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March 3, 2017 7:00 am

Trouble With Tunnels

avatar by Martin Sherman

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IDF soldiers discovering a terror tunnel. Photo: IDF.

IDF soldiers discovering a terror tunnel. Photo: IDF.

“We cannot go on as we are…to remain at peace when you should be going to war may be often very dangerous. The tyrant city…is a standing menace to all…. Let us attack and subdue her that we may ourselves live safely for the future.”

–Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 431 BCE.

“You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny…That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory; victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be…”

–Winston Churchill, May 13, 1940.

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This week Gaza was back in the headlines. Big time.

The terrorist-controlled enclave — which, in the last seven years, has precipitated three (and counting) major military campaigns — was catapulted back into the headlines by the publication of a controversial state comptroller’s report highly critical of Israel’s conduct of Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014.

Diametric divergence

I have in the past cited the preceding excerpts, which straddle almost two-and-a-half millennia of human experience, to preface previous articles addressing Israel’s military policy towards Gaza. The first was “White flag over Gaza…” (August 2011), written in the interbellum period between Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defense; the second, “Why Gaza must go” (July 2014), was written shortly after the fighting began in Operation Protective Edge.

I revisit them today because, in the wake of the State Comptroller’s report, they strike me as being just as pertinent now as they were when they were first written. Their pertinence is perhaps particularly underscored by the diametric divergence between the strategic rationale they prescribe and the tenor of the Gaza policy adopted by successive Israeli governments.

Regardless of whether one endorses or rebuffs the comptroller’s criticisms, one thing is unequivocally clear: Despite three large-scale IDF campaigns, Gaza still remains a significant threat to Israel, and any advantages attained in those operations – including the most recent one — have proven to be temporary, at best. With numerous media reports indicating that Hamas has managed to replenish much of its stock of rockets and restore a significant number of attack tunnels, there is broad consensus among many pundits that Israel should brace for a fourth round of fighting in the not-too-distant future.

Pursuit of military imperatives abandoned

Had it not been for the fortuitous events in Egypt — clearly unrelated to any policy initiative on Israel’s part — which brought about anti-Islamist General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi’s overthrow of the pro-Hamas Morsi government, the menacing status quo ante that prevailed in Gaza prior to Operation Protective Edge would, in all likelihood, have long been reinstated. Indeed, it probably would have worsened.

Sadly, apart from being exploited as a means for settling political scores, the comptroller’s report — published almost three years after the campaign — is likely to have little beneficial impact on future Israeli policy formulation. An initial perusal of the report seems to indicate that the major focus was on the methodology of the decision-making process, not on the quality of the output that process produced, i.e. more on how decisions were made, rather than on what decisions were made.

There is, in fact, little to indicate that had the process been conducted differently, different decisions would have emerged.

The real problem, left largely unaddressed by the report, is that Israel’s leaders, cowered by the tyranny of political correctness, have long abandoned the pursuit of military imperatives. The dread of being bogged down in a “quagmire” of a land operation has ensnared them in the quicksand of impotence. This has precipitated a string of strategic failures (or to put it more charitably, “indecisive strategic encounters against vastly weaker foes”) that have left  the stature of Israel’s adversaries discernably enhanced  in the wake of IDF action.

Expunging the concept of “victory”

In analyzing Israel’s strategic incompetence in Gaza during the 2008/9 Operation Cast Lead, Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, lamented, “[T]he worst news of all [is] that no one at the upper echelons of Israel’s political life articulates the imperative for victory.” Ominously, he concluded: “For this reason, I see Israel as a lost polity, one full of talent, energy…but lacking direction.”

This lack of direction was still painfully evident over a half-decade later, in the conduct of the 2014 Operation Protective Edge. Thus, in “Why Gaza must go,” I wrote: “In the third week of Operation Protective Edge, the government is still waffling on its objectives. These keep morphing from one vague, vacuous formulation to another, as developments on the battlefield make each succeeding definition of the operation’s goals appear abysmally inadequate and ineffectual.”

Pipes attributed this malaise to a “fundamental reorientation from deterrence to appeasement that took place in 1993,” tracing it back to the Oslo Accords and the pernicious syndrome it spawned,

Regrettably, this post-Oslowian “reorientation” has, in effect, expunged the Churchillian notion of “victory” from Israeli strategic thinking, both as an admissible cognitive entity and as an attainable, even desirable, military goal.

Ill-defined and inadequate objectives 

Underscoring the aimlessness of Israeli policy during the 2014 campaign, I added:

Sadly, however, the government has given the public little coherent indication of its aims, or of the realities it is striving to create…Initially, the government declared that all it aspired to was to “restore calm” – i.e. to reinstate the status quo – and if Hamas would cease fire, so would Israel…Just how myopic that would have been is starkly [highlighted] by what has become chillingly apparent during the operation – the devastating potential of an elaborate tunnel system developed by the terror organizations in Gaza…[Indeed,] had a cease-fire been implemented in such circumstances, Hamas would have been free to continue developing its deadly subterranean potential, which it could activate at a moment of its choosing.

Significantly, one of the central issues that the comptroller’s report dwells on is that the government was unprepared to meet the threat posed by the terror tunnels. Foreseeing the need for a post-campaign inquiry, I remarked: “This appalling prospect makes deeply disturbing questions, regarding the competence and/or judgment of the nation’s leadership, unavoidable, even as the battles rage on. Unless the reasons for the current predicament are understood, no effective remedy can be found.”

Flaccidity factor: Impotence not ignorance 

Clearly, then, we must confront a truly troubling question.

As I pointed out in July 2014, there were only really two possibilities. Either: (a) the government was aware of the deadly menace posed by the network of tunnels; or (b) it wasn’t.

If it was aware of the danger, then willingness to agree to a ceasefire before the danger was eliminated reflects a disturbing readiness by the government to reconcile itself to the threat and expose the country’s civilian population to murderous consequences in the future.

If it was oblivious to the danger, then this reflects a grave ignorance of deadly threats facing the country, a sign of just how out of touch the leadership of the nation has been with the ominous realities with which the country must contend.

Now, although I seldom find occasion to quote Haaretz as a corroborating source, my eye could not help catching the title of a piece by veteran defense correspondent Amos Harel, “Hamas’ terror tunnels – a national strategic failure for Israel,” written barely two weeks into the campaign.

In it, he makes the pungent point: “A week ago, Israel announced its willingness to accept a cease-fire in Gaza…This means one of two things. Either the ministers and generals were willing last week to let these tunnels, everyone a ticking bomb, tick softly under kibbutz dining rooms until the next escalation, or they weren’t aware of the seriousness of the risk.”

He added, tellingly: “So either they were taking a calculated risk of unusual [read “gigantic”–M.S.] dimensions, or they didn’t have enough intelligence [information] before the operation (which doesn’t quite square with a senior officer’s claim…that ‘never before has the army had such quality intelligence before an operation’.)”

Israel’s complicity in terror tunnels?

This appraisal of the high quality of intelligence was endorsed by then-IDF Chief of Staff, Lt.-Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz, one of the main targets for censure in the report. Earlier this week Gantz characterized the intelligence provided for Operation Protective Edge as “excellent, great, accessible.”

Therefore, it was not that the Israeli leadership did not know what was going on, but that it could not decide what to do — or more accurately, it could not bring itself to recognize what must be done.

The numbing mindlessness of Israeli policy towards Gaza was indelibly underscored last May by Dore Gold, former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, at the UN World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, where he revealed, “Hamas was siphoning off 95% of the cement transferred into the Gaza Strip intended to rebuild homes, so that it can use it for military purposes.” According to Gold, nearly all of the almost five million tons of building materials that Israel let into Gaza in previous months “has been seized and used to build new attack tunnels penetrating Israeli territory.”

Ironically, Gold conveyed his revelation only days after Israel decided to resume cement supplies to Gaza, having punitively halted them for several weeks previous because of their seizure by Hamas. The reported rationale for the resumption of supplies was — wait for it — “United Nations assurances that the cement will not be used by Hamas…[and] stationing additional Palestinian inspectors on the Gaza side of the Kerem Shalom border crossing.”

I kid you not.

So, can Israel really claim it is not complicit in Hamas’s terror tunnel enterprise?

Hopelessly out of touch with reality

Israeli leaders being hopelessly out of touch was underscored by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s offer to turn Gaza “into the Singapore of the Middle East” — a move rebutted by a senior Hamas official, Mahmoud al-Zahar.

Lieberman proposed building a seaport and an airport, and creating an industrial zone that would help produce 40,000 jobs in the strip, if Hamas agreed to demilitarization and to dismantling the tunnel and rocket systems it has built.

The Hamas response came quickly. Zahar dismissed it derisively, sneering, “If we wanted to turn Gaza into Singapore, we would have done it ourselves. We do not need favors from anyone.”

This tart retort prompted a stark comment from Gatestone Institute scholar Bassam Tawil:

Why did Hamas reject an offer for a seaport, airport and tens of thousands of jobs for Palestinians? Because Hamas does not see its conflict with Israel as an economic issue. The dispute is not about improving the living conditions of Palestinians, as far as Hamas is concerned. Instead, it is about the very existence of Israel…

Hamas deserves credit for one thing: its honesty concerning its intentions to destroy Israel and kill as many Jews as possible. Hamas does not want 40,000 new jobs for the poor unemployed Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. It would rather see these unemployed Palestinians join its ranks and become soldiers in its quest to replace Israel with an Islamic empire.

The only solution to the humanitarian crisis   

Clearly, the humanitarian plight in Gaza was created by the misguided belief that peace and prosperity could be achieved by transferring land to the Palestinian Arabs to provide them a viable opportunity for self-governance.

Albert Einstein once famously observed that one could not solve a problem with the level of thinking that created it.

Accordingly, the problem of Gaza cannot be solved by persisting with ideas that created it – i.e. persisting with a plan for Israel to provide the Palestinian Arabs with land for self-governance.

The problem can only be solved by entirely abandoning the concept that Gaza should be governed by Palestinian Arabs. The only durable solution requires the deconstruction — not reconstruction — of Gaza, the humanitarian relocation of the non-belligerent Arab population and extension of Israeli sovereignty over the region.

This is the only prescription that can solve the problems of Gaza – both Israel’s security problem and the Gazan Arabs’ humanitarian problem.

Why this simple, but stark, truth has repeatedly eluded Israeli leadership is the real issue that the comptroller should have investigated. Sadly, he did not.

Dr. Martin Sherman is founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

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