Israel unprepared for tunnel threat in 2014 Gaza war: report

Jerusalem (AFP) - An Israeli state inquiry accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top army brass Tuesday of being unprepared for the strategic threat of tunnels used by Hamas militants during the 2014 Gaza war.

The findings of the two-year inquiry sparked a frenzy among Israel's political establishment on their official release Tuesday, with critics of Netanyahu using the opportunity to slam the premier's allegedly flawed decision-making process.

"The political establishment, the military establishment and the intelligence bodies were aware of the tunnel threat and even defined it as strategic. And yet the actions taken to deal with the threat did not match this definition," state comptroller Yossef Shapira wrote in the report.

The report said Netanyahu and then-defence minister Moshe Yaalon did not fully share information they had on the tunnels with other members of the security cabinet, speaking instead in "sparse and general" terms.

The two men also failed to provide ministers with "significant and essential information," necessary to make "well-informed decisions" on the situation in Gaza ahead of the war, the report said.

After the report's release Netanyahu again defended his record, saying in a statement the tunnel threat was discussed 13 times in cabinet.

He said the war was a "success" as Israel handed out the "harshest blow to Hamas since its inception."

"Israel killed around 1,000 terrorists and destroyed thousands of rockets," he added, saying "tangible and real lessons" had been learned.

Destroying the tunnels and stopping Gaza-based Palestinian militants, particularly Hamas, from launching rockets into Israel were the key declared goals of Israel's third offensive in the coastal territory in six years.

The tunnels were among the Palestinians' most effective weapons during the 50-day conflict.

In one particularly notable attack, five soldiers were killed when a Hamas fighter emerged from a tunnel near the Nahal Oz kibbutz inside Israel on July 29, 2014.

But tunnels were also used inside Gaza once Israeli forces invaded, with a number of soldiers allegedly killed when Hamas fighters emerged from them.

Shapira's report concluded Netanyahu, Yaalon and the chief of staff "did not ensure the army had operational plans for fighting in urban areas with tunnels."

The 2014 war killed 2,251 Palestinians and left 100,000 homeless, according to the UN.

On the Israeli side, 74 people were killed, all but six of them soldiers.

Yaalon, who during the war was a close ally of the premier only to resign last year from Netanyahu's Likud party and political life in acrimony after a dispute, also defended his record.

"Those who played politics in the security cabinet in an unprecedented way during the war will continue to do so this week," Yaalon wrote on his Facebook page prior to the report's release.

- Resignation call -

The fallout from the report is likely to pit Netanyahu against coalition partner and political rival Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Jewish Home party.

Bennett has said that he and fellow members of the security cabinet were not properly briefed by Netanyahu on the tunnel threat.

Bennett did not immediately comment after the report.

Opposition head Isaac Herzog called on Netanyahu to resign and said the report should put "anxiety and worry in the heart" of every Israeli.

Yair Lapid, another senior opposition figure, said the report was "extremely concerning" and that Netanyahu misled the public.

"Worst of all, nothing has been done since to ensure it doesn't happen again," he said in a statement.

But analysts doubt the report will have a significant effect on Netanyahu's governing coalition.

Avraham Diskin, a political scientist from Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said he did not expect any major political upheaval or resignations, noting that such inquiries rarely have dramatic long-term impacts.

Much of the report was leaked in November 2016.

"The report won't cause an earthquake," he said.

Israel's military found 32 tunnels, including 14 from the Gaza Strip into Israel, according to a UN inquiry on the war. Hamas says it has continued to dig new ones.

The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is fractious, with a rocket fired from Gaza hitting southern Israel without causing any damage Monday.

The army retaliated by bombing Hamas targets in Gaza.