldiers’ lives. He also asserted that his government had already rectified many of the failings pointed out in the report.
Some 68 IDF soldiers were killed in the fighting, along with six civilians in Israel. Over 2,000 Palestinians were killed in the conflict, most of them combatants, according to Israel.
Netanyahu said he spoke with then-US president Barack Obama, who voiced his opposition to an Israeli ground campaign. “I told him that if the threat of tunnels continued, we would need to go in.”
The prime minister presented the war as inevitable, citing the killing of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank that was among the main catalysts of the conflict. After Israel arrested many Hamas members during the search for the teens, the group formulated a plan to attack Israel by air, through the use of rocket fire and hang-gliders; by sea, with frogmen; and by land, through its subterranean tunnel network, Netanyahu said, adding that most of the attack plans were thwarted by the IDF.
“Escalation is a difficult thing. The only thing more difficult is getting out of it,” he said.
Netanyahu also asserted that the campaign — which he presented as a multi-pronged military plan by Hamas with the goal of abolishing the naval blockade on the coastal enclave — did not end by way of ceasefire negotiations brokered by Egypt.
Asked how Israel was able to reach a ceasefire with Hamas, if there were no negations with the terror group, Netanyahu said, “The military wing [of Hamas] begged — there’s no other word for it — begged the political wing, which lives abroad: Please, we can’t do it anymore.
“There was no deal. What there was is that they threw up their hands — pure and simple,” he added.
The prime minister also repeatedly dismissed the suggestion that Israel could have reached a diplomatic arrangement with Hamas.
“The thought of a political alternative with Hamas is ludicrous to me,” Netanyahu said, likening it on several occasions to cutting a deal with the Islamic State group in Raqqa and Mosul.
The security cabinet
The state comptroller report debated by the committee on Wednesday was centered around the management of the security cabinet by Netanyahu and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, specifically the cabinet’s alleged failure to set concrete, strategic goals for the military in the campaign. It also noted intelligence gaps and tactical mistakes by the Israel Defense Forces, then led by Lt. Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz, notably its unpreparedness for the threat of Hamas tunnels.
The prime minister responded to the recommendations in the report that called for changes to the structure of the security cabinet, saying “there’s no mechanical, systematic, Cartesian way to change the way that decisions are made.” While conceding that ministers should received full updates, the prime minister expressed opposition to enshrining in law procedural changes to the panel, which he said would make decision-making impossible.
It was the third and final meeting of the committee on the state comptroller report, and representatives from nearly every political party were present. Noticeably absent from the meeting was Jewish Home party leader Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who was an outspoken critic of Netanyahu and Ya’alon’s conduct during the conflict.
“The discussion is not about whether or not the prime minister is great, but whether the failures of Protective Edge have been corrected,” MK Karin Elharar, the chair of the committee, said in her opening remarks.
State Comptroller Yosef Shapira stressed the need to internalize the report’s criticisms and rectify the problems.
Netanyahu said he agreed that a productive conversation about the conflict was necessary, but that an open-door committee meeting wasn’t the right forum.
“Invite me to an operative discussion, not in front of the cameras,” Netanyahu said, motioning to the journalists in the back of the room. “We can talk about what happened during Protective Edge and afterwards.”
‘Quietest period since the Six Day War’
The legacy of the 2014 war is a conflicted one, with some seeing Operation Protective Edge as a resounding victory that has resulted in some of Israel’s quietest years vis-a-vis the Gaza Strip, and others as an utter failure, falling short of achieving its stated goals.
“It’s almost three years since Protective Edge. We are in the midst of the quietest time period, as IDF Chief Gadi Eisenkot said recently, since the Six Day War,” Netanyahu said.
In addition to tunnels, the IDF destroyed military infrastructure and killed approximately 1,000 Hamas fighters, including “about a third of its general staff,” Netanyahu said.
He noted that the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel in recent months were not launched by Hamas, but by fringe Salafists. Hamas is “deterred,” the prime minister said.
According to Netanyahu, in the lead-up to the conflict, Military Intelligence believed that Hamas was planning a multi-pronged attack against Israel in order to “remove the naval blockade.”
That, of course, failed and Hamas is now in an ongoing state of “strategic distress,” Netanyahu said.
Lawmakers, father of fallen soldier spar
During the discussion, members of the coalition clashed repeatedly with politicians from the opposition and, at times, with Sagi, the bereaved father.
Committee chair Elharar asked Netanyahu why decisions about the war couldn’t be made in the “proper way,” meaning with the input of the cabinet. Before the prime minister could answer, Likud MKs Miki Zohar and David Bitan interjected and yelled about leaks from the cabinet meetings.
As opposition party members shouted back at what they dubbed the “Likud choir,” Sagi demanded that Bitan and Zohar be more respectful and stop “bellyaching.”
“Where were you during the war? My son’s under the ground, and they’re acting like they’re the heroes,” said the father, whose son was among several soldiers killed in a pillbox bunker by gunmen who emerged from a cross-border tunnel in Israeli territory.
Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah sparred verbally with Netanyahu and his military secretary over the specifics of the army’s preparedness for the tunnel threat.
Shelah insisted that the army did not have a process in place to deal with the tunnels, while Netanyahu and his military secretary Brig. Gen. Eliezer Toledano said that though there was no “piece of paper” with the orders on it, in practice, the army did know how to handle the tunnels.
There were only a few incidents of Hamas gunmen coming into Israel through the tunnels, “which cost us eight — no, 11 soldiers,” Netanyahu said, noting that no civilians were killed by the underground threat during the conflict.
Looking ahead, Netanyahu told the committee there was little hope for the Gaza Strip and no possibility of direct negotiations with Hamas for “political alternatives” to war.
Without a diplomatic solution, the prime minister said, the only alternative for the future was another war, which he noted would look similar but more forceful than the past three campaigns in the Strip.
“Our ability to hurt Gaza has grown. I won’t elaborate,” Netanyahu said.
The prime minister also touched on the new barrier being constructed on the Gaza border to protect Israel from underground tunnels.
“I hope one day there’s a State Control Committee meeting about why we invested so many resources in this,” he said.
The problem with war in Gaza, Netanyahu said, is that all Israel can do is restore its deterrence against Hamas.
There are two options with Gaza, restore deterrence or occupy the Strip.
“If you occupy, you have to know who you’re going to hand it over to,” he said.
The room fell silent when Michal Keidar, whose husband Lt. Col. Dolev Keidar was killed in the 2014 war, spoke.
“The job of the government — and every Knesset member — is to prevent the next war,” she said.
Turning to Netanyahu, Keidar added, “Stop blaming everyone for your failures.”
Breaking down in tears, she decried the committee meeting as a “big play in front of the cameras” with every politician playing a part rather than seriously discussing how to fix the failures of the government and military.
“You say this was a war without options. There’s always another option,” Keidar said.
At the end of the meeting, Netanyahu thanked Elharar, the committee chair, saying he had requested the families be able to speak during the committee. But Bitan was quick to release a statement after the hearing claiming that the opposition had shown disrespect by using them for political haymaking.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.