Southern Command chief insists army is ready for all eventualities, including with plan to evacuate locals if war breaks out; Likud MK heckled over his party’s policy.
Residents of Gaza border towns, journalists and political opponents took Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government to task Wednesday, accusing it of failing to address the threat of Hamas-dug attack tunnels from the Strip.
The “The Threat of the Tunnels” conference, held in the southern town of Sderot, took on additional weight in light of the recent discovery of a tunnel that reached deep into Israeli territory from the southern Gaza Strip.
On the issue of the tunnels, IDF Southern Command head Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir attempted to reassure the crowd that the army had things under control. “The period since Operation Protective Edge has been the most quiet period in a decade,” Zamir said, using the Israeli name for the war in Gaza in 2014. “The tunnels Hamas tries to build have become death traps for its operatives.” He was referring to a series of tunnel collapses throughout the Strip in recent weeks that have killed scores of Hamas men.
“We have detailed plans on how to respond to any Hamas aggression, and are operating constantly along the border,” he added. “In addition to preserving the quiet and preventing terror, we must prepare for war, with the understanding that the realities of the world can change,” Zamir said. Various high-ranking IDF officers and defense officials have stressed over the past week that though Hamas is rearming itself, there is no expectation of conflict in the near future. “As part of our preparations, an organized plan was created by the relevant bodies – the Defense Ministry, the IDF and local councils – to temporarily move residents away from the range of mortars and out of harm’s way,” Zamir also said. During the 2014 war, communities close to the border were evacuated for this exact reason, and a similar plan also exists for northern Israeli towns at risk of Hezbollah rocket attacks.
Zamir’s comments – which echoed many statements expressed in the past week – were overshadowed by the political attacks on the government and Netanyahu’s Likud party, as well as the anger of the Sderot residents in attendance. The heads of opposition parties – the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman and Meretz’s Zehava Galon – spoke at the conference, offering their parties’ answers to the threat of attack tunnels.
Likud, however, could only muster Miki Zohar, a freshman MK who is 22nd on the party’s list and is best known for proposing stricter legislation against businesses that remain open on Shabbat. Zohar’s appearance started poorly, with the event’s emcee, Channel 2 anchor Dany Cushmaro, lamenting that only an alternate member of the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee came to the event from Likud.
“We wanted someone who’s really a part of the coalition cabinet,” Cushmaro said during Zohar’s introduction. Things did not get better from there. Zohar’s speech was interrupted multiple times, first by audience members who demanded the government do more to protect them from Hamas, and then by Cushmaro himself, who derided the MK’s speech as light on content. “Every generation has its challenges,” Zohar said, and the only thing stopping the “challenge” of tunnels is Israel’s new detection technology.
“That’s all you have to say?” Cushmaro asked. “I’ll give you my speech, and you can read it twice,” Zohar responded. The freshman MK trumpeted the new tunnel detection technology as a panacea for the threat of the tunnels and a feather in the cap of the government.
“How was the tunnel found? Due to information? No, due to technology,” he said, stretching out his pronunciation of the last word. The army, meanwhile, has stressed that the still-secret tunnel detection system was only one part of the effort to discover the tunnel, with intelligence and “boots on the ground” playing an important role. “The left doesn’t like it when problems get solved,” Zohar added. Col. (res.) Yossi Langotzky, who previously served as adviser to the IDF chief of staff on the threat of tunnels, called Zohar “an idiot” for his comments on tunnel detection technology.
“Have a little responsibility, a little professionalism, a little citizenship,” Langotzky said on the sidelines of the conference. “Any physical barrier can be overcome.” The attacks on the government came not only in the form of direct challenges from audience members, who accused the party of holding back funds for the creation of a new superior barrier system, but also from other speakers, including former political allies of Netanyahu. Liberman, a staunch right-winger who once considered urging that Israel reconquer the Gaza Strip, chose a surprising avenue of attack.
Advocating a lessening of some of the restrictions on imports and exports for the coastal enclave, the Yisrael Beytenu leader emphasized the importance of easing the economic crisis in Gaza, which he claimed has been fueling the conflict. “A better life for Gaza residents makes them less likely to join a terrorist organization like Hamas, and Hamas knows it,” Liberman said. The terrorist organization diverts funds and materials designated for the reconstruction of Gaza and uses it for its own nefarious means, he charged.
“What would I do if I had responsibility for this issue?” he asked rhetorically. “Open a TV station, radio station and website in the Strip to tell the [Gaza] population the truth about Hamas.” Galon, from the left-wing Meretz party, advocated a dramatic change in policy, one that puts more emphasis on the need for negotiations in place of violent conflict to resolve the issues coming from Gaza. For a decade Israel has had “the same policy and the same results,” Galon said.
“This might sound ‘sensitive,’ but security isn’t just about military power, it’s about diplomacy,” she said. “Deterrence doesn’t last forever.” Lapid and Herzog dealt less with what should be done to resolve the threat of tunnels on the Israeli communities surrounding the Gaza Strip, and more with how the government has failed to do so. “If I were prime minister, the person initiating these tunnels wouldn’t stay alive,” Herzog said.
He blasted the government and security cabinet as being short on action and long on word, as part of his recent bid to appear tough on terror. “I don’t think Hamas is deterred enough. They keep digging tunnels, which shows they’re not deterred,” Herzog said.
A recording of the opposition leader telling Labor party members the party had to stop giving the impression “that we are always ‘Arab-lovers’” leaked Tuesday evening, prompting outrage and ridicule in the Israeli public.
In response to the brewing scandal, Herzog told audience members at the Sderot conference the quote was out of context, that he was discussing how the party is seen by others.