Israel’s intelligence was severely lacking and its military not adequately prepared to swiftly destroy the network of offensive tunnels used by the Palestinian militant group Hamas during the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip, according to a scathing official report released Tuesday.
Critics seized on the report by Israel’s state comptroller to argue that the failures prolonged the war, which lasted 50 days, and led to greater losses on both sides.
The report highlights systemic shortfalls in the planning, preparations and real-time decisions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, the army’s chief of staff at the time and others in the security cabinet.
If Israel’s objective in the war was to find and destroy dozens of attack tunnels dug by Gaza’s militant Islamist organizations to infiltrate into Israel, its mission failed, the report states.
The investigators estimated that only half of the tunnels were neutralized by the war’s end in August 2014 – despite claims by Israel’s military that it had eliminated the threat.
“Even though the threat of the tunnels was severe and was known to the army’s southern command since 2008, the military’s southern command had no strategic operational plan to deal with the threat,” the investigators said.
The report was written by an Israeli general and released by the comptroller, Yosef Shapira, after an audit from September 2014 to August 2016.
In Israeli eyes, the report is far more important than those previously released by human rights groups and the United Nations.
The comptroller’s report does not address exactly how many of the tunnels are still operational.
Israeli forces continue to report that Hamas is digging new tunnels and expanding older ones. Since the war’s end, the Gaza front has been relatively quiet, though Salafist groups in the coastal enclave occasionally fire rockets into Israeli territory.
The report highlights that in the months between the creation of Netanyahu’s previous administration, in March 2013, and the start of hostilities with Hamas in July 2014, his security cabinet did not discuss how conditions in the Gaza Strip – soaring unemployment, lack of water and electricity blackouts – could pressure Hamas to go to war.
The war was preceded by weeks of Israeli pressure on Hamas militants in the West Bank, including hundreds of arrests, after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by a Hamas cell near Hebron. The teens were found dead a week before the war began July 7.
Seventy-four Israelis, including 68 soldiers, and more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in the fighting. The United Nations and human rights groups say that 7 in 10 Palestinians killed were civilians, including 500 minors. Israel says that about half the Palestinian dead were combatants and accuses Hamas of employing “human shields” – leading to the large numbers of civilian fatalities.
Israeli airstrikes and ground troops also caused extensive damage to the strip’s infrastructure, much of which has not yet been rebuilt.
The comptroller’s investigators concluded that Netanyahu and his government did not actively seek diplomatic alternatives to a war.
At the war’s start, the most pressing challenge was stopping the constant barrage of Hamas rockets and mortar shells.
The report concludes that the military initially believed it could quickly neutralize the threat of tunnels from outside Gaza. After 10 days of Israeli bombing – and rocket salvos by Hamas – the Israel Defense Forces sent tanks and troops, alongside sappers and combat bulldozers, into the enclave to destroy the tunnels. Most of the casualties on both sides occurred during this period of the war.
While the report is the most in-depth investigation to date into events that led to the war and Israel’s actions during it, the comptroller notes that the inquiry does not assess the validity of Israel’s decisions or the overall results of the war.
Embargoed copies of the report were distributed to politicians and journalists days earlier, leading to lengthy analyses by Israeli commentators and finger-pointing by leaders involved in shaping the outcome of the war.
The report stresses that Netanyahu, Yaalon and senior members of the defense, intelligence and security establishment failed to share crucial information with the decision-makers, primarily the select handful of ministers on the security cabinet.
“The audit notes that during the security cabinet briefings starting with the disappearance of three Israeli teens in June and until the start of the war in July 2014, the tunnel threat was not discussed, nor was it brought up by the ministers. And that is despite the fact that the escalation with Gaza had already begun, with rockets being shot into Israel,” the report says.
“I can tell you that they did not tell us anything,” said a member of the security cabinet who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. “The prime minister does not need to tell the inner security cabinet every problem if he has a plan to take care of it. But there was no defensive plan, and security mechanisms were even removed from Israeli communities around Gaza in the lead-up to the operation.”
Yaalon dismissed the complaints as untrue and grandstanding.
“And the biggest lie of all? That we weren’t prepared and lost. It’s nonsense,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the former chief of staff, said that “there was fine intelligence, excellent, accessible, not always perfect,” according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Maariv.
“The outcome of the operation was a severe blow to Hamas, a disruption of the tunnels, the establishment of deterrence and Hamas remaining as the sovereign power on the ground. Forget about what people say.”
Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page that the army had achieved great success in the war.
“The army hit Hamas hard, we took out around 1000 terrorists and destroyed thousands of Hamas’s rockets. We prevented attacks on Israeli cities with the Iron Dome batteries and foiled Hamas’s plans to tunnel into southern Israel to kidnap civilians,” he wrote.
Netanyahu also said that the security cabinet discussed the issue of the tunnels 13 times before the war and that its severity was highlighted.
However, parents of Israeli troops killed in the fighting said it was time that certain leaders accepted blame for what they now see as a failed war.
Speaking to Israel’s Channel 2 News, Ilan Sagi, whose son Erez was killed in the fighting, called the government and military’s handling of the war “shameful.”
“Politicians are celebrating, and all of them are denying what happened,” he said. “My child was killed for this state and for his people. Those who made mistakes should pay the price.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Ruth Eglash, William Booth