x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Israel's former secret service chief says country 'frightened of outcry over ground war'

Ami Ayalon says his country is hesitant to launch a ground war in Gaza because of the international outcry over its previous military campaign in the Palestinian enclave.

The former head of Israel's secret service said his country was hesitant to launch a ground war in Gaza because of the international outcry over its previous military campaign in the Palestinian enclave.

Ami Ayalon said the reaction to Israel's conduct during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 caused Israeli leaders to re-evaluate how to approach the present offensive. "I believe that we learnt something from Operation Cast Lead," Mr Ayalon said in an interview this week with The National. "The war of today is not won on the battlefield but victory is achieved in the eyes of spectators all over the world."

Mr Ayalon, who led Israel's domestic security service from 1996 to 2000, said Israel has two reasons to be wary of launching a ground incursion on the Hamas-ruled territory.

Such an attack would "obviously" lead to an increase in civilian casualties, he said.

And "if we use our ground forces, we are perceived as invaders and once we are invaders, Hamas becomes the national liberator ... and not a terrorist organisation", he added.

More than 1,000 civilians in Gaza were killed during Cast Lead, which included an Israeli ground invasion. Similar numbers could be expected if Israel defence forces went in again, said Mr Ayalon. Now chairman of the executive committee of Haifa University, he was also commander-in-chief of Israel's navy for four years beginning in 1992.

A United Nations report following Cast Lead accused Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza, such as intentionally targeted civilians. Israel rejected the 2009 report and the lead author, South African jurist Richard Goldstone, later disavowed it. But its three other authors did not.

Since the Operation Pillar of Defence began on November 14, more than 140 Palestinians and five Israelis have been killed.

Israel has 75,000 troops ready to invade Gaza and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to send them in.

Although Mr Ayalon opposes ground operations in Gaza, he said Israel's air war is justified because of Hamas' rocket attacks on Israeli citizens in the south.

But he said military action and Israel's blockade of the territory were ultimately failed strategies.

"The blockade doesn't work," Mr Ayalon said. "Hamas, as of at least a week ago, was much more powerful than they were four years ago" because it has bolstered its arsenal.

Mr Ayalon also cautioned that Israel "will never win a war only by using our military capabilities".

The bid by the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas's rival Palestinian faction, to become a non-member state of the United Nations in a vote slated for November 29 presents Israel with "a huge opportunity" to "speak the language of diplomacy".

He believes Israel should sign up to a separate peace with the PA to isolate Hamas.

"We are fighting Hamas, not Palestinian society," he said. "When the Palestinians elected Hamas it was not because they believe in fundamentalism," he said, but because of Fatah's corruption and a belief that Israel only understands force.

Mr Ayalon blamed Hamas for starting the present conflict. He said the trigger for Israel's bombardment came after steady rocket fire into southern Israel wounded four soldiers on November 10.

But the cause of the conflict is in dispute. Two days before, on November 8, Israeli helicopter gunships made an incursion into the Gazan village of Al Qarara, north-east of Khan Yunis, killing 13-year old Ahmed Abu Daqqa, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

"Of course I know all these events, but the idea that we should try to find what was the exact event that created this wave of violence … it's beyond a specific case," Mr Ayalon said.

Gershon Baskin, a negotiator who won the release from Hamas of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, said that on the morning of November 14 he had a ceasefire agreement sent to Ahmed Al Jabari, commander of Ezzedine Al Qassam, Hamas's military wing. Mr Baskin says Israeli officials were waiting for Hamas's response.

But later that day, Israel assassinated Mr Al Jabari in Gaza City. Is "I know nothing but what Gershon Baskin told me," Mr Ayalon said. "I think Gershon probably has very good information about a piece of paper as it was submitted to Jabari." But he said he had no idea whether Mr Jabari was serious about a deal. "I don't think we see it as whether Mr Jabari will or will not accept some ideas," he said. "It is hypothetical."

Israel's bombardment then ensued.

The timing of Israel's operation has also called into question whether it was ordered by Mr Netanyahu to bolster his chances of re-election in January. "The whole idea of these conspiracy theories are too sophisticated," Mr Ayalon said. "Usually what we see is stupidity and coincidence."