TEL AVIV — In keeping with the somber introspection of the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur, Israel’s top military officer went public last week with rare soul-searching accounts of the recent 50-day Gaza war.
In interviews marking the Oct. 4 fast, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel Defense Force (IDF) chief of staff, took heavy responsibility for the 73 Israelis killed — 67 soldiers and six civilians.
He called on Israel to support global efforts to rebuild Gaza and renew hope for its 1.8 million war-weary residents.
He glossed over criticism by politicians clamoring to wipe out Hamas and reconquer the coastal strip.
He conceded that Operation Protective Edge — which began July 8, paused for numerous collapsed ceasefires and concluded with a still open-ended Aug. 26 truce — ran much longer than planned, particularly due to 17 days of grueling ground war against the tunnel threat.
He even complimented Hamas, from a purely professional perspective, for the strategic planning, asymmetrical tactics and command-and-control capabilities manifest throughout the campaign.
But in Judgment Day interviews with Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s largest daily, and the high-end Ha’aretz, Gantz refused to atone for what he insists is the IDF’s clear victory over Hamas.
“We won,” the IDF chief told Ha’aretz. “Let any officer attending the Command and Staff College analyze it methodically and he will mark every aspect of the campaign as a success.”
Despite international rebuke for more than 2,100 Gazans killed, some 290,000 displaced and Palestinian estimates of US $7.8 billion in damage, Gantz said colleagues worldwide recognize that Protective Edge set new standards for urban warfare.
“Since the operation, many military officers from [the US and] around the world have come here for briefings … and they say what we did there was unprecedented,” Gantz told Yediot Ahronot.
“What we needed to do, we did” with unquestionable success, Gantz said.
But Israel’s traditional critics and many of its staunchest supporters argue otherwise.
Aside from Palestinian counter-claims of strategic victory by virtue of going head-to-head with a regional superpower for 50 days, many in Israel — veteran analysts, retired warriors and public officials — aren’t buying Gantz’ post-war narrative of success.
Experts here are questioning how the IDF allowed a far inferior force to take the fight into Israeli territory and briefly shut down its skies to international flights while preserving its ability to control attacks on the Israeli home front until the last minutes of war.
“This atmosphere of self-congratulation and claims of the IDF fulfilling all of its missions, without any questions, disturbs me,” said Omer Bar-Lev, a lawmaker and former warrior of the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal.
In a Sept. 30 address to a Tel Aviv think tank, Bar-Lev said the mere fact that the war lasted a month longer than projected is the first question in the demand for answers.
“They were thinking of a time frame of some 20 days. What happened? Was it a faulty assessment from the start or faulty execution during the operation?”
Bar-Lev noted that the IDF planned, organized and budgeted its force according to basic assessments that proved wrong. He also took the IDF and political leaders to task for seemingly “ignoring” the tunnel threat.
“They knew that of 32 [discovered] tunnels, some 13 of them breached our border. This is a clear violation of Israeli sovereignty and a casus belli for war. So there are questions about the decision-making process.”
He also rejected IDF claims that high casualties and extended maneuvering ground operations are part and parcel of asymmetrical urban war. “They’ve developed a type of slogan to explain less than decisive results against a far weaker enemy. But [blaming it on] asymmetry is an empty excuse.”
Finally, the lawmaker rejected IDF claims that Israel had essentially two options for combating Hamas and other Gaza-launched groups: Waging what Gantz described as a responsible and discriminating combined arms campaign or completely wiping out Hamas and reoccupying Gaza.
“I’m not the only one who rejects this. The question, at the end of the day is, what changes and corrections need to be made to the IDF defensive concept?”
Ben Caspit, a veteran security analyst, said Israel cannot claim success by quantifying the number of terrorists killed or buildings destroyed.
“There are obviously lots of tactical aspects that are praise-worthy. But in the aftermath of Protective Edge, the bottom line is strategic failure,” he said.
“Hamas status in the Palestinian community has been enormously elevated…. And the fact is, we didn’t succeed in getting to Hamas’ center of gravity.”
Israel claims more than half of Palestinians killed in Protective Edge were terrorists or other-so called legitimate targets.
But after six weeks — and despite readily available lists from multiple organizations of Gazan fatalities by name, age and address — Israel has yet to publish its own listing of those it considered terrorist targets.
To his credit, the IDF chief acknowledged “capability gaps” and numerous lessons to be learned and ultimately incorporated in future plans and operational concepts.
He noted that dozens of investigative teams are focused on specific aspects of IDF planning, execution and compliance with international law and the IDF’s own ethical standards.
But at the end of the day, as he told Yediot interviewers, “I achieved what I needed to achieve in my own way.”