Israel’s leadership taken by surprise, in a conflict it failed to see coming

‘We must not be dismissive about the situation we are in,’ defense minister says, as rockets hit nationwide and Arab riots spread. Rarely was advice more appropriate and necessary

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Israeli firefighters near a bus and other vehicles hit in a Gaza rocket strike on Holon near Tel Aviv, on May 11, 2021 (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)
Israeli firefighters near a bus and other vehicles hit in a Gaza rocket strike on Holon near Tel Aviv, on May 11, 2021 (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)

On one of the most shattering nights in recent Israeli history — with hundreds of Hamas rockets battering the country, and a violent minority of Israel’s own Arab populace targeting its Jews — the most disconcerting moments were those that showed the nation how profoundly our political leaders and security chiefs were taken by surprise.

Hours after Hamas launched what appears to have been its most concentrated rocket assault on central Israel, with a reported 130 rockets fired from Gaza, the prime minister, defense minister, army chief and Shin Bet head convened a joint press conference late Tuesday whose goals were plainly to reassure a nation under attack and to urge the population to heed life-saving security precautions.

The call to the public to head to safe rooms and bomb shelters as and when ordered came through loud and clear. Not so the reassurance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Hamas would pay a heavy price for its aggression, and that its leaders’ “blood is on their heads” — the kind of language that he has used often in the past in situations far less threatening; routine words for a situation that was anything but.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Israel after unprecedented Hamas rocket fire on central Israel, May 11, 2021. Also present, from left: IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi; Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman (Amos Ben-Gershom / GPO)

Sounding still further out of touch, IDF Chief Aviv Kohavi told the worried watching nation that the army was “fully deploying our air defenses to thwart the rocket fire, with great success, even if not hermetically” (emphasis added).

Israel’s astonishing Iron Dome missile defense system has indeed been achieving great success, reportedly hitting up to 90% of the incoming rockets at which it has been directed. But what the evidence of the previous few hours had shown was that Hamas and its fellow terror groups were nonetheless able to maintain their attacks almost at will, firing so often and so intensively as to occasionally evade even the most sophisticated defenses. Barely four hours later, Hamas proved the point, unleashing another colossal rocket barrage everywhere from southern Israel to north of Tel Aviv.

Of the political and security quartet, only Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman indicated tacit recognition that Hamas, rather than Israel, was setting the agenda in an escalation Israel’s intelligence assessments had failed to predict. Keeping his remarks to a minimum, Argaman said curtly that it was “insufferable” for a terrorist group to be threatening Israel, and that “now is not the time for talking.”

No sooner had the leaders left the stage than they were called to address a second, related, severe crisis they had evidently failed to anticipate — what Israel’s police commissioner called an unprecedented eruption of Arab mob violence on the streets of Lod, which rapidly spread across more of the Arab community.

There had been Arab violence in Lod on Monday night, in which an Arab man was shot dead by a Jew in hotly disputed circumstances, but Tuesday was rioting of a different order, with local Jewish residents phoning in reports to TV studios of gangs of Arab youths marauding through the streets, setting cars alight, throwing Molotov cocktails into Jewish homes, smashing stores, and in three reported cases, torching synagogues. “Police are nowhere to be seen,” charged one resident.

Man carries a Torah scroll from a torched synagogue in the central Israeli city of Lod, following a night of heavy rioting on May 12, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Mayor Yair Revivo, sounding desperate, told Channel 12 that “civil war” was breaking out in his city. Decades of coexistence efforts were going down the drain. Restoring and maintaining order was “a mission too big for the police,” he wailed, and so he had telephoned Netanyahu to plead that a state of emergency be declared and army units be rushed in. Revivo likened the situation to Kristallnacht. President Reuven Rivlin, speaking Wednesday, called it “a pogrom” and castigated Israel’s Arab leadership for its “shameful” silence.

That crime has been running largely unchecked in the Arab sector; that heavy violence and murder have become unremarkable; that a sense of discrimination and alienation is ever-present among much of Israel’s 23% Arab minority; that a fuming minority of Arab Israeli youths have been central participants in the recent riots and clashes on the Temple Mount and around Damascus Gate in Jerusalem; that hostility has been further whipped up by extremist Jewish groups who now have representatives in the Knesset; that the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement has for years incited anti-Israel sentiment among its followers and Hamas has sought to do the same: all that and more has long been known by the government and the security establishment.

What was highlighted in the plea for help Tuesday night from Revivo — a former Likud election campaign chief and robust ally of the prime minister — was that the authorities failed to fully internalize where all those processes might lead. When parts of the Arab sector erupted overnight Tuesday — with Lod at the forefront, but violence too in Jaffa and Acre and other Jewish-Arab areas — the police were unprepared, and the government was, as with the rockets, forced frantically to react to events that others were setting in motion.

This current conflict could yet become considerably more complex for Israel to handle. Hezbollah, the other quasi-state terrorist army, across our northern border, has far greater rocket and missile capabilities than Hamas, ready to fire the moment that Iran gives the signal. Relatively speaking, the West Bank has thus far been conspicuous in the disinclination of its residents to enter the confrontation, despite the best efforts of Hamas. One of the many reasons the government and the IDF have for years preferred not to engage in major conflict with Gaza is precisely the concern that it could trigger major conflict on multiple fronts.

Rockets are launched towards Israel from Gaza City on May 11, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

The events of the last two days, and the evident surprise by which the government and military have been taken, underline the long-bewailed consequences of our years of political dysfunction, marked by endless election campaigning, narrow bickering and transitional government — a paralyzing concoction antithetical to strategic thinking and clear policymaking.

Where Gaza is concerned, “there is no policy,” the former Mossad officer Sima Shine opined on Tuesday afternoon. For years, said the former national security adviser Giora Eiland, there has been no serious, strategic government discussion of options for Gaza.

Gloating at having briefly shut down the Knesset, disrupted Jerusalem Day, and sent half the country dashing for shelter, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh declared late Tuesday that his Gaza-ruling terror group had created “a new balance of power” with Israel. As the Shin Bet’s Argaman said, that is “insufferable.”

At the leadership’s disconcerting press conference, Defense Minister Benny Gantz cautioned Israelis: “We must not be dismissive about the situation we are in.”

Rarely was advice more appropriate and necessary.

** This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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