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Army chief hints at hidden efforts to counter Gazan tunnels

Eisenkot says some 100 engineering vehicles are sniffing out Hamas’s underground passages, notes terror group not directing West Bank violence


The IDF is working, mostly in secret, to counter the Gazan tunnel threat and has employed nearly 100 engineering vehicles on the border to locate and destroy the Hamas passageways into Israel, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said on Tuesday.

Moreover, the option of a preemptive strike is “being discussed in the places where it needs to be discussed,” Eisenkot said at a conference in memory of former IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center. 

 “We have advanced capabilities,” Eisenkot said, presumably referring to the rumored tunnel detection system that Israel has been developing in response to the underground threat from Gaza.

 “We are doing a lot, but many of [the things we do] are hidden from the public. We have dozens, if not a hundred, engineering vehicles on the Gaza border,” Eisenkot added.

IDF soldiers by the Gaza border, near Kibbutz Nir-Am, in Southern Israel, on January 13, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

IDF soldiers by the Gaza border, near Kibbutz Nir Am, in southern Israel, on January 13, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Eisenkot was responding directly to criticism lodged against the IDF in the draft of a report by the state comptroller Yosef Shapira last week. “The draft as submitted points to gaps and failures, some severe, in the readiness for the tunnel threat and dealing with them,” the comptroller’s office said in a statement at the time.

The chief of staff, however, argued that the tunnels are in fact seen as a central threat to Israel, and are being dealt with as such. The relative calm in the area, he added, will not distract the army from the threat posed byHamas’s underground network of tunnels.

“We will not allow that the fact that there is quiet in the south to blind our eyes,” Eisenkot said.

The event, “The IDF and Israeli society,” was the fourth such conference since Lipkin-Shahak died in December 2012.

Only one in 120,000

During his speech, Eisenkot defended the practice of giving work permits to Palestinians as a central tool in combating the economic factors that lead some Arab men and women to terrorism.

“One of the main questions is, who isn’t a terrorist?” Eisenot said. “There has only been one case — not two — in which a terrorist had a work permit in Israel. In the past decade, from the over 120,000 people with work permits, there has only been one terrorist.”

Not only has this program of giving work permits been successful in preventing terror attacks among those who get permits, but it has also had a positive impact on their families, the army chief said.

“How many family members of those with work permits have carried out attacks?” Eisenkot asked. “Only one, the young man who carried out the terror attack in Otniel last month. He was the son of someone with a work permit.”

Eisenkot placed much of the blame for the ongoing violence on incitement in Palestinian media and the weakness of the Palestinian leadership in denouncing terror, as many Israeli officials have.

Palestinian men and women no longer get together in person in order to plan terror attacks or violent demonstrations, he said. “Today, it’s all happening on social networks.”

Cartoon encouraging attacks on Israelis published on Fatah Facebook page, October 2015 (PMW)

Cartoon encouraging attacks on Israelis published on Fatah Facebook page, October 2015 (PMW)

“About 90-95 percent of the attacks are being carried out by young men and women, unmarried, who make a decision,” he said. “They see incitement in the media and understand that it’s right [to commit a terror attack] for that idea.”

In addition to incitement that encourages Palestinians to take a knife and stab an Israeli soldier or civilian, Eisenkot said, Israel and other Western countries have to fight the incitement that pushes Muslim men and women to join the Islamic State terror group.

“What makes thousands of young people join the Islamic State from around the world? Six hundred have joined from Belgium, two thousand from France, several hundred from England, hundreds from Australia and even 50 to 70 from Israel,” Eisenkot said.

Eisenkot also reaffirmed the army’s commitment to bringing safety to the Israeli citizens living in the West Bank, but stressed the challenges presented by the improvised, often unplanned attacks by individuals with knives or cars.

‘In that drawer, there is a knife’

The IDF, he said, has successfully prevented the much more deadly suicide bombing attacks through its intelligence capabilities. But unlike those types of attacks, which require planning and cooperation between multiple parties, the stabbing attacks leave no intelligence trail for the IDF to follow.

“This isn’t the First Intifada. This isn’t the Second Intifada. There’s no organizing hand,” he said.

 “We’re not seeing organizations. We aren’t seeing Hamas acting. Yes, they are encouraging, pushing and inciting attacks. They have some infrastructure in the West Bank that tries to act, but they are handled for the most part by security forces,” he said.

Instead, the current violence is being carried out by individuals, which presents a new and unique challenge to the army. “Everyone has a kitchen and in that kitchen, there’s a drawer; and in that drawer, there’s a knife; and you can put that knife in your pocket and go carry out an attack,” Eisenkot said.

The IDF chief applauded the IDF for its success thus far in serving as a buffer between attackers and the vulnerable civilian population in the West Bank, noting that 80 percent of attacks in the West Bank have been directed against soldiers, and not civilians. 

Eisenkot dismissed calls for a large-scale military operation in the West Bank along the lines of the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, echoing similar statements made by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Soldiers load one of the suspects into the back of a Ze'ev, a large armored personnel carrier, in Qalqilya on January 14, 2016. The soldiers' commander, Lt. Col. Nimrod Cibulski, had them move the Palestinian teenager away from his family before blindfolding him and putting zip-ties on his wrists, in order to spare the suspect's father the sight of his son in restraints, Cibulski said. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Soldiers load a suspected rock thrower into the back of a Ze’ev, a large armored personnel carrier, in Qalqilya on January 14, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“In the West Bank, there are six brigades operating, dozens of battalions, more than a hundred companies, who night after night are going out on missions,” he said. “People who don’t know the facts on the ground call for Operation Defensive Shield 2. But those who do know the facts on the ground, know that the situation has changed since Defense Shield and that the IDF is operating freely to thwart terror in the West Bank.”

However, he said, there’s still more work to be done. “We need to provide security and a sense of security, without excuses.”

Eisenkot also briefly discussed the controversy surrounding the Breaking the Silence organization, which has been criticized for its whistle-blowing tactics.

“Soldiers know what legal and illegal orders are, and what the spirit of the IDF is. They are taught in training that it’s not your right to refuse an illegal order; it is required of you as a soldier to refuse an illegal order,” Eisenkot said.

Internal criticism, Eisenkot said, is good and healthy for the army, and the IDF has its own mechanisms for investigating war crimes and other potentially illegal incidents.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (L) visit construction work on the fence between Israel and Jordan. February 9, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (L) visit construction work on the fence between Israel and Jordan. February 9, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“I heard a number of complaints after Operation Protective Edge and instructed the military advocate general to meet with people from Breaking the Silence and investigate every one of those cases,” he said.

“We expect our soldiers to respond to illegal orders in real time, not go to a conference three years later and say, ‘I’m breaking the silence,'” he said.

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