Shalit was kidnapped on June 25th by Hamas militants who had dug a cross-border tunnel into Israel. Meanwhile, the Second Lebanon War broke out as a result of Hezbollah kidnapping Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser in a cross border attack on July 12th. The war ended 34 days later as a result of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
Despite the fact that these two events happened at completely different times and on completely different fronts, they are more connected than meets the eye.
In hindsight, it's clear that were it not for Gilad Shalit's kidnapping, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then Defense Minister Amir Peretz, together with the rest of the prime minister's cabinet, would not have decided to start the Second Lebanon War. The decision to bomb Lebanon and to send in ground forces was strongly influenced by the feelings of anger and humiliation felt after Shalit was captured and his tank crew killed. This further proves that strategic decisions shouldn't be made by gut feelings and boiling blood.
Another connection between the two events was their blunders. Both of these events were cluster bombs of mistakes. On the border with Gaza there were a lot of tactical blunders which enabled Shalit's kidnapping, and ended with serious strategic blunders regarding his release.
By contrast, the Second Lebanon War began with tactical blunders, continued with both tactical and political blunders, yet somehow ended in a rare strategic achievement; ten years of almost complete silence on our border with Lebanon.
This calm isn't the result of IDF deterrence alone – or, more accurately, Israeli Air Force deterrence. The Syrian civil war and Hezbollah's involvement in it are no less important. But only a few weeks after the end of the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said that had he known how Israel would respond to the kidnapping of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, he would not have told his people to carry out the kidnapping. One way or another, now is the time to evaluate these two formative incidents.
The continuous failures of the Shalit affair
Everything that had to do with the Shalit affair – from his kidnapping and the negotiations for his release, to the actual details of his release – there are no positive aspects, only negative.
1. The tunnel used by Hamas to kidnap Shalit should have been a clear wake up call for the IDF and the security establishment. It was the first time that the severity of the threat from underground tunnels was exposed. However, it took the IDF nearly 10 years to begin to take this threat seriously and deal with it. Still, even in 2014, high ranking IDF officers and government officials hadn't internalized the threat these tunnels posed – the threat to the feeling of security and actual physical security of both the residents of the Gaza border area and of the soldiers stationed there. The quality of intelligence wasn't as good as it should have been and there was no established method for destroying the tunnels. This resulted in a need to go on a weeks long adventure in Gaza called Operation Protective Edge and lose soldiers and civilians. At the end, the IDF succeeded in at least partially destroying 32 Hamas tunnels dug using the lessons Hamas learned after capturing Gilad Shalit.
2. Another blunder was in terms of intelligence. The Shin Bet, IDF Intelligence Directorate, and the Mossad – despite all of their efforts – were unable to find an Israeli soldier hidden only a few kilometers away from Israel.
3. The biggest blunder in the Gilad Shalit affair was the years long negotiations, particularly the almost complete Israeli surrender to Hamas demands. Israel released 1,027 Palestinian terrorists, including many who had Jewish and Israeli blood on their hands. It also wasn't only Hamas members who were released, but also members of other Palestinian terrorist organizations – something which made Hamas look great in the eyes of the Palestinian public, and helped catapult them to become the dominant Palestinian political force.
A significant portion of those freed in return for Shalit returned to terrorism a few weeks after the victory celebrations in Gaza died down. They created the "Gaza General Command" and the "West Bank General Command," both of which are comprised entirely of people who were released in the Shalit deal. They have attempted to kidnap and kill at least seven Israelis since Gilad Shalit was released in October of 2011.
4. The most serious damage is that the Hamas victory and Israeli surrender has in turn made the Hamas military wing obsessed with trying to kidnap Israeli soldiers. The expressions "the national sweetheart" and "the child of all of us" which tied the entire nation to Gilad Shalit throughout the media campaign for his release made Mohammed Deif, Yahya Sinwar, and Marwan Issa (the Hamas military leadership) fixated on digging thousands of tunnels, including several into Israel.
Hamas has even established a Special Forces unit called the "Nukba force" which is specifically trained to infiltrate Israel through the tunnels and kidnap soldiers.
From what we understand about Hamas and from what Hamas itself says, they aren't able to go into Israeli towns via the tunnels. The goal of the tunnels is to kidnap IDF soldiers either in Israel or when they go into Gaza – exactly what happened to the bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oren Shaul during Operation Protective Edge. The operation didn't put a stop to Hamas's obsession with kidnappings; it only made it grow stronger. The Gilad Shalit affair still isn't over.
This is how to deal with 120,000 rockets
However, one can say that the IDF has learned from the majority of the blunders made during the Second Lebanon War.
1. The IDF understood that in order to succeed in war, the army must achieve a decisive victory on the battlefield. Therefore, in the new IDF operational doctrine, maneuverability is the central component. Decisive victory, even against the threat of rockets – will require a fast paced and massive land forces invasion into enemy territory. IDF land forces have been reorganized for this purpose, several new Special Forces units have been created, and IDF tanks and APCs have been outfitted with the "Windscreen" anti-RPG system.
2. Another component is target intelligence. The IDF went into the Second Lebanon War with a list of only about 200 targets, a target list which was exhausted after only a few days of fighting. Today, the IDF has lists of thousands of targets located all throughout Lebanon – and Gaza as well for if the need arises – and is able to hit them from the air, ground, and sea.
However, it is still not enough. To destroy thousands of targets one need tens of thousands of precision missiles, and the pilots and planes need to be good enough to hit the targets. In other words, the IDF understands that to beat 120,000 Hezbollah missiles, one needs to hit the suppliers. This capability already exists and is being continually practiced.
3. Another strategic takeaway from the previous war is that the IDF needs to be ready to fulfill its tasks at all times. This isn't a problem in the air force or the navy, but the ground forces are busy dealing with security operations, and 60% of the IDF ground forces are on permanent deployment in the West Bank. Therefore, it's not easy to test and see if the mortar division in a particular battalion knows how to fire a mortar effectively, that the tank gunner knows how to fire accurately, etc.
4. Finally, the IDF needs to make sure that soldiers can get to the front quickly, get into enemy territory, and get to their objective quickly so that they can win the war.
What we learned in Protective Edge: nothing changed
While all of this exists and is being trained on constantly, the big test still lies ahead. Hezbollah hasn't been quiet and hasn't been sitting on its laurels. In 2006, Hezbollah was an armed militia who's main objective was to defend itself and Lebanon. Today, the organization is a proper military in every sense of the word, and is gaining practical experience in Syria.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons have changed their strategy vis-à-vis Israel. According to Hezbollah publications, the terror group will attack inside of Israel with the aim of capturing Israeli border communities and transportation routes deep inside the Galilee. At the same time, it will rain heavy rocket fire all throughout the north of Israel.
Hezbollah will use the fighting tactics it learned and the weapons it obtained in the Syrian civil war in the next war against Israel – including mortars with a warhead that weighs over a ton and can destroy everything within a huge radius.
Hezbollah also knows that if they capture an Israeli town or critical road junction, the IDF will drive them out, but not before Hezbollah takes pictures of its yellow flag flying over said Israeli town. To them, that's a propoganda victory.
Hezbollah continues to adhere to a strategy whereby it can't lose – that they will continue to shoot rockets until the very end while obtain a few propaganda victories through pictures of captured Israeli towns. That’s all they need to announce that they are victorious.
The IDF knows this, and is reinforcing its troop readiness. Its leaders believe they will be able to handle a threat on the home front as well. When it entered the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah had 13,500 rockets. Today it has 120,000. But the IDF has the Iron Dome and Arrow, and Magic Wand missile defense systems. These can intercept a large proportion of the rockets that threaten population centers. The Second Lebanon War gave the then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz the push he needed to put his weight behind the development of Iron Dome, and that’s an achievement as well.
The next war, as far as Israel is concerned, needs to be short and quick. The IDF will have to operate deep inside Lebanese territory, and perhaps that of Syria too. Therefore IDF Commando Brigade was established, as has a special IDF HQ headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Tal Russo.
But as much as the IDF is making efforts to fix the mistakes of the last Lebanon war and to prepare itself for another conflict on the northern front, the political echelon is dragging its feet. Politicians are still fighting over budgets and authorities that have to do with the home front; but what they really want is to provide their associates with jobs and budgets. The home front’s readiness is still lacking, even though the matter of evicting border-adjacent towns has basically been worked out. The Security Cabinet that decided on the Second Lebanon War did not understand that it was entering a war (as opposed to a limited action) not merely because its members lacked knowledge, but because its members – Olmert, Peretz, etc. – didn't have enough of an understanding of security matters to be aware of the fact that they were ordering the IDF to go to war.
What happened in the Cabinet during Operation Protective Edge shows that nothing much has changed in the meantime. Cabinet members aren’t lacking in intelligence, but they lack understanding of strategy and the ability to see the big picture and its consequences. It’s not important where the entrance shaft of this tunnel or that is. What’s important is the meaning of the threat we face; they need to know what the IDF’s plans of action in such cases are. You need to be able to know how and when to demand alternatives as well.
Until now this has been done in a random and amateurish fashion, and the cabinet's decisions followed that path. Perhaps the recent political turmoil in the government will cause this to change for the better.