Israel’s outgoing IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot issued a thinly veiled threat against a powerful commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who has been overseeing Tehran’s efforts to deepen its military presence in Syria.
In wide-ranging interviews with two leading Israeli news channels aired on Saturday night, Eisenkot was asked about the threat posed to Israel by Iran, and specifically the role played by Qassem Soleimani, who heads the Quds Force expeditionary unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
He said Iran seeks to destroy the Jewish state and had sought to “strangle Israel from Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip.” Thanks to IDF operations, including the exposure of Hezbollah’s cross-border attack tunnels from Lebanon, he said, Iran was “a long way from achieving that goal.”
Asked whether Iran was giving up, Eisenkot said no, but that it was “scaling back.”
Noting that Soleimani was coordinating Iran’s military activities across Israel’s northern border, a Hadashot TV interviewer asked Eisenkot why he was still alive: “Are you weighing, or did you weigh, hitting him?”
“He who acts against us puts himself in danger,” replied Eisenkot, noting that “I don’t want to issue threats.”
Channel 10 asked Eisenkot more bluntly of Soleimani: “Why is he still alive?”
Eisenkot: “That’s a question.”
The interviewer persisted: “If it was up to you?” Eisenkot shrugged and said nothing.
In the interviews, the outgoing chief of staff said Israel is safer than it was four years ago, when he began his tenure, but still faces many challenges.
Beyond the nuclear threat posed by Iran, what worried him most was the Islamic Republic’s efforts to open a new front with Israel, by entrenching itself in Syria and strengthening its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah has a number of capabilities,” Eisenkot told Hadashot news, “among them a sophisticated plan to conquer parts of Israel [in a future conflict]. This was the flagship project of Hezbollah. The second plan was to build up its precise weapons capabilities to hit large-scale, specific targets in Israel.”
“As of right now, Hezbollah does not have precise capabilities to hit Israeli targets; its capabilities are marginal,” Eisenkot said.
Earlier this week, the IDF chief said the Lebanese terror group had planned to use its array of underground attack tunnels to carry out a surprise invasion of Israel that would “throw Israel off balance and cause an earthquake in Israeli society.” Israel, however, had shocked Hezbollah by depriving it of this weapon.
Last month, the army launched an engineering operation, Northern Shield, to find and destroy the cross-border attack tunnels. It also recently formed a new reserves battalion to act as the first line of defense against Hezbollah by protecting the communities along the northern border with Lebanon.
The IDF believes the Lebanese terror group will seek to conquer swaths of northern Israel as the opening maneuver of a future war, citing Hezbollah’s own propaganda and threats as evidence. Under the tunnel plan, hundreds of Hezbollah fighters were infiltrate into northern Israel through subterranean tunnels, while many more would swarm across the border above ground, and the surrounding area would be bombarded to prevent the Israeli military from sending in reinforcements to liberate it.
Military officials have indicated that the tunnels discovered by the IDF along the Lebanese border last month were a central aspect of Hezbollah’s plans for a surprise attack and that their destruction represented a significant setback for the terror group, potentially putting off a confrontation with Israel by several years.
Israel, Eisenkot said, has proven that it can act against Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and is hurting Iran’s capabilities significantly. “They wanted to build an intelligence operation on the Israeli border; we destroyed these efforts and they do not exist today.”
Eisenkot is set to step down January 15.
Ahead of his retirement, he also gave an interview to The New York Times in which he said that Israel has carried out “thousands” of airstrikes against Iranian military targets in Syria in recent years.
“We struck thousands of targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit,” he said.
Eisenkot said Israel in the last two years shifted its focus to Iran, its primary enemy, to prevent the IDF from getting bogged down in fighting secondary enemies like Hamas in Gaza.
“When you fight for many years against a weak enemy,” he said, “it also weakens you.”
At first, Eisenkot said Israeli operations in Syria operated under a “certain threshold,” referring to the IDF restricting strikes to weapons shipments bound for Iran’s Lebanon-based proxy group Hezbollah during the first few years of the civil war that broke out in 2011.
But in the years that followed, Eisenkot said Iran made a “significant change” in its Syria strategy, and began importing manpower from around the Muslim world in a bid to solidify its hold in the country.
“Their vision was to have significant influence in Syria by building a force of up to 100,000 Shiite fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “They built intelligence bases and an air force base within each Syrian airbase. And they brought civilians in order to indoctrinate them.”
By 2016, Eisenkot said, Soleimani had mobilized 3,000 of his men in Syria, along with 8,000 Hezbollah fighters and another 11,000 foreign Shiite troops.
By January 2017, Eisenkot said he received unanimous permission from the security cabinet to step up strikes in Syria to near daily occurrences. In 2018 alone, he said Israel dropped 2,000 bombs on Iranian targets.
Soleimani attempted to retaliate to the ramped up Israeli campaign by launching 30 rockets at northern Israel last May, but Eisenkot said that not a single one reached its target.
The outgoing IDF chief said the Israeli strikes have been successful in preventing Iran from entrenching itself in Syria like it has in Yemen, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Soleimani, he said, made a strategic mistake by underestimating Israel’s resolve to act against Iranian interests in the region.
“His error was choosing a playground where he is relatively weak,” Eisenkot said. “We have complete intelligence superiority in this area. We enjoy complete aerial superiority. We have strong deterrence and we have the justification to act.”
“The force we faced over the last two years was a determined force,” he added, “but not very impressive in its capabilities.”
As a result of the Israeli strikes, Eisenkot said the Iranians were moving troops out of Syria and “transferring their efforts” to Iraq.