Don’t Exaggerate the Mistakes of the Gaza War

March 8, 2017 | Gershon Hacohen
About the author: Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen served in the IDF for 42 years, commanding troops in battle on the Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian fronts. Today he directs many of the IDF’s war-simulation exercises.

For the past few weeks, the big news in Israel has been the state comptroller’s much-awaited report on the 2014 war in Gaza, which was generally understood as a damning account of the government’s conduct. To Gershon Hacohen, public discussion of the report has “blown out of proportion” two of its claims: that the IDF and the Israeli government did not treat the threat of attacks via tunnels with enough seriousness, and that the diplomatic-security cabinet acted in a disorganized fashion, in part due to poor management by Benjamin Netanyahu himself. Hacohen suggests a different perspective:

The tunnels are a tactical threat, [not, as the report implies, a strategic one,] to which even today, despite significant advances, there is only a complex and incomplete response. It is true that the tools our forces had at their disposal during the operation were far from perfect. [But it] is not because of [specific mistakes] that there is [now the] potential for public panic over the tunnel threat.

[Rather, Israelis] have trouble recognizing that there are threats for which we cannot provide an impenetrable security solution. We need to examine how we developed the overreaching expectation of the national leadership and the security forces that they manage wars with complete responses for every threat. . . .

This is a particularly difficult problem for those who consider the idea of physical separation from the Palestinians to be strategic and security gospel. The premise of separation is: “They are there and we are here, and between us, there is a fence.” But the advocates of separation must provide convincing security solutions for future threats to our spatial arrangement. . . .

Of the report’s conclusion that the cabinet managed the conflict poorly and could not agree on the goals of the military operation, Hacohen writes:

It is certainly irresponsible to begin a project without outlining an inclusive and well-defined planning framework. However, we tend to ignore the significant uncertainties inherent in managing a war. In the great school of war, it is not possible to describe the outcome from the beginning. . . . The basic conditions upon which expectations for the end of a campaign are based can change as the campaign itself changes once operations begin. . . .

The president of the U.S. manages wars in an intimate group that does not include his political opponents. Israel’s government, on the other hand, has suffered since the War of Independence from a structure in which the prime minister finds himself prevented from fully disclosing all of his considerations to cabinet members. You cannot analyze the prime minister’s conduct . . . without considering the fundamental limitation on holding an open strategic debate.

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