Kidnap, Crackdown, Mutual Missteps and Hail of Rockets
By J.J. Goldberg 10 July 2014 The Jewish Daily Forward
In the flood of angry words that poured out of Israel and Gaza during a week of spiraling violence, few statements were more blunt, or more telling, than this throwaway line by the chief spokesman of the Israeli military, Brigadier General Moti Almoz, speaking July 8 on Army Radio’s morning show: “We have been instructed by the political echelon to hit Hamas hard.”
That’s unusual language for a military mouthpiece. Typically they spout lines like “We will take all necessary actions” or “The state of Israel will defend its citizens.” You don’t expect to hear: “This is the politicians’ idea. They’re making us do it.”
Admittedly, demurrals on government policy by Israel’s top defense brass, once virtually unthinkable, have become almost routine in the Netanyahu era. Usually, though, there’s some measure of subtlety or discretion. This particular interview was different. Where most disagreements involve policies that might eventually lead to some future unnecessary war, this one was about an unnecessary war they were now stumbling into.
Spokesmen don’t speak for themselves. Almoz was expressing a frustration that was building in the army command for nearly a month, since the June 12 kidnapping of three Israeli yeshiva boys. The crime set off a chain of events in which Israel gradually lost control of the situation, finally ending up on the brink of a war that nobody wanted — not the army, not the government, not even the enemy, Hamas.
The frustration had numerous causes. Once the boys’ disappearance was known, troops began a massive, 18-day search-and-rescue operation, entering thousands of homes, arresting and interrogating hundreds of individuals, racing against the clock. Only on July 1, after the boys’ bodies were found, did the truth come out: The government had known almost from the beginning that the boys were dead. It maintained the fiction that it hoped to find them alive as a pretext to dismantle Hamas’ West Bank operations.
The initial evidence was the recording of victim Gilad Shaer’s desperate cellphone call to Moked 100, Israel’s 911. When the tape reached the security services the next morning — neglected for hours by Moked 100 staff — the teen was heard whispering “They’ve kidnapped me” (“hatfu oti”) followed by shouts of “Heads down,” then gunfire, two groans, more shots, then singing in Arabic. That evening searchers found the kidnappers’ abandoned, torched Hyundai, with eight bullet holes and the boys’ DNA. There was no doubt.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately placed a gag order on the deaths. Journalists who heard rumors were told the Shin Bet wanted the gag order to aid the search. For public consumption, the official word was that Israel was “acting on the assumption that they’re alive.” It was, simply put, a lie.
Moti Almoz, as army spokesman, was in charge of repeating the lie. True, others backed him up, including Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. But when the truth came out on July 1, Almoz bore the brunt of public derision. Critics said his credibility was shot. He’d only been spokesman since October, after a long career as a blunt-talking field commander with no media experience. Others felt professional frustration. His was personal.
Nor was that the only fib. It was clear from the beginning that the kidnappers weren’t acting on orders from Hamas leadership in Gaza or Damascus. Hamas’ Hebron branch — more a crime family than a clandestine organization — had a history of acting without the leaders’ knowledge, sometimes against their interests. Yet Netanyahu repeatedly insisted Hamas was responsible for the crime and would pay for it.
This put him in a ticklish position. His rhetoric raised expectations that after demolishing Hamas in the West Bank he would proceed to Gaza. Hamas in Gaza began preparing for it. The Israeli right — settler leaders, hardliners in his own party — began demanding it.
But Netanyahu had no such intention. The last attack on Gaza, the eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, targeted Hamas leaders and taught a sobering lesson. Hamas hadn’t fired a single rocket since, and had largely suppressed fire by smaller jihadi groups. Rocket firings, averaging 240 per month in 2007, dropped to five per month in 2013. Neither side had any desire to end the détente. Besides, whatever might replace Hamas in Gaza could only be worse.
The kidnapping and crackdown upset the balance. In Israel, grief and anger over the boys’ disappearance grew steadily as the fabricated mystery stretched into a second and third week. Rallies and prayer meetings were held across the country and in Jewish communities around the world. The mothers were constantly on television. One addressed the United Nations in Geneva to plead for her son’s return. Jews everywhere were in anguish over the unceasing threat of barbaric Arab terror plaguing Israel.
This, too, was misleading. The last seven years have been the most tranquil in Israel’s history. Terror attacks are a fraction of the level during the nightmare intifada years — just six deaths in all of 2013. But few notice. The staged agony of the kidnap search created, probably unintentionally, what amounts to a mass, worldwide attack of post-traumatic stress flashback.
When the bodies were finally found, Israelis’ anger exploded into calls for revenge, street riots and, finally, murder.
Amid the rising tension, cabinet meetings in Jerusalem turned into shouting matches. Ministers on the right demanded the army reoccupy Gaza and destroy Hamas. Netanyahu replied, backed by the army and liberal ministers, that the response must be measured and careful. It was an unaccustomed and plainly uncomfortable role for him. He was caught between his pragmatic and ideological impulses.
In Gaza, leaders went underground. Rocket enforcement squads stopped functioning and jihadi rocket firing spiked. Terror squads began preparing to counterattack Israel through tunnels. One tunnel exploded on June 19 in an apparent work accident, killing five Hamas gunmen, convincing some in Gaza that the Israeli assault had begun while reinforcing Israeli fears that Hamas was plotting terror all along.
On June 29, an Israeli air attack on a rocket squad killed a Hamas operative. Hamas protested. The next day it unleashed a rocket barrage, its first since 2012. The cease-fire was over. Israel was forced to retaliate for the rockets with air raids. Hamas retaliated for the raids with more rockets. And so on. Finally Israel began calling up reserves on July 8 and preparing for what, as Moti Almoz told Army Radio, “the political echelon instructed.”
Later that morning, Israel’s internal security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told reporters that the “political echelon has given the army a free hand.” Almoz returned to Army Radio that afternoon and confirmed that the army had “received an absolutely free hand” to act.
And how far, the interviewer asked, will the army go? “To the extent that it’s up to the army,” Almoz said, “the army is determined to restore quiet.” Will simply restoring quiet be enough? “That’s not up to us,” he said. The army will continue the operation as long as it’s told.
The operation’s army code-name, incidentally, is “Protective Edge” in English, but the original Hebrew is more revealing: Tzuk Eitan, or “solid cliff.” That, the army seems to feel, is where Israel is headed.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com
Ex-Shin Bet Chief: Israeli Illusions Fueled Blowup
J.J.Goldberg 5 July 2014 The Jewish Daily Forward
Yuval Diskin, who served as director of Israel’s Shin Bet security service from 2005 to 2011, posted some rather blunt observations on his Facebook page this morning regarding the tit-for-tat murders of teenagers, the Palestinian rioting in East Jerusalem and the Triangle (the Arab population center south of Haifa) and what he fears is coming down the pike.
It strikes me that he’s probably saying a lot of what IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz was thinking at this week’s security cabinet meeting, when Gantz’s far more restrained comments led to a tongue-lashing from Naftali Bennett. In other words, this is how the current meltdown looks to much of the top Israeli military and intelligence brass. It’s what they’ve been saying privately while in uniform and publicly after retiring (and occasionally even while still in uniform). I’ve taken the liberty of translating Diskin’s Hebrew into English.
Dear friends: Take a few moments to read the following words and share them with others. I see the severe and rapid deterioration of the security situation in the territories, Jerusalem and the Triangle and I’m not surprised. Don’t be confused for a moment. This is the result of the policy conducted by the current government, whose essence is: Let’s frighten the public over everything that’s happening around us in the Middle East, let’s prove that there’s no Palestinian partner, let’s build more and more settlements and create a reality that can’t be changed, let’s continue not dealing with the severe problems of the Arab sector in Israel, let’s continue not solving the severe social gaps in Israeli society. This illusion worked wonderfully as long as the security establishment was able to provide impressive calm on the security front over the last few years as a result of the high-quality, dedicated work of the people of the Shin Bet, the IDF and the Israel Police as well as the Palestinians whose significant contribution to the relative calm in the West Bank should not be taken lightly.
However, the rapid deterioration we’re experiencing in the security situation did not come because of the vile murder of Naftali, Eyal and Gil-Ad, may their memories be blessed. The deterioration is first and foremost a result of the illusion that the government’s inaction on every front can actually freeze the situation in place, the illusion that “price tag” is simply a few slogans on the wall and not pure racism, the illusion that everything can be solved with a little more force, the illusion that the Palestinians will accept everything that’s done in the West Bank and won’t respond despite the rage and frustration and the worsening economic situation, the illusion that the international community won’t impose sanctions on us, that the Arab citizens of Israel won’t take to the streets at the end of the day because of the lack of care for their problems, and that the Israeli public will continue submissively to accept the government’s helplessness in dealing with the social gaps that its policies have created and are worsening, while corruption continues to poison everything good, and so on and so on.
But anyone who thinks the situation can tread water over the long run is making a mistake, and a big one. What’s been happening in the last few days can get much worse — even if things calm down momentarily. Don’t be fooled for a moment, because the enormous internal pressure will still be there, the combustible fumes in the air won’t diminish and if we don’t learn to lessen them the situation will get much worse. I’m reprinting here a portion of my speech at the tenth anniversary of the Geneva Initiative in December 2013, which was based on several articles I’ve written in the last few years. The words are based on my experience in the security arena in general, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in the schism between Jews and Arabs in the state of Israel in particular. It’s important to read in order to understand where we’re headed, because under the existing circumstances there aren’t too many other possibilities:
“… and alongside all these — the growing tension and enormous frustration of the Palestinians in the West Bank who feel that their land is being stolen from them, who gather that the state they yearn for is slipping away from them, and even the economy that has improved slightly since 2007 is no longer something in which to take comfort.
• All these things lead toward a problem that is more severe and dangerous than anything, namely the sense that’s spreading among the Palestinian masses — a sense that “there is no future, only the past,” that the past holds nothing good and the future, undoubtedly the shared future, no longer exists!
• Deep societal changes usually occur slowly, but we must not ignore the implications of the emergence of a new generation, a generation that sees the phenomenon of the “Arab spring” erupting all over the Middle East and feels trapped, with no way out. Thus hundreds of thousands of young Palestinians who grew up under Israeli occupation, embittered, frustrated, angry and above all without hope, are seeking a target to pounce upon, and it’s easy to guess who the target will be.
• And let’s not forget that within our own midst, within Israel society, there are complex tensions between the Jewish majority and the Arab-Muslim-Christian minority, and these can easily be fed by what’s happening and will happen between us and the Palestinians. Past experience has proven that in the course of major confrontations, Arab citizens of the state of Israel have demonstrated solidarity with their Palestinian brethren, and therefore we must take into account the affinity between the Palestinians and their brother Arabs of Israeli citizenship.
Therefore I believe that the combustible fumes in the air have reached a level of concentration at which even a small spark can ignite a huge explosion. The growing trickle of terror incidents in recent months, the vast, suppressed tension among the Palestinians, and even the eruption of demonstrations against the Prawer Plan [for relocation of Negev Bedouin] can be understood as isolated, incidental events, but they are evidence of a very tense atmosphere that can easily explode.
A mass eruption of Palestinians and/or Arab citizens of Israel taking to the streets is an entirely plausible scenario, not an extreme case. It happened in the last three years in Iran, in Tunisia, in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria, in Bahrain, in Turkey, in Russia, in Brazil and in the last few days even in Ukraine … Therefore it would be a serious mistake to think it can’t happen here.
From my experience I can tell you that it is in the nature of such events to spin out of control. Even Marwan Barghouti, who was the principal initiator of the events that led ultimately to the Second Intifada, didn’t plan in advance for street demonstrations in September 2000 to turn into a seven-year intifada with suicide bombings killing many hundreds and wounding tens of thousands on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. He planned for a few days or at most a few weeks of isolated demonstrations. But the chain of events, the reactions to them and the reactions to the reactions, led to a loss of control and a serious deterioration into waves of terror that lasted almost seven years.
Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg/201468/ex-shin-bet-chief-israeli-illusions-fueled-blowup/?#ixzz375IFPPhd