The texts of meeting protocols which were used in the State Comptroller’s draft report on the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict, also known as Operation Protective Edge, offer a peek into the intense political pressure used mainly by Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) to force a reluctant IDF and defense ministry brass to take action against the Hamas terror tunnels reaching inside Israel, Channel 2 News revealed Saturday night.
One mindblowing revelation in the report is that Defense Minister Ya’alon, famous for his recent encouragement of IDF officers to speak their minds, no matter what, was in the habit, during the security cabinet meetings, of forcing those same officers to remain silent if their views did not match his own. Some Israeli commentators have already speculated that Ya’alon chose to leave over an “ideological” dispute with Prime Minister Netanyahu, rather than to be pushed out over the upcoming condemning Comptroller’s report.
The security cabinet convened on the day of the discovery of the bodies of three Jewish youths who had been kidnapped by Hamas operatives. At the meeting, Former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, now retiring Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and the Shabak — all shared the view that Hamas was not seeking a large-scale confrontation with Israel. In the meeting, Minister of the Economy and of Religious Services Naftali Bennett, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebrman (Yisrael Beiteinu) both warned they would vote against a weak military retaliation.
At the same meeting, the protocols show Bennett mentioning dozens of Hamas attack tunnels and the fear that Hamas would use them for a strategic attack. This information should be viewed in the context of the 2006 Gilad Shalit kidnapping. The Shalit kidnapping was executed in a Hamas raid using a cross-border underground tunnel. It resulted in the 2011 prisoner exchange fiasco, in which PM Netanyahu, fearing for his popularity, released 1,027 Arab security prisoners, many with Jewish blood on their hands.
On that first security cabinet of the Gaza War, before the forces had been launched, Netanyahu told Ya’alon: “I would like to see plans for taking care of the tunnels, even if this would lead to an escalation and to rocket fire.” But the meeting ended without resolutions.
24 hours later, the security cabinet convened again, twice. Ya’alon presented a report saying that Egypt claims Hamas is calling for restraint.
Bennett then asked, “What will happen if they use the tunnels the way did with Gilad Shalit?”
Netanyahu answered that “a penetrating ground operation might drag Israel into conquering Gaza.”
And Ya’alon said, on the record, “If we don’t act, Hamas won’t use the tunnels.”
“Are we going to hear the plan to take care of the tunnels?” Bennett insisted, and Netanyahu explained that the army still needs to discuss those plans. Bennett responded impatiently, “They should have done their homework already.”
Another 24 hours later, Shabak presented intelligence reports of an attack tunnel near the Jewish community of Kerem Shalom. However, the Shabak head assured the security cabinet: “Strategically, the Hamas has no intention of using the tunnels.” Bennett asked him how he knew this, and the Shabak head did not respond.
Bennet: Is it possible to destroy the tunnels?
Gantz: There are a few options of action.
Bennett: Is there a plan?
Gantz: We should leave the decision of taking care [of the tunnels] to when we decide whether we’re going in on the ground and how.
According to Channel 2, Gantz was referring to the option of bombing the tunnel openings from the air, using intelligence reports.
On July 3, 2014, at the next security cabinet meeting, the IDF once again argues that Hamas does not intend to use the tunnels, which results in confrontation between various ministers. At some point, Bennett called IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz a “lazy horse,” saying that the forces in the field are eager to go into Gaza and finish the job once and for all, but the high command is preventing them.
Netanyahu: Attacking the tunnels would make it difficult to expose and thwart them.
Bennett: There is a scenario of a mass attack coming out of the tunnels.
Gantz: If we exit from a tunnel and they’ll shoot at us from some hilltop, and we’ll take it over, and then another hill, and another, we’ll find ourselves in the heart of Gaza. We could be dragged into conquering the Strip.”
Bennett: [But] we decide how and when to exit.
Ya’alon: Forces would be sucked in. It’s preferable to try and calm the situation.
Only at this stage, less than one week before the July 8 start of the war, did the Southern Command form a “forward defense” plan to deal with the tunnels. The plan was presented to the chief of staff and the defense minister, who chose not to present it to the cabinet the next time it convenes, July 7, 2014. Bennett nevertheless insisted on adding the taking care of the tunnels to the operation’s goals. Both Netanyahu and Ya’alon object.
Ya’alon: It’s wrong to define a goal of stripping Hamas of its tunnels at this stage, the Egyptians are working on a ceasefire.
Head of the NSC Yossi Cohen: We’ve asked the chief of staff already, and he says they’re doing the best they can, but we can’t destroy all of them.
Bennett and Lieberman, who appear to have done their homework, want to know if the army had examined all the options, including going in on the ground.
Shabak head: The IDF has decided at this stage not to go in on the ground.
Southern Command Chief, Maj. Gen. Shlomo Turgeman, attended the July 10, 2014 security cabinet meeting. Only then was the IDF plan of dealing with the tunnels presented to the ministers.
Bennett: How deep will this draw us in?
Turgeman: There will be friction, but we shouldn’t exaggerate [the consequences].
Bennett then asked Turgeman what he would have done in his, Bennett’s shoes, at which point Ya’alon and Gantz retorted that, “he is not you, he is not in your shoes.” So Bennett defered and asked, “Fine, what would you have done in your own shoes?”
Here is when both Gantz and Ya’alon tried to force their subordinate Turgeman to shut up. Remember Moshe Ya’alon, who has grabbed so much attention urging IDF officers to speak their minds even if it contradicted the accepted dogmas? Even, in fact, if it could be perceived as a kind of coups d’état? Turns out that when one of Ya’alon’s top officers was trying to voice an opinion different from the boss’s, it was not greeted lovingly. Finally, Netanyahu asked Turgeman to respond.
Turgeman: In your shoes or in mine, I would take action.
Lieberman then said, “We have to go on everything or nothing. Either conquer Gaza or stop everything.” But according to the protocols, all the other ministers objected.
Should be interesting when the same question comes up again, except this time around Lieberman would be running the army.