Former Shin Bet chief: We warned against the Gaza concept

Ami Ayalon credit: Eyal Izhar
Ami Ayalon credit: Eyal Izhar

Ami Ayalon says Benjamin Netanyahu's policy of building Hamas to weaken the Palestinian Authority has blown up in our faces.

"Israel after October 7 will be a different Israel. It will take us years to rehabilitate the system that collapsed on the day that over 1,400 Israelis were murdered by Hamas. Israel has collapsed in on itself, and the challenge we will face the day after will require rebuilding it. The current leadership will have to disappear from our lives, it led us with open eyes into the most terrible crisis since the establishment of the state. It will take years to restore trust in the political leadership, which for many sold out the future of Israel and its citizens." Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shin Bet, and former Israel Navy Commander, tells "Globes."

"The most important thing is to understand that this government probably cannot provide for the needs of the people, so at this point we should simply organize at the community level. We will have to completely change our entire posture," he adds. For the civilians who had to face the slaughter all by themselves, he adds, "No one will tell their stories of heroism for a long time. Everyone will only talk about the soldiers. In the law there is no option at all to give medals to civilians."

"The government doesn't exist

Ayalon has a broad perspective. As the head of the Shin Bet, who was appointed after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, he had to cope with the wave of Hamas suicide bombers in the 1990s. After being elected as a Labor MK, he sat on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and subsequently he sat in the Olmert government's security cabinet.

What were the basic failures on October7?

"There were several, and on several levels. First of all, the political assumptions collapsed. There was a distinction between Gaza and Judea and Samaria and a complete lack of understanding about what Hamas actually is. It was thought that it could probably be managed. As a result, we also strengthened it and transferred funds to it. This is undoubtedly a policy that Benjamin Netanyahu led. The heads of the Shin Bet resisted all the way and warned the political echelon. But in the end, that's history. The second thing is the military collapse at the moment of truth, and the intelligence and military failure in dealing with the threat. Another failure we see now is, as mentioned, the handling of the home front. The government does not exist, in anything."

Ayalon has three family members serving in the military now. "I have two sons in the south and one grandson in the north. Therefore, I want to believe that, despite the colossal failure, there are people who take responsibility and prepare, and know what they are doing."

There is a lot of talk about the concept that was shattered. What do you think?

"The big mistake is due to the policy of managing or reducing the conflict. We thought that if we separated Hamas in Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria, we could tell everyone that there was no one to talk to and nothing to talk about. We thought that we could absorb every year or two rounds of violence, which were under control.

"We built Hamas, we wanted to make sure it had the strength to face the Palestinian Authority and that it would never be strong. It didn't work, because we didn't understand what Hamas is. It's a fundamentalist organization that when it doesn't succeed becomes more radical. This is what happened to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which became al-Qaeda. This is what happened to al-Qaeda in Iraq, which became ISIS. Hamas also went through a similar process and became human animals. That's why it all blew up in our faces. The assumption that after the blow it received in Operation Guardian of the Walls (May 2021) it would not jeopardize its rule in Gaza was a complete lack of understanding of policy.

"Another failed conception was the assumption by the Israeli government and the IDF and the intelligence system that Hamas wants to continue to control Gaza and will not risk its control in order to fight us at this stage."

How much does the intelligence failure hurt, and what is the reason for it in your opinion?

"I think that all the intelligence bodies failed. I believe that the Human Intelligence (HUMINT) did not deliver the goods. Probably we weren't deep enough within the military wing of Hamas, in places where we should have been, in order to understand what was happening. Regarding Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), which is the Internet, telephones and everything on the web, you have to say that we must give credit to these guys from a professional point of view; first and foremost, their ability to keep a secret.

"You have to understand that we knew all the specific things. We talked about scenarios of raids on kibbutzim and capturing prisoners. We talked about each scenario individually, but we didn't see the overall picture. We weren't aware of the planning, and we certainly didn't understand the timing, since they apparently did it without any use of electronic signals. There was a surprise."

"Not war with the Palestinians

What do you think about the aims of the war as articulated by the government?

"First of all, we need to understand that our policy has completely failed. We suddenly found out that Hamas is a cruel and brutish mutation of ISIS, and we have no choice. We must eliminate its military force and political leadership. We need to emphasize that we are at war with the military wing of Hamas and its leaders, but we are not at war with the Palestinian people. This is perhaps a hard thing to say, and I don't hear it enough here.

"In addition to that, we have to say, and I am very, very happy that the chief of staff emphasizes this, that this is not a holy war, and not a war of revenge. This is a war of defense, we are not just lashing out. An Israeli soldier must never intentionally kill an innocent person, who is not armed, who does not threaten him. Civilians should also know this, because it is not ingrained enough in us, certainly not after the sights we have seen.

"And one last thing: I think we should start talking about the day after. Victory is not eliminating the military arm of Hamas in Gaza. Victory is measured by whether we are able to create a better political reality for the residents of the south, for the residents of the country in general. The truth is that, unfortunately, right now we are going to war without a political goal. Victory is measured in political terms, not in military terms, and this is the discussion that no one is having here."

"Hamas began preparations even before the protests"

Over the past twenty years, Ayalon has tried, with his Palestinian partner Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, to lead a peace initiative. The principles are based on two states around the 1967 borders and an exchange of certain areas, the Palestinians relinquishing the right of return to Israel, and a demilitarized Palestinian state.

We spoke about the concept of distinguishing between Gaza and Judea and Samaria that has collapsed here. What should be in the plan for the day after?

"Hamas won't be a military organization, and won't be a political organization. It is a concept that has a military organization that needs to be dismantled, that has a political leadership that needs to be eliminated, but beyond that it is an ideology that already has roots among millions. Ideology cannot be eliminated with military force. It can be eliminated, but only with an idea that overcomes the ideology. This is called a political horizon, and therefore, although today it sounds delusional, the only move that will allow a secure Jewish and democratic state is a diplomatic one between states. Call it disengagement from the Palestinians, a political settlement, I don't want to get into terms, but it has to happen.

"The process will take years. After the elimination of the military force of Hamas, there will be an intermediate stage in which international forces will enter, in combination with Arab countries, and in coordination with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Then, with the money that will come from the world, the infrastructure of the Strip will be rebuilt. After that, pragmatic groups in Palestinian society need to be strengthened, which at the moment is the (Palestinian) Authority, but I'm already saying, the Authority in its current form is not capable of that. Therefore, at the stage when there is already some kind of political horizon, they must undergo healthy democratic elections."

After the war ends, to what extent do you thing those responsible for the failure must take personal responsibility and pay a personal price?

"Of course I believe in personal responsibility, but in this matter I also do not know the positions of the various parties. If, for example, the head of the Shin Bet told the prime minister, in every meeting, 'Sir, as a public servant I cannot tell you that the distinction (between Gaza and Judea and Samaria) policy is wrong, but I tell you that it will eventually bring us a wave of severe violence.' If, for example, he said such a thing, then his responsibility diminishes in my eyes. I can only say one thing: the one who must leave our public life is the prime minister. There is no leadership without personal example, so I don't think the State of Israel will be able to move forward without a personal example from above."

You were the head of the Shin Bet during Netanyahu's first term. How does he function in crisis situations?

"Netanyahu is a very smart person, very intelligent, but in crisis situations he simply does not function. He basically begs for advice; he is very influenced by different directions and therefore a very confused reality is created, not only in crisis situations, but also in stressful situations. For example, when he was required to approve a countermeasure targeted at senior terrorist operatives, he would think and deliberate out of fear of what the reaction would be, which is fine up to a certain limit. But when that limit is crossed, he actually does not allow terrorist operatives to be thwarted."

To what extent did the internal tensions following the judicial overhaul affect Hamas's motivation to launch an attack?

"There is no doubt that it had an effect, but it was not a major consideration in my opinion. We said it all the time, our enemies are watching. But it is much deeper than that. The judicial legislation and the protest started less than a year ago, and in my estimation, Hamas's preparation for this action started much earlier."

In conclusion, Ayalon again stresses, "I really appreciate what the chief of staff says when he emphasizes that this is a war to protect the country and its citizens. What we saw in the Gaza Strip and in the south, is something that can never repeat itself, simply cannot. We cannot continue with a policy that says we have an organization like Hamas, which is armed and has an ideology of destroying the State of Israel, on the other side of the border. This is simply a reality that has to change."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on October 26, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

Ami Ayalon credit: Eyal Izhar
Ami Ayalon credit: Eyal Izhar
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