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Scathing 2014 Gaza war report says Israel failed to prepare for Hamas tunnels

Israeli Merkava tanks roll near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip as they return from the Hamas-controlled Palestinian coastal enclave on August 5, 2014
Thomas Coex (AFP/File)
Political and defense establishment allegedly failed to prepare for 50-day conflict, ignored tunnel threat

Current and former Israeli officials went on the defensive Tuesday with the publication of a damning state comptroller report outlining failures of the highest levels of Israel's political and defense establishments during the 50-day conflict fought in 2014 between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira's report on what is known as Operation Protective Edge emphasized in particular a failure to properly recognize and prepare for the threat of underground attack tunnels dug by Hamas, and to share information regarding this threat despite the opportunity to do so.

The report levied heavy criticisms against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, and the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and its then-chief-of-staff Benny Gantz in particular, accusing them of inadequate leadership on the issue.

Said Khatib (AFP/File)

Neglecting the problem

Shapira charged that the military and defense establishment did not make a sufficient effort to counter the tunnel threat despite a report in 2007 alleging ongoing neglect of the problem.

The report, which examined the history of the tunnel going back to the early 2000's, noted that the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006 through a tunnel and the ensuing prisoner swap deal was viewed by Hamas as a development which underlined the strategic importance of tunnels. Nonetheless, the tunnels were only deemed a "strategic threat" by Israel in late 2013.

While significant intelligence was collected on the threat in the years leading up to Operation Protective Edge, Shapira wrote, "these efforts were not a comprehensive and integrated effort" by military intelligence.

Despite the report's conclusion, the IDF on Tuesday maintained that on the eve of the Operation, the army had "substantial information regarding the majority of Hamas' terror tunnels and the nature of its underground terror network."

Shapira writes that for about a year after Israel formed its 33rd government in 2013, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet held no discussions to set strategic goals regarding the Gaza Strip.

Tsahal

The report also points to a significant lack of communication between the different bodies tasked with overseeing national security, ultimately leading to the military having to formulate operational plans and objectives on its own.

In a reversal of correct protocol for good decision-making, the report said, the government established its strategic objectives for the military operation in Gaza only after approving operational plans.

The result was a situation in which the army had set its own goals that were not derived from the orders of the political establishment.

The IDF responded that it had "reflected to the Israeli political leadership the tunnel threat as a serious threat, analyzed, assessed and determined its operational ramifications," including updating members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who had also been briefed at the site of an uncovered tunnel "regarding the nature of the threat that was understood at that time."

Cabinet in the dark

The State Comptroller's report further lambasted top political officials for failing to subsequently present "important and crucial information" to Cabinet members, despite the prime minister, defense minister, chief of staff, and intelligence chiefs possessing such information.

Authorities did not adequately understand the magnitude of the tunnel threat, according to the report – a threat that eventually contributed to Israel's decision to send ground troops into Gaza.

In fact, Shapira writes that the tunnel threat "was not presented to the Cabinet in detail but rather only in general and minimal statements," with the danger only becoming clear in late June and early July of 2014.

What's more, when the tunnel threat arose in Cabinet discussions, "Cabinet ministers did not express interest, did not request further details about it and did not ask the military to present its preparations for handling the threat."

The most senior officials – the prime minister, defense minister, and chief of staff – "did not make sure that the military had operational plans to fight in a tunnel-saturated space and to deal with them during fighting."

Shapira also describes inadequate military training and insufficient acquisition of weapons needed for dealing with tunnels, as well as an absence of operational plans for tunnel warfare and low preparedness on the part of the air force to destroy the tunnels.

"All this led to a situation in which ground and air forces were forced to deal with the tunnel threat during Operation Protective Edge without having been properly prepared for it," Shapira wrote.

The IDF defended its intelligence directorate on this charge, saying that it had "dedicated widescale systematic intelligence gathering efforts and resources in order to address the tunnel issue."

"The IDF invested heavily in training exercises and technology in order to equip forces with the best available tools," the army said in a statement, adding that "no proposed existing solution, technological or otherwise, was overlooked prior to the operation."

Residents left vulnerable

The report also accused the defense establishment of neglecting to provide adequate security for residents of Israeli communities bordering Gaza, which were vulnerable to attacks via underground tunnels.

In fact, Shapira wrote, security measures were actually cut in the period preceding the conflict.

The military's research and development (R&D) groups were until 2010 dealing with the tunnel threat "narrow-mindedly," the report said, mostly "focusing on ways to locate and uncover tunnels an on one centralized system."

Following the failure of this system, these groups expanded their efforts after 2010, but at an insufficient pace, the report charges.

Shapira concludes his report by praising the military's and defense establishment's efforts in improving preparedness in the time since the Gaza conflict, but urges all involved bodies to internalize the report's conclusions and make decisions accordingly.

This, he writes, is necessary to achieve the report's purpose "which is an improvement of work processes at all levels, in order to better prepare for current and emerging threats and military campaigns that could break out even without prior warning."

The IDF said the military "has already begun implementing the majority of the report's comments and suggestions into practice."

"The last two and a half years since Operation Protective Edge have been some of the quietest on the Israel-Gaza border since 1967," the army said, adding that it had taken "unprecedented measures" and invested over two billion shekels since 2014 in order to confront the tunnel threat.

The army has, since the end of the conflict, announced construction of an underground anti-tunnel barrier intended to keep terror tunnels from Gaza from stretching into Israel, and is testing new technologies for tunnel detection.

Destroying the tunnels crossing from Gaza into Israel was one of Israel’s main objectives during Operation Protective Edge. Israel said it destroyed 38 tunnels, many of which crossed into Israel and were intended for Hamas attacks against civilian targets.

The 2014 war killed 2,251 Palestinians, about half of whom fighters for various terror factions. On the Israeli side, 74 people were killed, six of whom civilians.

Hamas says it is continuing to dig new tunnels.

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