Tehran seeks 'ground, aerial, naval, intel' forces at border

IDF chief: Iran wants to deploy 100,000 fighters in Syria; we’re preventing it

Outgoing army commander Eisenkot admits failure in giving residents of southern Israel ‘feeling of security,’ but says people don’t see most of what army does

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at a conference in the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on December 23, 2018. (Eli Dassa/IDC)
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at a conference in the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on December 23, 2018. (Eli Dassa/IDC)

Outgoing IDF chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot on Sunday defended the military against recent criticism of insufficient action against Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, saying the army’s primary goal in recent years has been thwarting Iran’s efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria. Tehran is seeking to establish a force of 100,000 fighters in Syria, he said, and the IDF is preventing it from doing so.

Eisenkot, who is due to end his four-year tenure as army chief next month, acknowledged that the Israel Defense Forces had failed to give Israelis, especially those living near Gaza, a “feeling of security,” but indicated this was in part due to the fact that the civilian population is unaware of the majority of the military’s activities.

Comparing the threats to Israel to an iceberg, Eisenkot said that the visible dangers — terror attacks in the West Bank, rockets from Gaza — are the smallest, while “what isn’t seen, and which takes much of the army’s effort, is the multi-dimensional threat of Iran.”

While the army chief warned of ongoing threats to Israel, his speech was overall optimistic about the Jewish state’s security situation.

“I think we can look back proudly at how the country has grown and thrived in the past year despite the mighty challenges Israel has faced, from Iran, from Syria, from Lebanon, from the West Bank, from Gaza, from international terror groups,” Eisenkot said.

Israeli soldiers taking positions during clashes with Palestinian protesters across the Gaza border on October 19, 2018 near Nahal Oz. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“Israel has great deterrence toward our surroundings, in terms of the way we radiate power and in how we are seen by our enemies. Israel has intelligence superiority, aerial superiority, naval superiority, cybernetic superiority. [The country’s enemies] experience this,” he said.

Without elaborating, Eisenkot also added that Israel played a key role in the fight against the Islamic State terror group.

“The Israeli contribution to the defeat of IS is much greater than what the media and the public eye see. I can say this today. I didn’t think it was right to say that in 2015, 2016 or 2017,” he said.

The army chief made his remarks during a wide-ranging and extensive speech at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya at an annual event honoring former IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who died in 2012.

Incoming Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi shakes hands with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot at a ceremony in the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters on May 11, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

As this was his last appearance at the conference as IDF chief, Eisenkot discussed not only the threats currently facing the State of Israel, but also the successes and failures of the military over his four-year tenure, which will end on January 15 when he is replaced by Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.

The IDF commander also briefly discussed the White House’s recent decision to pull its troops from Syria — which analysts fear will allow Iran to more easily spread weapons and fighters throughout the Middle East — saying it was a “significant event,” but not an issue whose importance should be exaggerated.

Last week, US President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing the approximately 2,000 US troops currently stationed in northeastern Syria. The soldiers had been specifically deployed there to fight the Islamic State terror group, but had also helped block the establishment of an Iranian-controlled land corridor from the Islamic Republic through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and to the Mediterranean Sea.

US soldiers gather for a briefing during a combined joint patrol rehearsal in Manbij, Syria, November 7, 2018. (US Army photo by Spc. Zoe Garbarino via AP)

“The American decision to withdraw troops from Syria is a significant event, but there’s no need to overstate it. We’ve been dealing alone with this front for decades,” Eisenkot said.

These were the Israeli general’s first public comments about the American withdrawal decision.

“This was an American decision. The IDF has been working independently this whole time, including during the period of American and Russian presence,” Eisenkot said.

100,000 pro-Iranian troops on Israel’s border

The main concern of the Israeli army over the past four years has been Iran and specifically its efforts to entrench militarily in Syria, where the Islamic Republic has been assisting the country’s dictator Bashar Assad since nearly the start of its civil war in 2011, the army chief said.

Israel has long warned of Iranian efforts to establish a permanent military presence along the Golan border.

According to Eisenkot, this plan was led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. The goal was to create a second front from which Iran could threaten the Jewish state, the first being Lebanon, where Iran’s proxy and client Hezbollah has amassed a huge arsenal of over 100,000 rockets and missiles.

“The Iranian vision for Syria for the day after [the war]… was to build a force of 100,000 ground troops. There are already 20,000 fighters from Hezbollah, Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and thousands of advisers from Iran. The desire is to build a combined ground, aerial, naval and intelligence capability, really to construct a line of military positions along the Golan [border],” Eisenkot said.

This file photo provided on Friday October 20, 2017 by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media shows Iran’s army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looks into binoculars as he visits with other senior officers from the Iranian military on a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

The army chief said the IDF has been largely successful in preventing this Iranian plan — destroying weapons-manufacturing facilities, pushing pro-Iranian forces from the border and limiting the number of Shiite militia forces inside the country — by conducting “constant” strikes and operations inside Syria.

“Preventing the entrenchment of Iran in Syria was the main focus of the IDF in the past four years. This was the large base of the iceberg, which was hidden from the Israeli public’s eye. We devoted significant resources, intelligence, aerial resources and other mostly covert operations that average Israelis, even those living in the Golan, were unaware of over the years,” the army chief said.

Israel has been destroying arms factories in Syria that “combine Syrian infrastructure, Iranian money and Hezbollah capabilities.”

Eisenkot said Israel has carried out this fight against Iran independently for years, under varying conditions.

He acknowledged that Russia’s military presence in Syria since 2015 — in support of Assad — made the IDF’s operations more complicated.

“It influenced how we used force. But I, as the chief of staff, felt that there was an understanding [with Russia] about the security of the State of Israel,” he said. “Russia allowed us to work toward the benefit of Israel’s interests.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they prepare to deliver joint statements after a meeting and a lunch in the Israeli leader’s Jerusalem residence, June 25, 2012. (AP/Jim Hollander, Pool)

Ties between Israel and Russia have been strained since a Russian spy plane was shot down by Syrian air defenses during an Israeli airstrike in September, which Moscow officially blamed on the IDF. Russia publicly condemned Israel for the downing of its aircraft and the deaths of 15 men on board, accusing Israeli pilots of deliberately “taking cover” behind the plane — which the IDF has repeatedly denied.

While the military says it continues to operate in Syria as necessary, Israeli officials have indicated that the event soured relations with Russia and limited the IDF’s freedom of operation.

According to Eisenkot, most of the IDF’s activities in Syria were unknown to most Israeli citizens until the beginning of this year. He put the turning point at an event on February 10, in which an F-16 fighter jet was shot down by Syrian air defenses while it was conducting raids against Iranian and Syrian targets.

In this image made from video provided by Yehunda Pinto, the wreckage of an Israeli F-16 is seen on fire near Harduf, northern Israel, February 10, 2018. (Yehunda Pinto via AP)

“Unfortunately, the Israeli citizen only became aware of this when an F-16 jet was shot down during one of our attacks against Iranian sites deep inside Syria. Before this, there were hundreds of operations and attacks that benefited Israel, but they were out of sight,” he said.

“We thought it correct not to publicize them, even if it would give us more credit, increase support and raise the national morale a bit,” the army chief said.

Eisenkot said the army’s activities in Syria again came to the fore three months later, as Iran planned to launch approximately 60 missiles at northern Israel in response to the IDF’s regular air raids.

“This effort was spotted,” he said.

Anti-aircraft fire rises into the sky as Israeli missiles hit air defense positions and other military bases around Damascus, Syria, on May 10, 2018, following what the Israeli military said was an Iranian barrage of rockets against Israeli bases on the Golan Heights. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

“They managed to fire about half of what they planned. And there wasn’t a single hit inside Israel, and that night there were extensive strikes against Iranian and Syrian targets throughout Syria,” Eisenkot said.

The army chief said this campaign against Iran in Syria has been largely successful.

In recent weeks, Israeli defense officials have said that Iran and Hezbollah have also failed to mass produce precision guided missiles in Lebanon, as they had planned to do.

Eisenkot indicated that these aspects of the army’s activities are unknown or ignored, leading to feelings of inaction.

“There’s a gap between what’s in the public eye and the work [the IDF is doing],” he said.

No ‘feeling of security’

In southern Israel, since late March, there have been regular clashes along the Gaza border directed by the ruling Hamas terror group; thousands of acres of land in southern Israel burned by Palestinians in the Strip launching airborne incendiary devices; and occasional outbreaks of violence with hundreds of rockets and mortar shells launched at Israeli communities surrounding the coastal enclave.

Despite these attacks, the Israeli government refrained from launching a large-scale campaign against Hamas. Eisenkot defended the decision, saying he believed Hamas had failed to achieve its goals, but acknowledged that the choice was “arguable” and did not come without a cost.

“I am aware of the fact that we as a military did not succeed in providing a good feeling of security in the past eight, nine months. I think we provided security under very, very complicated conditions. But the feeling of security was harmed with fairly primitive means by our enemy,” he said.

People gather outside a house that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on November 13, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Indeed, former defense minister Avigdor Liberman resigned from his position in protest of the government’s policies toward Gaza, saying they were “a capitulation to terror.”

According to the army chief, Hamas hoped to use the border protests and clashes — dubbed the “Great March of Return” — to end the blockade Israel has in place on Gaza, to inspire similar riots in the West Bank, and to garner international recognition and legitimacy.

“They’ve failed, relatively, in reaching those three goals. Though they have greatly succeeded in shaking the feeling of security of Gaza-adjacent residents,” Eisenkot said.

A house hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, November 13, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The army chief noted that no Israeli civilians have been killed and few have been injured by attacks from the Gaza Strip since the 2014 war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge. He later acknowledged that a Palestinian man living in Ashkelon had been killed in  a missile attack from Gaza in the most recent bout with Hamas in November.

In the interim four years, he added, only two soldiers have been killed and 16 injured from Gaza attacks — a record low in Israel’s history.

However, while he maintained the terror group remained “relatively deterred” since the 2014 war, Eisenkot said the expectation that Hamas would cease all military activities was unrealistic.

“This is arguable, but from my experience, it’s impossible to deter countries and organizations from conventional rearmament. I can’t think of a historical example of forcefully preventing rearmament,” he said.

“We’ve done a lot to prevent as much as we can Hamas’s armament and preventing advanced munitions from reaching Gaza. We’ve significantly damaged [Hamas’s] ability to create and re-arm in the last four years. We’ve bombed 800 targets — headquarters, military positions or manufacturing facilities,” he said.

Palestinians inspect a crater caused by an Israeli airstrike earlier this week during fighting with Palestinian terror groups, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 14, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

He dismissed the allegation that Hamas no longer fears the IDF — one often heard from Israeli politicians on both sides of the aisle.

“Deterrence isn’t built in a day and it doesn’t disappear in a day,” Eisenkot said.

Turning to the West Bank, the army chief acknowledged that the military needed to work harder to prevent terror attacks, while defending the IDF’s policies and arguing against harsher treatment of Palestinians.

In recent months, the West Bank too has seen a significant rise in attacks against both Israeli civilians and troops, which has prompted yet more criticism of the IDF for both failing to prevent the attacks and taking insufficient retributive action after the fact.

This month has seen two deadly terror attacks and several others in which people were injured. On December 9, Palestinian terrorists opened fire at a group of Israelis standing at a bus stop outside the West Bank settlement of Ofra, hitting seven of them. A seven-months pregnant woman was seriously wounded, and her baby, who was prematurely delivered in an emergency Caesarean section, died several days later.

Less than a week later, another Palestinian terrorist opened fire at a bus stop outside the nearby Givat Assaf outpost, killing two soldiers and seriously injuring a third serviceman and a civilian woman.

The Ofra terrorist was killed by Israeli troops when they came to arrest him, while the army says it has yet to capture the Givat Assaf gunman.

Israeli soldiers, medical officials and police inspect the scene of a terrorist shooting attack near Givat Assaf, in the central West Bank, on December 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Eisenkot said the military and other security services were largely successful in countering terrorism in the West Bank and allowing both Israelis and Palestinians to go about their daily lives, but nevertheless needed to thwart all attacks, not just most.

“Last year, we arrested over 3,000 potential assailants and prevented hundreds and hundreds of attacks,” Eisenkot said.

“But our job as an army is to provide results, not excuses. We need to prevent 100 percent of attacks,” the army chief said.

However, Eisenkot argued against the calls for more forceful action against Palestinians. The chief of staff has repeatedly come out against retaliatory measures following terror attacks, insisting that the best way to prevent violence in the West Bank is to allow Palestinians to work and go to school with minimal interference by or friction with Israeli troops.

“There is a thought that if we use more force, [the attacks] will end. This is a wrong approach,” he said.

Hezbollah tunnels: Another Yom Kippur War

The outgoing army chief also discussed the IDF’s latest operation, Northern Shield, which was launched earlier this month to find and destroy attack tunnels dug into Israeli territory from southern Lebanon.

The tunnels were part of a plot by Hezbollah to “conquer the Galilee, to take over a five-kilometer strip in the north of the country in order to attain a resounding historical achievement,” Eisenkot said.

According to the military, the terror group’s plan was to use the tunnels as a surprise component of the opening salvo of a future war with Israel. In order to conquer parts of the Galilee panhandle, Hezbollah would send dozens or hundreds of fighters through the tunnels, along with masses of troops above ground, accompanied by a large fusillade of rockets and mortars aimed at northern Israel to prevent the IDF from reaching and liberating the area.

Israeli soldiers stand around the opening of a hole that leads to a tunnel that the army says was dug by the Hezbollah terror group across the Israel-Lebanon border, near Metula, on December 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Referring to its as a “grandiose” plan, the army chief said Hezbollah considered it akin to the surprise launch of the 1973 Yom Kippur War by Syria and Egypt, which caught the IDF off guard.

“We found out about this plan four years ago and set out to thwart it,” Eisenkot said.

So far, the Israeli military has uncovered four cross-border attack tunnels. After studying them, the IDF began the process of destroying the passages on Thursday.

“Most of the passages that enter Israel have been found, and I believe that we will complete this mission in the near future,” Eisenkot said.

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