IDF chief: Calls for massive retaliation in Gaza are ‘irresponsible’

IDF chief: Calls for massive retaliation in Gaza are ‘irresponsible’

In wide-ranging speech, Gadi Eisenkot says Iran remains the main threat to Israel through Hezbollah and terror-funding throughout the Middle East

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

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on January 2, 2018. (Adi Cohen Zedek)
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on January 2, 2018. (Adi Cohen Zedek)

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot on Tuesday condemned calls by politicians and public figures for more forceful military retaliations to recent rocket attacks from Gaza as “irresponsible.”

Speaking at a conference in Herzliya, he noted that radical salafist terrorist groups are trying to “drag” Israel into renewed conflict in the coastal enclave — something he is seeking to avoid.

“We do not need to rush into things, but if we have to, we have the tools to do so,” Eisenkot told a packed auditorium at the Interdisciplinary Center during an event commemorating one of his deceased predecessors, Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.

The army chief noted that another war in Gaza — a tiny strip of land in which some two million Palestinians live with high levels of unemployment and poor quality of life — would “not [be] a simple dilemma.”

Eisenkot indicated that tensions with the Gaza Strip will continue as Israel constructs a NIS 3 billion ($865 million) barrier around the coastal enclave, specifically designed to counter underground attack tunnels.

A police officer inspects a rocket that was fired at the Eshkol region of southern Israel by terrorists in the Gaza Strip on January 1, 2018. (Israel Police)

“We’ve destroyed many tunnels and we will continue to destroy them, resulting in the deaths of terrorists, something that has encouraged terrorist groups, especially [salafist] ones, to carry out attacks,” he said.

Israel has maintained a policy of carrying out retaliatory strikes on Hamas facilities in response to any rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, regardless of who launched it. Eisenkot said he would continue that policy.

The army chief said that recent comments by politicians “encouraging the IDF to use maximum force in retaliation for rockets are irresponsible, in my opinion.”

In his wide-ranging speech, Eisenkot discussed what he said were five “fronts” that Israel was fighting on, as well as the larger threat posed by Iran, which has a hand in four of them.

Describing Iran as a “multidimensional threat,” the army chief said the most worrying aspect is the Islamic Republic’s desire to obtain nuclear capabilities, followed by its efforts to achieve hegemony in the region.

He noted the nearly $1.5 billion that the country invests in its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and — increasingly — Palestinian terrorist groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

According to Eisenkot, each year Iran sends between $700 million to $1 billion to Hezbollah each year, $100 million each to Shiite militias in Syria, Shiite militias in Iraq, rebels in Yemen and to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas terrorist groups.

The army chief did not provide the source for these figures.

The Gaza Strip, though currently one of the most pressing concerns in light of the past month of increased rocket fire, is only the fourth-most significant threat facing Israel, according to the Eisenkot’s assessment.

He noted that in the past year, no Israelis have been killed in attacks from Gaza and only one soldier has been lightly injured in one.

A tank flying the Hezbollah terror group’s flag is seen in the Qara area in Syria’s Qalamoun region on August 28, 2017 (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)

The most serious is the threat posed by the Hezbollah terrorist group in Lebanon, followed by the Iran-backed groups taking position on the Syrian border with Israel, and the risk posed by terrorist activities emanating from the West Bank, according to the army chief.

The fifth threat comes from the highly active Islamic State affiliate currently fighting the Egyptian military in the Sinai Peninsula, he said.

Iran, Iran, Iran

In recent years, Eisenkot said, the Hezbollah terrorist group has transformed from a “so-called defender of Lebanon to an Iranian proxy in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.”

He said the group has significant defense capabilities and can also attack the Israeli homefront, making it a formidable foe. The group is generally seen by the army as the benchmark by which it measures its preparedness for war.

Eisenkot noted the group has suffered some setbacks while fighting in Syria in support of the regime, with some 2,000 fighters killed and 10,000 injured, but said that it has also earned “no small amount of experience, which worries us.”

Fighters from the Hezbollah terror group are seen at a rally marking the 11th anniversary of the Second Lebanon War in the village of Khiam in southern Lebanon on August 13, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmoud Zayyat)

Regarding Syria, the army chief continued, the IDF has taken, and will continue to take, military action in order to prevent the entrenchment of Iran-backed Shiite militias on the border.

Eisenkot praised Israel’s ongoing efforts to curb the violence emanating from the West Bank. He noted that there was a dramatic drop in the number of attacks following the outbreak of violence in October 2015.

“Within four or five months, we succeeded in stabilizing the situation thanks to good policies,” he said.

The army chief, who is a vocal advocate of allowing Palestinians to work in Israel and in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, noted that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians do so each day, which allows them to have a functional society.

No refusals

In addition to discussing the external threats facing Israel, Eisenkot spoke to the deep divisions within Israeli society, which he said are negatively affecting opinions of the military and its ability to remain apolitical.

Without naming him explicitly, the army chief appeared to respond to, and deny, a recent claim made by former prime minister and former IDF chief of staff Ehud Barak that senior officers might refuse orders from the government if they oppose the policies behind them.

“As someone who has served for 40 years in the IDF, I can’t imagine officers refusing an order because of policy. They understand their role and their subordination to the political echelon,” Eisenkot said.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak attends a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, at the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem on June 5, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The army chief also responded to a recent letter sent by dozens of Israeli high school students who announced they were refusing to serve in the IDF because of the military occupation of the West Bank.

“The IDF didn’t ask to oversee the West Bank, that was a mission given to us by the political echelon. The army is subordinate to the government and doesn’t choose its missions,” he said.

Eisenkot denounced the 12th-graders’ refusal, but said those with moral concerns about the army should be more certain to serve in it in order to “influence those values,” and effect change from within the organization.

He also noted that the army has a standing order, which “doesn’t [just] allow, but requires, soldiers to refuse illegal orders.”

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