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  1. The Weekend Interview
4 November 2023

Eitan Shamir: “In the end, the levelling of Gaza also poses an opportunity”

The Israeli military strategist on how 7 October happened, Israel’s endgame in Gaza and the prospect of a regional war.

By Harry Lambert

Eitan Shamir is the director of the Begin-Sadat centre for strategic studies at Bar-Ilan University, in Ramat Gan – a 20-minute drive east of Tel Aviv. In the early 2010s he ran the national security doctrine department in the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, and is the co-author, with Edward Luttwak, of The Art of Military Innovation: Lessons from the Israel Defense Forces (2023). We spoke on 1 November over video link.

I asked him how exactly Hamas‘s attack on Israel on 7 October happened, and we discussed the IDF’s strategy in Gaza, which has been the subject of much global criticism. We also discussed the parallels, if any, with Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon, and the ramifications of the conflict for the region. His answers surprised me. I think they give an insight into how Israel’s security establishment sees its own actions and the months ahead.

Harry Lambert: How was Israel caught unprepared on 7 October?

Eitan Shamir: The problem was that this security fence [around Gaza] was designed for a terrorist attack: six people here, ten people there, maybe 50 from different directions. This was the most extreme scenario the planners were thinking of. Not a full brigade; not 1,500 people. And there was a little bit of luck for Hamas that we are learning about today. The cameras in the surveillance balloons had to be repaired, and no one thought it was urgent – they said “after the holiday”.

HL: But as your co-author Edward Luttwak put it to us recently, “military planners are not supposed to be optimists”.

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ES: It was very quiet in Gaza for a long time. There was this pressure not to call [up] reserve battalions because they cost a lot of money. Being a reservist is hard. So if the government tells me you don’t have to go: “OK, great, I don’t have to go.” And the military says, “See we saved a lot of money from the defence budget.” Everyone is happy. They also took two battalions and moved them to the West Bank.

And then those forces that were on the Gaza border, because it was Shabbat and holiday, you send home between half and two-thirds of the force for the weekend. The line was very, very, very thin. In the air force they had two Apache helicopters – only two – that were on call. I was in the IDF as a soldier in the Eighties; I can tell you we were constantly ready. Whole brigades were constantly ready. It is unrecognisable. I think it’s a deterioration over a very long time, and an illusion that all the electronic systems and gadgets and cameras and automatic remote-controlled machine guns could provide security.

HL: People talk about the political turmoil in Israel prior to 7 October, and its effect. But why did that distract the IDF?

ES: I think we have a very good chief of staff [Herzi Halevi] and he recovered very quickly, but they were all busy trying to maintain the cohesiveness of the IDF during this political upheaval. I think they lost focus. The attention that there was all went to the north. Although if Hezbollah had joined the attack on [7 October], I don’t think the situation in the north would have been much better. If this was a joint attack, we would be fighting Hezbollah for days. Israel was lucky in that sense. Hezbollah is Hamas on testosterone. Their forces are five times bigger, stronger, more equipped, more disciplined.

HL: You read these incredible stories of grandfathers driving down to the border and saving their families. But where was the IDF in the hours after the breach? Why did it take them so long to react?

ES: It was complete chaos. Nobody knew what was going on. Hamas penetrated the border in 15 minutes. The first place they went to [attack was] the command centre of the Gaza division headquarters. In 15 minutes, there were Israeli helicopters. But the terrorists had Strela missiles. They shot one down. You are familiar probably with this movie where they attack the White House.

HL: Olympus Has Fallen?

ES: Exactly. It was like that. Hamas had Strela missiles, they had the most advanced RPGs, you saw the pictures of all the different explosives they brought with them.

The Shaldag, the special forces of the air force, and the Yamam, the elite counterterrorism police – they were there very quickly. But take Shaldag, this top unit. They went down from a helicopter with 20 people, and they believed they were going into a kibbutz which had ten or 20 terrorists. Then they found themselves surrounded by 100 terrorists. And once you’re in the kibbutz, they don’t know what’s going on. Do you want to put a one-tonne bomb into the kibbutz? Look at the map of the whole massacre: you can see the scale and the spread of it.

To give you another example, the counterterrorism police, who are top professionals, they went in, and as they drove, they saw an injured Israeli tied to a tree. They stopped the car, and went to release him, and he was booby-trapped. He exploded and four of them died immediately. There was such confusion. There were first responders who rushed in and there were many fatalities. Slowly the forces came and at the end of the day, a thousand terrorists were killed. But the questions you are asking, [why it took so long], everyone was asking. Everyone was in shock, including myself.

HL: Do you think there was a wiser course of action Israel could have taken in response to 7 October?

ES: I’m aware of this criticism that is coming from different directions. But I’m trying to think: what was the alternative? To do what? To bomb them less, maybe less aggressively?

HL: Should the IDF have entered Gaza without bombing?

ES: People in the kibbutzim said: we can handle living under rockets, but we cannot live here if terrorists can jump into our backyards. So, in 2014 Israel went in – three to five kilometres inside Gaza to locate and destroy tunnels. After that, the military pulled away. No government ever wanted to go into Gaza. The feeling was: it’s a trap. The cost will be high in blood and treasure. The cost to the Palestinians of course is also going to be high. We will lose public opinion for sure. Everything was done to avoid it.

Now [that we suffered] such a horrendous attack, Israel must do something to prevent it again. First, you must have an air campaign phase in order to soften up the targets and to hit whatever you can with the air force and with weapons that are fired from afar. And only after you have done everything you can to minimise the casualties of the forces, do you go in.

HL: What is the strategy of the current invasion?

ES: I think the strategy is to slowly squeeze it. It is like a python. So you encircle Gaza City, you envelop it, and then squeeze all the time. It has advantages and disadvantages, but I think this way was chosen to minimise IDF casualties and it gives some time for Hamas to release hostages.

HL: Squeeze whom? You will be squeezing the Palestinians. How will we know when Hamas has been taken out, what does that look like?

ES: First, I want to say the IDF gave at least 24 hours, and then there was another extension, and then it waited more for most of the Palestinians to move from the north to the south. They gave warnings, plenty of time, and said you guys are going to be in a war zone – take your family, go out. Most of them did. [Others see Israel’s evacuation order very differently.] There are some people who said – and we have the phone recordings; the IDF called them, telling them to leave – Hamas doesn’t allow them to leave. At checkpoints Hamas were forcing them home.

Hamas has a doctrine, it is explicitly written, that the population is the shield of Hamas. And now in interviews, they are saying they’re not responsible for the population. A senior official just said we are taking care of ourselves in the tunnels, and the population is the responsibility of the UN. They don’t care about the population, they want to use them, and then to cry that Israel is committing war crimes. This is their strategy. It is part of their mechanism.

Israel does not do carpet bombing like in Syria, like the Russians did. When it is pinpointing a target, it went through a process, and through the legal department – it was approved as a military target. And sometimes the legal department is overruling the commanders. Everything is being checked very carefully. The Americans, by the way, are involved in this process. You don’t hear them saying Israel is committing war crimes, because they know what we are doing. When the Americans invaded Normandy, and they were fighting inside the French villages, there were French casualties.

To your point, when do we know? When we kill all Hamas, when we kill the leadership. You’re not going to kill the last person with a Kalashnikov. But you reach a point where you have destroyed 80-90 per cent of Hamas, and they don’t have any control over Gaza any more, and you have destroyed most of their capabilities in terms of material and manpower. And they’re hiding, they’re nothing.

HL: What about the tunnels?

ES: I think that’s the hardest challenge. As you saw in Jabalia refugee camp there was this huge bomb that killed a lot of Hamas but also had some collateral damage. [Reports suggest dozens of civilians were killed in the strike.] What happened there was: the tunnels weakened the structure of the houses, so once the bomb dropped, the entire area fell. A lot of scientific effort was put into this issue of the tunnels in the past decade, but there is no silver bullet. It’s going to be a struggle. Still there is a lot of confidence in the Israeli army that they can overcome this.

[See also: The New Statesman view: Heeding the lessons of history]

HL: What does Israel do after, both in north Gaza once they control it, and in south Gaza?

ES: I don’t think they will have to do such a major operation in the south, as Hamas will be much weaker. Their power is concentrated in the capital, in the north. And then we will have to see what we do in [north] Gaza.

HL: There is a leaked ten-page concept document from the Intelligence Ministry. It suggests Israel will seek to take control of north Gaza and demilitarise it. As soon as Israel vacates Gaza, how do you prevent a resurgence of Hamas – of this ideology?

ES: I don’t think Israel wants to occupy Gaza. Hamas – like Isis, like al-Qaeda – will not disappear from the Earth. It’s a deep-rooted ideology, it is just one branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is widespread in the region. But you have to ensure that Hamas doesn’t control Gaza. Controlling Gaza also means controlling the schools in Gaza because what the children in Gaza are studying now is: the Jews are the devil and when you meet a Jew, you kill him. That’s the indoctrination. So you have to take control of the school curriculum, you have to control everything, [including] the media.

HL: But then you are describing Israel as the authority in Gaza?

ES: Look, I don’t know how long Israel will have to stay there. It will have to stay there for a while. The Israeli objective will be to leave Gaza as soon as possible. I think the only way will be to bring in a consortium of forces – an international coalition. We will have to go through a process of nation building. But everyone writes a paper now on this. This should be done in line with the Saudi normalisation. There will be an interest among the Saudis to show that they are helping the Palestinians. The Saudis and the other Gulf countries should put a lot of money into dismantling the refugee camps and rebuilding Gaza. Biden’s idea of having a train route from India all the way to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Haifa – a good idea would be to build part of it in Gaza. The positive ideas are endless. The question is how do you get from the stage where the Gaza population on the one hand is completely crushed, and on the other is committed to this ideology of death and martyrdom that they were subjected to for the last 20 years or 70 years, depending on how you count.

HL: You talk optimistically about Gulf state involvement, but their reaction was initially very supportive of the Palestinian cause.

ES: Oh, come on. They’re sitting there waiting for us to crush Hamas – praying for us to crush Hamas. They’re more afraid that Israel is going to miss the opportunity to do so than the Israelis themselves are. This is about the whole regional set-up. You have on the one side the Gulf states, the Saudis, the countries who signed the Abraham Accords [a diplomatic normalisation deal between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain] and on the other, you have Iran and its proxies – the Houthis in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Hezbollah. And you have Qatar, which is trying to play with everyone.

Queen Rania of Jordan can speak about the misery of the Palestinians, and the lies of Israel. And then when she goes to her tap in her palace and she washes her face – she’s doing it with Israeli water that we are providing her. And she knows that her national security, in Jordan, is being kept in check only because the US is there and Israel is there. Otherwise, they would be completely run by extremists. Of course, she will say otherwise, because this is what the streets demand. The same in Egypt. You can see this too with the Saudis, who are very clear that once this is over, they want to go on with the normalisation process.

HL: Why hasn’t Hezbollah moved? Do you fear a second front?

ES: The question is, why didn’t they join the same day? Maybe now they think they should have – that this was such a missed opportunity. Because now Israel is ready. Hamas stole the show from them.

But Hezbollah is very different from Hamas: it is under the control of Iran. It has degrees of freedom, but not much. And unlike Hamas, it is much more committed to its population, to the Shias in south Lebanon. It is not willing to sacrifice them so easily. They know they will pay a huge cost. They are the defenders of Lebanon, and Israel would inflict a lot of damage on Lebanon. Iran also invests almost a billion dollars every year in Hezbollah knowing this is a tool they are going to use on “judgement day”. Judgement day being the day Israel or the US do something against their nuclear facilities. So, if they’re using it now they’re losing it.

I think if Hezbollah join, the US will still expect Israel to do the fighting [rather than the US itself]. It is Iran they were warning when Biden said “don’t” [take advantage of the situation]. But Israel is part of Centcom [US Central Command], so there is already integration of their defence systems, and the US has already helped with missile defence since 7 October in the case of the Houthis.

HL: Centcom which has forward headquarters in Qatar, which also hosts Hamas’s political leader in Doha.

ES: Yeah, it’s completely ridiculous. Israel joined Centcom after the Abraham Accords. It didn’t get a lot of attention other than in professional circles but it was a big deal. It has hugely benefited Israel. But if Hezbollah joined the conflict, I think Iran would join. And the US is there to prevent Iran joining.

HL: But Iran doesn’t want to go to war with the US, and Hezbollah is under Iran’s control, so this second front shouldn’t open?

ES: No, but we can’t rule out escalation. There is ongoing fighting in the north. And Hezbollah is trying to maintain it under the threshold of full-scale attack. But imagine if a rocket falls and kills 25 Israelis? We are at war. You do not have full control over the flame.

HL: What comparisons do you see, if any, with 1982? Some people are making comparisons. Israel went in, got to Beirut, but didn’t have an exit strategy. The security situation collapsed, and Hezbollah got a foothold.

ES: The situation is completely different. In ’82 Israel went to push the Palestine Liberation Organisation out of Lebanon. The PLO were completely foreign to Lebanon. So, Israel could reach Beirut, put a siege on the PLO, and force them to leave. Many people in Lebanon cheered when they did. Not just the Phalangists, but also other factions that hated the Palestinians. What Israel had to do was pull back to the border, but it didn’t – it stayed and there was this illusion that we can meddle in Lebanese politics. The Syrians were much better at it. Their intelligence services were much better embedded in Lebanese society. Lebanon was a Syrian back yard. And the forces that came to play in Lebanon in this vacuum gave rise to Hezbollah, with the rise of the Iranians.

HL: Whereas Gaza is surrounded by Egypt, which is a US ally, and by Israel.

ES: Gaza is small and surrounded. But Hamas is much more a part of the population than the PLO were in Lebanon.

HL: Isn’t this why it’s complicated when you say, “we’ll know we’ve defeated Hamas when we kill them”? It’s not always clear who is and isn’t Hamas.

ES: Two-hundred thousand people in Gaza have Hamas membership cards. But if you have one, it doesn’t mean you’re an active terrorist.

HL: Like the Ba’athists in Iraq in 2003?

ES: Or Nazi Germany. You had to have a Nazi party membership if you wanted to work in the municipality. It’s the same in Gaza. The point is to destroy Hamas’s military capability. And in the end, the levelling of Gaza – like Germany after the war – also poses an opportunity. I believe what we need is a Marshall Plan for the Middle East after the war. And I think Biden, the great advantage of him, is that he looks at the world and sees the free world fighting on multiple fronts: one is Ukraine, another is Taiwan, and now he has another one in Gaza. It is part of this global fight.

HL: What do you think of the marches for Palestine we’re seeing across the West, including in London last weekend?

ES: I don’t think it necessarily reflects the general public view. What you wonder is where were they, all these people, when Bashar al-Assad was killing half a million Syrians and driving away six million refugees – where were they?

You talk to these people and you say, “OK, Palestinian rights – we have to take care of it. But can’t you condemn the killing of those innocent children, women and families?” And they say, “No, no, no – because it’s their fault, because they are white colonialists, or Jews who exercise apartheid, and it’s their fault.” And then you understand the true nature of these people.

[See also: Could Hezbollah’s leader ignite a regional war?]

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