Former Israeli security chief Ami Ayalon: ‘The military can defend us; it cannot secure us’

Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel on Saturday has triggered outright war between Israel and Palestine, with levels of violence not seen in decades. FRANCE 24 spoke to Ami Ayalon, the former director of Israel’s national security service Shin Bet, to discuss what is happening on the ground and how the conflict may evolve.

A new episode of heightened violence began in Israel and Palestine this week with an attack by Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in Israel and Israeli retaliation in Gaza that has seen a combined death toll climb into the thousands. 

In Israel and around the world, many were shocked by both the extreme brutality of Hamas’ attack and the fact that national intelligence and security services did not foresee the intervention, which saw hundreds of fighters enter Israel by land, sea and air. 

The violence has been compounded by Israel’s response in Gaza; the Palestinian enclave has so far been hit with 6,000 bombs, the Israeli army said on Thursday, and supplies of electricity, gas and water have been cut off. 

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to destroy Hamas, and it is widely expected the Israeli military will soon begin a ground offensive in the Palestinian territory. There are also fears that rising tensions could spread into the wider region.

FRANCE 24 spoke to the former director of Israeli national security service Shin Bet, Ami Ayalon, to discuss Israel’s response to the attack, military action in Gaza and prospects for a regional conflict. 

Israel has pledged to destroy Hamas in the wake of Saturday’s attack. Do you think that’s a good security strategy? And is it possible? 

Keeping Hamas on the other side of the border is not acceptable. We have to destroy the military capability of Hamas. Today, I see that this is the only way.  

But when we say that our war is against Hamas, we should add it is not against the Palestinian people, and Israel is not saying that. Our government does not recognise the Palestinians as a people.  

As long as there is conflict, we will not come to an agreement, and we will not see stability.

We should be ready to speak to any Palestinian leader who accepts Israel’s existence as a state and to start to negotiate on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative.  

We have to get rid of the political and military power of Hamas, and it will be very, very violent. But what next? Next, Israel should say it doesn’t want to control Palestinians anymore. We have to start to revive the concept of two states, side-by-side. 

This is my dream, but I understand that the present government and probably the future government will not accept it. I’m 78 years old now. Probably it will not happen in my lifetime, but we have to start. What we see around us is a horror but, in every conflict, there is an opportunity.  

How risky is the ground offensive that Israel seems to be preparing for in Gaza? 

Very risky. Many people will die. Many Israeli soldiers and many more Palestinians, but we do not have another option. The other option – that Hamas goes on living on the other side of the border – is unacceptable.  

Most of the directors of Shin Bet are responsible for advising the government on terror and, for years, we said Israel cannot speak to Hamas. It is a fundamental radical organisation that does not approve Israel’s existence as a state, and it will do everything in order to destroy us.  

[The Hamas attack] was a wake-up call that was so painful, I don’t have the words in English or Hebrew to describe the feelings in Israel now. 

Israel could have done something [different] earlier. We could have tried to empower the Palestinian Authority and to decrease the power of Hamas, but we did the opposite.  

Read moreGaza braces for ground offensive, but can Israel achieve its objectives?

Speaking about the feeling in Israel now, it has been reported that there were Israeli intelligence and security failures that allowed the Hamas attack to happen. How confident can Israelis feel that the same kind of attack isn’t going to happen again?  

There is a difference between defence and security.  

Defence is something that you can measure. Israel wanted to achieve more defence against attacking missiles, so we built the Iron Dome. We put in money, had great minds to develop this technology and we can measure the input and output. It gives us a level of defence of about 95 to 97 percent against attacking missiles. 

When it comes to security, it’s totally different because security is what you feel. The answer to security comes from culture. It’s the leaders’ role to create confidence and to give a sense of security to the people.  

Israel is defended more than any other state as a whole, but the Jewish people do not feel secure. If you ask why, some people start to speak about 2,000 years ago when the Second Jewish Temple was destroyed [by the Romans], some talk about the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust or history with the Arabs…  

What we do not understand is that … the military will never give us security. The military can defend us; it cannot secure us. And in our public debate, we do not understand the difference.  

What do you make of the reports that Israel ignored advanced security warnings from Egypt and early reports on the ground that this large-scale attack was about to happen? 

It is clear that our political policy [towards Palestine] was totally wrong and that there were intelligence and operational failures. 

It’s identical to what happened before the Yom Kippur War. It was clear that we were going to war, we had a peace offer on the table, and we were not ready to discuss it. (Editor’s note: In the lead-up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli intelligence dismissed the movement of Egyptian and Syrian troops near the border prior to a surprise attack coordinated by the two states. The war was part of an ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict during which Israel initially rejected an Egyptian peace deal – the first publicly offered to Israel by an Arab government)

Read moreFrom 1947 to 2023: Retracing the complex, tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict

But, if somebody tells you tomorrow you will be attacked by Hamas but all your intelligence officers are telling you that there are no signs, you will listen to all the experts around you. You want so much to see it as true.  

In these [security] meetings, people tend not to ask questions. It’s against the culture of the organisation.  

There is this myth that Israel is invincible due to the strength of its intelligence and security services. Is that idea now dead? 

It’s damaged, for sure. It can be fixed, but it will take a lot of time. 

Deterrence is the major factor in Israel’s defence, and we are losing our deterrence. Until now everybody was afraid of Israel, and this was a great asset. When we lose our deterrence, it presents a major, major threat because we live in a very dangerous region which does not forgive weakness. 

Israel is also not doing enough in the region. We speak to all our neighbours in the language of the military and they see us as a military power, but we need to speak two languages; military and diplomacy.  

We have to fight the military wing of Hamas. And we have to speak with anybody who accepts us, immediately. And we are only doing the first part. 

We have to communicate to our neighbours that we are a military and diplomatic state, and it’s up to them to choose which language they prefer.  

Israel now says it’s at war. Is it inevitable that this war is going to include neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Iran? Is Israel ready for a regional conflict? 

I have no idea. I think that it depends on whether Israel makes clear to our neighbours and to the international community that we do not have any intention to conquer Gaza, to occupy Gaza, or to build settlements in Gaza, [as per] the Arab Peace Initiative. 

What you see today is a military operation with a very specific goal to destroy Hamas’ military wing, and nobody knows where it will lead. It will cause many casualties on both sides, and the other risk is that it will spread to Hezbollah. We have to assume that we will see more violence in the West Bank.  

At this moment, we need to tell the Saudis and all our neighbours that we accept, after 21 years, the idea of the Arab Peace Initiative and will negotiate on a future two-state solution. That would create an immediate impact on the spread of violence. 

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