I received a message from a trusted contact in Israel yesterday telling me that no ground offensive was planned in Gaza. This was despite the fact that heavy armour and infantry reservists were massing on the border. I decided to hold the story and break it in the morning.
Within hours, however, the official Israeli army Twitter account had suggested to the world that ground troops had gone into action. ‘IDF (Israel Defence Force) air and ground troops are currently attacking in the Gaza Strip,’ it said.
Nobody noted the careful ambiguity. Within minutes, the news had spread across the world. ‘Israel goes in,’ screamed the MailOnline, the world’s biggest newspaper website. ‘Israeli troops have entered the Gaza Strip as conflict with Palestinians escalates, Israeli military says,’ tweeted the distinguished Washington Post.
In a state of exasperation, I almost deleted my source’s number from my phone. By morning, however, the truth was coming out. My source had been on the money. The delicately-worded IDF tweet had actually meant that ground forces were shelling from inside Israel, not that they had crossed the border; but the fact that it produced headlines suggesting that an assault was underway played into Israeli tactics.
As night fell, Hamas fighters had prepared for battle, swarming into the ‘Metro’ tunnels and manning positions in the open. Both those below and above ground were summarily wiped out by Israeli jets.
This limited civilian casualties by encouraging combatants to move away from their human shields and create a unified target. As an illustration of Mossad’s Biblical motto – ‘by way of deception shall you make war’ – it could not have been better.
Typical Israeli audacity and ingenuity, you might say, underpinned by a desire to protect innocent life. Yet it contrasted with what would appear to be a major intelligence failure in the months and years leading up to this conflict.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been firing up to a thousand rockets a day at Israeli civilians this week. (Hundreds have fallen short, killing Palestinian civilians, but enough made it into Israeli airspace to overwhelm the Iron Dome missile defence system.)
Many of the rockets were advanced long-range missiles, capable of targeting every city in Israel. Hamas’ stockpiles have not yet been exhausted (although there is talk of the long-range rockets running out soon).
Gaza is supposed to be under ‘blockade’. How did they come by this weaponry?
The Iranian-made rockets, or parts of them, seeped into the Strip via smuggling tunnels along the Egyptian border and by sea, where an internationally-approved naval blockade is in place. Security cooperation between Israel and Egypt had been very good in recent years. Yet both routes were clearly very porous, and the current tempo of rocket fire makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that the Israelis were caught napping.
There has been a feeling in Israel lately that Hamas had put violence on the back burner in favour of courting international legitimacy. The cancellation of the Palestinian elections this month – as well as the need to show a newly emboldened Iran that funding terror in Gaza would produce value for money – put paid to that, causing Hamas to reach for devastating Plan B.
At the start of Ramadan, when a few rockets were fired and a few terror attacks launched, military chiefs petitioned Netanyahu to authorise a response. He did not move then – contrary to international perception, Bibi is often cautious to use military might – and this meant that a head of steam built up that had to be harshly addressed.
Could more have been done to prevent Hamas from stockpiling such a fearsome arsenal? This is one of many questions that will bother the beleaguered prime minister as he tries to sleep at night. Perhaps a greater degree of deception could have been utilised earlier.