Israeli watchdog report says Netanyahu's government was ill-prepared for 2014 Gaza war

The Israeli government entered the 2014 Gaza Strip war against the Palestinian militant group Hamas ill-prepared and without a coherent plan to stop the effectiveness of cross-border tunnels used by the group, according to a biting report released Tuesday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government did not adequately discuss goals for Gaza and didn’t consider diplomatic alternatives to the standoff with Hamas or warnings by Israeli military officials that Gaza’s economic and infrastructure crisis could help spark an outbreak of hostilities, the official state report said.

Though Israel’s security establishment had highlighted the tunnels for years as a strategic threat, Israel’s military lacked an operational doctrine for dealing with dozens of them. Ministers were not informed about the scope or seriousness of the threat, the report said.

“The Cabinet didn’t hold a strategic discussion to lay out strategic goals for the Gaza Strip,’’ Israel’s comptroller’s office, which released the report, said in a statement. “Ground and air forces had to deal with the tunnel threat during Operation Protective Edge without being properly prepared.”

The report said Israel had failed if it had intended to destroy the tunnels used by Islamic militants.  

Dubbed “Operation Protective Edge” by Israel, the July and August 2014 war lasted about 50 days, killing more than 2,100 Palestinians and more than 70 Israelis.

The 200-page report by Israeli State Comptroller Joseph Shapira was released amid a political firestorm following months of leaks to the press that Netanyahu, former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Israel’s former army chief of staff kept other Cabinet ministers in the dark about the threat posed by Hamas. 

The report sharpened tensions between Netanyahu and a rival politician, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has complained that the prime minister and the military did not sufficiently brief Cabinet ministers before and during the war and criticized Netanyahu during the war.

Netanyahu rejected the claims that he kept ministers in the dark about the war. A day before the report was released, he said that unlike the comptroller, he supported the military establishment.

“The true lessons aren’t in the comptroller’s report,” Netanyahu said. 

Netanyahu also reportedly said the military had been successful.

The fighting left the coastal territory of about 2 million people a wreck, displacing hundreds of thousands, destroying houses and water and road infrastructure. Meanwhile, the war exposed Israelis in major cities to rocket alerts, and prompted the evacuation of thousands of Israelis living near the Gaza border out of fear of tunnel and mortar attacks.

Israel had accused the militant group of using Palestinians as human shields while firing rockets at Israel. Meanwhile, Israel’s use of battlefield munitions in densely populated neighborhoods had been criticized by Palestinians and human rights groups.  

It was the third round of fighting in about six years between the sides, with an inconclusive finish.

Though Hamas claimed victory, the war left the territory in need of billions of dollars for a rebuilding effort. In the 2½ years since the end of the war, both Hamas and Israel have observed a relative calm in hostilities.

A Hamas spokesman hailed the report as confirmation of the organization's successes during the war and Israel's defeat.

“We consider the report an admission of defeat of the occupation by the Palestinian resistance,” Hamas spokesman Abdul Latif Qanou said. “The occupation force failed to achieve its objectives."

During the war, Netanyahu was criticized by Bennett and then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, now the defense minister, for not ordering an all-out war aimed at toppling Hamas — an option opposed by the Israeli military top brass. Instead, Netanyahu and Yaalon defined destroying Hamas’ tunnels as the main goal of the war.

The war resulted from a series of events including the June kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers by militants in the occupied West Bank. Israel in turn arrested hundreds of Hamas members and the group fired numerous rockets into Israel. Israel attacked Gaza in July shortly after the bodies of the teens were found.

The comptroller’s report is the latest in a series of Israeli internal-investigations following wars including the 1973 surprise attack by Egypt on Yom Kippur. Previous state inquiries have forced resignations of top leaders, but few political analysts expect the current report to force Netanyahu to step aside.

The state comptroller’s office said that it is still planning to make public a final section of the report on the Gaza war dealing with issues of international law and the fighting: during the war human rights groups accused the military of committing war crimes for using disproportionate fire that injured too many noncombatants. 

Still, the criticism is part of an accumulation of headaches for the Israeli leader who is being investigated by police for corruption — he denies any wrongdoing —  and under pressure to expand Israeli settlements

Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog called on Netanyahu to resign over his handling of the war.

 “Not a day passes when the citizens of Israel aren’t exposed to another failure or scandal,’’ he said. “Netanyahu failed both on peace and on security.”

Mitnick is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.

@joshmitnick

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