Security service backtracks on claim it warned of Gaza war

In ongoing row between security chiefs, Shin Bet now says it only alerted of a large attack from Hamas; IDF chief says Shin Bet’s media conduct broke ‘every moral and ethical norm’

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz , left,  police chief Yohanan Danino, center, and Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen at a memorial service marking 19 years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in Jerusalem on November 05, 2014. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz , left, police chief Yohanan Danino, center, and Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen at a memorial service marking 19 years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in Jerusalem on November 05, 2014. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Shin Bet security service appeared Thursday to retract statements by senior officials in the intelligence-gathering organization that they had given the army unheeded warnings in early 2014 of an upcoming war with Hamas.

The organization said in a statement that Shin Bet officials had not in fact given advance warning of a coming war, but only of Hamas preparations for a large-scale attack that could lead to a war.

“Reports issued by the Shin Bet starting in January 2014 indicated Hamas preparations and training for a possible conflict with Israel. It should be noted that at no point did Shin Bet officials claim… that the Shin Bet provided warning based on these reports of a war against Hamas in July,” the statement said.

Science Minister Yaakov Peri, a former Shin Bet chief, told Israel Radio on Thursday it was very likely that the Shin Bet had reported of various Hamas plans but had not warned of an upcoming war per se. At any rate, he said, the implied criticism of the IDF by the security apparatus should not have been made in the news media.

In a Channel 2 investigative report aired earlier this week, a senior Shin Bet agent responsible for intelligence in the south of the country, identified only as R, spoke of information received in January of Hamas preparations for a massive conflict or campaign against Israel in the summer — information he insisted was conveyed to Israeli leaders. The report seemed to suggest that the organization had very precise information on Hamas plans to initiate a large-scale conflict, which was relayed to defense officials but was not given proper attention.

The Channel 2 report caused furious squabbling in the defense community, with IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz railing against the Shin Bet in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the latter castigating senior security brass Wednesday for publicly airing their grievances.

In Gantz’s letter, published by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily on Thursday, the army chief accused Shin Bet officials of crossing red lines, breaking “every moral and ethical norm,” and displaying “a deep lack of collegiality” to the army.

“Information was presented in the program in a skewed manner which created the false appearance that the Shin Bet was the only organization charged with intelligence-gathering in the Gaza Strip which did its work properly, while the others… froze,” Gantz wrote. “I declare categorically that the Shin Bet did not provide an alert and did not warn of Hamas’s intention to launch a war in July.”

Gantz further called for a full investigation into the organization’s media conduct in light of the incident.

Whether the spat is an issue of true significance or simply a misunderstanding over semantics, one thing is clear — the story has caused serious mistrust between Israel’s top defense officials.

On Wednesday Netanyahu convened a meeting in his Jerusalem office with Gantz, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen, and “ordered an immediate halt to publicly dealing with issues that should be resolved between the security services,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said.

“We all have a national responsibility for the security of the State of Israel and we must continue to fully cooperate for the security of Israel’s citizens,” the prime minister said.

A senior IDF official told Channel 10 on Wednesday that there were no specific war warnings given by the Shin Bet.

“There was no such warning or even half a warning,” the source said. “The Shin Bet is being dishonest and is just trying to present the IDF as not having prepared for the war that the Shin Bet warned about.”

Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen (photo credit: Flash90)
Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen (photo credit: Flash90)

According to the Channel 2 report, it was not the first time such allegations were made by the Shin Bet. Two days after the war ended, there was a cabinet meeting during which Cohen told ministers that his security service had given advance warning of the Hamas war plan. The head of military intelligence at the time, Gen. Aviv Kochavi, then retorted: “You didn’t say a word about a war in July.”

The Channel 2 report also filmed a Shin Bet operative named Shiran who said that “from January 2014″ information began to accumulate from which it was clear to the Shin Bet that Hamas was “preparing for war.”

The Shin Bet concluded that Hamas was aiming to “initiate a war” before Israel would be able to prepare with troops on the border. The goal would be to “invade Israeli communities — a war of ‘liberation’” — presumably through its cross-border tunnels as a first step. Hamas’s planned “second stage” would be to kidnap soldiers.

The Shin Bet had specific information that Hamas sought to complete its preparations by the end of June, so that it would be ready for the conflict in early July — precisely as proved to be the case.

The TV report filmed another Shin Bet operative saying he was “certain” that Shin Bet chief Cohen “passed the information to those to whom it had to be passed.”

However, IDF Spokesman Moti Almoz told the program no such advance warning was ever given. The word “war” was never uttered, he said, “not in January, not in February… It didn’t happen.”

The 50-day Israel-Hamas war saw the IDF expose and demolish dozens of tunnels Hamas had dug under the border, with Netanyahu saying that the Islamist terror group planned to use the tunnels to catastrophic effect against Israeli troops and civilians.

Eleven Israeli soldiers were killed in attacks by Hamas gunmen emerging from the tunnels during the summer conflict.

Hamas and other Gaza-based terror groups launched over 4,500 rockets and mortars at Israeli cities throughout Operation Protective Edge, which claimed the lives of over 2,000 Palestinians, at least half of them said by Israel to be combatants, 72 Israelis, the majority of them soldiers, and one Thai national working in Israel.

The war ended in late August in an Egyptian-brokered interim truce agreement, after which the sides were set to resume indirect negotiations in Cairo over a more long-term deal and tackle thorny issues such as the return of the remains of two IDF soldiers, the easing of the blockade on Gaza and the rehabilitation of the Palestinian enclave, an endeavor which has already commenced.

The fate of the talks remains unclear as Egypt last month refused to receive the Islamist group’s delegation to the negotiations, following a deadly terror attack in the Sinai which killed over 30 Egyptian troops, and in which Hamas was accused of being involved.

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