Hamas disarming? Forget about it, says top IDF intel officer
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Interview

Hamas disarming? Forget about it, says top IDF intel officer

In a rare interview, Lt.-Col. M., tasked with understanding the Palestinian ‘enemy,’ looks at how Hamas sees the summer’s war, and how the West Bank reality might play out

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian masked supporters of the Islamist Hamas movement take part in a demonstration in Rafah in southern Gaza Strip in August 2014. (photo credit: AFP/SAID KHATIB)
Palestinian masked supporters of the Islamist Hamas movement take part in a demonstration in Rafah in southern Gaza Strip in August 2014. (photo credit: AFP/SAID KHATIB)

Lt.-Col. M., the head of the Palestinian desk at Military Intelligence’s Research Department, was tasked with a near-impossible mission during the 50 days of fighting in Gaza: understand the intentions of Hamas’s leadership, and assess its resilience.

Now M., the man ultimately charged with gauging the Palestinian “enemy,” be it Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, is trying to understand what exactly happened in the last conflict, and how Hamas views things in its wake.

“When we evaluate how Hamas leaders see the war, and I am referring to both public and private conversations, their conclusion is negative. At the same time, they are not entirely devoid of accomplishments,” M. said in a rare interview with Times of Israel.

“For them, the latest round of conflict uncovered some serious problems: The Arab world remained on the sidelines, and an even more resounding failure was that the West Bank public was apathetic. The isolation of Gaza remains, and there are still no signs of the blockade being lifted. The recent war was entirely different for them than Pillar of Defense. There, they had accomplishments. Here, this was a battle over governance, economy, and the public space.”

‘Hamas did not plan or initiate this campaign. It got worse on its watch. Yet Hamas certainly wanted to take advantage of the war, to attain civilian accomplishments’

Lt.-Col. M. emphasizes that such assessments are not only those of the Research Department, but of Military Intelligence as a whole. The deeper significance, which M. does not explicitly delineate, is that the situation in Gaza is not expected to improve anytime soon.

“My estimate is that the movement that fought a war over these issues will not easily give up its rule. That is, Hamas will not relinquish its military capabilities or its military wing,” he says. “The demand that it subordinate its military wing to the PA is unrealizable. For now, the talk of ‘one weapon,’ or ‘one authority’ is just talk.”

What should we make of the claim that the “July War” was carefully planned by Hamas?

“The position of MI is clear: The stories about a ‘July War’ are nonsense. There is no information to show that Hamas had a ‘Pearl Harbor-style’ contingency plan prepared, which they pulled out suddenly, surprising us completely. And the others [the Shin Bet security service] agree about this.

“What we see was a gradual deterioration. Prior to Protective Edge, it was obvious that Hamas did not want war. And certainly not an all-out war. After Operation Brothers’ Keeper [when security forces arrested numerous Hamas operatives in the West Bank, as Israel sought the killers of three Israeli teenagers abducted on June 12], there was an escalation on the ground led by smaller factions, including Islamic Jihad.

“Take for instance the Abd al-Wader al-Husseini Brigades. They fired rockets [at Israel from Gaza] before and during the war, and contributed to the deterioration and escalation. I can assure you that some of the members of this group do no even know who Abd al-Wader al-Husseini was. (He was a leader of Arab forces in Jerusalem and Hebron during the 1948 War of Independence.) They are punks in flip-flops with RPGs.

“Hamas did not plan or initiate this campaign. It got worse on its watch. Yet Hamas certainly wanted to take advantage of the war, to attain civilian accomplishments.”

Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal answers AFP journalists' questions during an interview in the Qatari capital of Doha, on August 10, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/al-Watan Doha/Karim Jaafar)
Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal answers AFP journalists’ questions during an interview in the Qatari capital of Doha, on August 10, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/al-Watan Doha/Karim Jaafar)

Lt.-Col. M. refuses to talk about the balance of forces with the various Hamas factions, but is happy to give his opinion of the leader of the organization, Khaled Mashaal. “There is a certain riddle here. He is a fascinating figure, in my opinion. Gaza residents mocked him in various forums, writing about the ‘Jihad of the hotels’ [referring sneeringly to Mashaal’s speeches urging continued resistance, issued from his hotel in Qatar]. He no longer has control of the organization’s money, or over the weapons being brought into Gaza. And yet he has authority. I think it is connected to the man’s charisma, and to the concept of the ‘General Guide’ that flourishes among Muslim Brotherhood organizations. Mashaal still sets the tone, but he is not the absolute authority. There is internal coherence between all the wings [of Hamas]. And right now I still do not see anyone who can succeed him.”

Muhammad Deif
Muhammad Deif

And what of the fate of Mohammed Deif, [the Gaza military commander and arch-terrorist, wanted for decades by Israel, whose wife and children were killed in an Israeli airstrike on August 19 and who has not been heard from since]?

“I am not willing to discuss this. I can only say to you that most Gaza resident believe he is alive.”

Why did Hamas keep fighting if, in your assessment, it didn’t want the war?

“Their principle was to keep fighting until they had some achievement. And once they set goals such as the removal of the blockade or the building of an airport and a seaport, they had to act to achieve these gains. Hence the prolonged fighting. At some point it became a trap for them, because they did not accomplish anything, and ending the war without any achievements was more dangerous to them than halting the rocket fire.”

“As a government, they suffered heavy losses, with many Gazans dead and displaced — 100,000 to 150,000 people homeless — as well as the destruction of so much infrastructure.”

“On the operational level, there was no surprise here for Israel. Most of the arsenal of medium-range rockets that Hamas had spent years stockpiling were thwarted by the Iron Dome, and their special operations were largely thwarted by the IDF. They were had a third of their rockets left, of various ranges, at the end. But they also have some things they see as constituting a victory — their resilience, the ability to damage the fabric of life in Israel, including at Ben Gurion Airport, as well as emptying out the settlements around Gaza at the end of the war. The bottom line, though, is that it was a grim event for them.

A rocket explodes in the Kerem Shalom border crossing compound, August 10, 2014. (screen capture: YouTube/zafat 1986)
A rocket explodes in the Kerem Shalom border crossing compound, August 10, 2014. (screen capture: YouTube/zafat 1986)

“How this operation is etched in the minds of the Palestinians is related to the economic issues. In July 2013, after the revolution in Egypt and the closure of the smuggling tunnels [under the Sinai-Gaza border], the first cracks in the calm [that had prevailed between Israel and Gaza since 2012’s Pillar of Defense] were felt. The stabilization of the current ceasefire will depend on what happens in relation to the operation of the border crossings, the transfer of salaries to Hamas clerks, and the rehabilitation of Gaza. But nothing concrete has been agreed that would allow any of this to unfold constructively. Hamas wants to see members of the PA’s Presidential Guard run the Kerem Shalom crossing for goods [between Israel and Gaza] and the Erez crossing for people. They are also anxious [to see eased access at the] Rafah border crossing with Egypt. But the Egyptians are dragging their feet with regards to Rafah. This is the famous Egyptian ‘slowly, slowly’ approach.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recites a prayer in memory of those killed during the Gaza campaign ahead of a press conference on August 26, 2014 in the West Bank city of Ramallah, to formally announce a ceasefire with Israel.  (photo credit: AFP/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recites a prayer in memory of those killed during the Gaza campaign ahead of a press conference on August 26, 2014 in the West Bank city of Ramallah, to formally announce a ceasefire with Israel. (photo credit: AFP/Abbas Momani)

And what about Abbas and the West Bank, how things are developing there? Here M. sounds wary and is not prepared to disclose MI’s assessments, perhaps out of fear that they will be interpreted as criticism of the political echelon.

What are the chances of the outbreak of a third intifada?

“Let’s put it like this: I still feel that the mood on the Palestinian street in the West Bank is a function of a strong desire to maintain the fabric of life – people see what is happening in Syria and other places in the region, and there is still the memory of [the IDF’s anti-suicide bomber] Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. But much of the stability on the ground depends on the economic and civil component.

“What can cause unrest and instability, and I intentionally am not talking in terms of a third intifada, is the undermining of the economic component, or something dramatic like the harming of a symbol such as Jerusalem. As long as these brakes are maintained, matters are under control for now. But these things are potentially incendiary, and nothing lasts forever.”

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