Call with Eitan Ben Eliyahu on Escalation of Gaza Violence
Call with Eitan Ben Eliezer on Escalation of Gaza Violence
Israel Policy Forum
Moderator: Steven Spiegel
November 15, 2012
12:00 PM ET
David Halperin: Thank you all for joining us this morning. Obviously we are all watching with concern the developments taking place today between Israel and Hamas. We apologize for beginning a bit later than scheduled. It is our understanding that the siren was heard over Tel Aviv and that the cell network was condensed and we had an issue with some phones being disconnected. But, I want to get right to it.
Our guest today is Eitan Ben Eliyahu. His bio has been distributed to all those listeners on the call. He is the former Commander in Chief of the Israeli Air Force. We couldn’t be more pleased to have this timely discussion to hear his views on the breaking developments and what might this all mean for the coming days, weeks, and months.
Our moderator today is Steven Spiegel, IPF’s National Scholar, professor of political science at UCLA. We also have on the call Alon Pinkas, the former Israeli Consul General who’s available to help to moderate this discussion and offer his own views.
I want to quickly turn this call over to Steven Spiegel. Thank you all for joining the Israel Policy Forum for this timely call and look forward to a very important discussion. Thank you very much for joining us. Steve, take it away.
Steven Spiegel: Thank you very much, David and we will start immediately, lest there be any disconnections from Israel. Eitan, how would you assess the escalation here and the situation as you see it at the moment; the significance of this exchange between the Palestinians in Gaza and Israel?
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: Okay. I think that now we are approaching a very crucial point. This is about 26- 27 hours since the first shot started yesterday with targeting the leader, Ahmed Jabari, and right up to that there was a massive attack on logistics centers of the long-range rockets and missiles that Hamas has in Gaza.
As always the first wave, and I mean let’s say the first six or seven hours of yesterday right after the beginning, was a bit of surprise to the Hamas and the Israeli government a day before misled by coming out with some statements that in our view this round is over. By doing so, actually, the Hamas were sure that the exchange of firing in the last few days which was not really real operation yet was over. By doing so, we were able to, targeting Ahmed Jabari.
The first wave of attack right after that was very successful, as I mentioned. We have collected the information, the intelligence information, which mean exactly where all the long-range missile, they call them Jafr 2 and Jafr 3 (ph). These missiles have a range of close to 100 km and most of them were destroyed in the first five hours. Now, as we always know, as the intelligence community is always telling us we know what we know, but we don’t know what we don’t know. So we had to assume that they still have some more missiles in storage but until a few minutes ago, they used only the regular rockets which means up to 40 km maximum range.
So, I started this discussion by mentioning we are at the turning point and I mean by that that the first wave of attack which was a surprise, actually we were using the relative advantage of the air force. We have air superiority over this area. We can fly very freely. The weather is very good. We cover the entire area with unmanned vehicles so we are monitoring the entire area around the clock and in real time.
However, at this point actually we start some sort of attrition. The Hamas and the other groups, by the way, they since to turn it into a type of attrition, which means they are very carefully using the consumption of their ammunition; which means they kept firing yesterday and during last night in a very careful way but right now, this afternoon, they extended their range and they accelerated the rate of launching.
So from now on the biggest dilemma by the Israelis will be the following. One is; are we able to continue this type of attrition or at a certain point we will have no other choice but to invade into Gaza on the ground? Because the feeling is that as long as they still firing missiles you get a reaction from the people that they feel like we are not successfully fulfill the mission although the other side is in the under very heavy attack for the last 27 hours.
We all concerned at this moment to which direction this is going to continue. Either to slow down this exchanging of firing and to reach a cease fire and in this direction we believe that the Egyptians are a key player in this option; that’s one thing. The other one should we continue another two or three or four or five days. I believe that if we continue more than three or four days, there will be a very strong pressure by the people to escalate which mean that the air force is not effective any more but what we will be forced to do is to invade into Gaza on the ground.
So I would say that the coming two or three days are very crucial days and we will know the answer no earlier than maybe Sunday or Monday. This is how it looks like at this moment.
Steven Spiegel: Which do you think it will be? Do you think there will be the escalation or do you think they will --
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: If you are asking me. I have the feeling that unless something unexpected will happen, then it will, there are very, very good chances that, yes, we will go into Gaza on the ground.
Steven Spiegel: And what will that be designed to accomplish?
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: Okay. That’s the $64,000 question and before I answer this question I tell you, I’m not sure if you heard, but the Prime Minister and Defense Minister last night made a statement and they put the mission what should be accomplished in this route. They were really careful not make any specific accomplishment but punish the Hamas. To restore the deterrence and make sure that in twice or three times ahead before they dare to do it next time. In another words, they leave the very wide margin. It will be difficult to measure the accomplishment once we’ve finished.
I am not sure if this will continue forever because if they do have and if they do decide to get into Gaza on the ground they will start the question; should we go all the way in? Should we remove Hamas from power in Gaza? The same questions that we went through a few years ago in the last operation.
So, my answer to you is the accomplishment for the beginning which means if we finish today or tomorrow it would match the mission accomplished or how it was set at the beginning but if we go to stage two which mean on the ground or another five or six or seven days, then they will have to set another accomplishment.
Steven Spiegel: Presumably the problem with Cast Lead was that the final goal was never really delineated. Israel said it would not get rid of Hamas and so after four weeks or so it was stopped and four years later we’re back in the same spot.
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: Correct.
Steven Spiegel: Won’t there be some people worried that this will happen all over again?
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: Absolutely, yes. I mean that’s the biggest concern. We may find ourselves in the same situation again. However, I mentioned at the beginning, that Egypt is the key player here because the President Morsi and his cabinet, they are in a very, very sensitive situation. And I know that he was in contact with President of the United States, with President Obama and I think at this point this channel between the U.S. government and the Egyptian is also very crucial. In order to finish this round before we get to invasion on the ground and before you get to this question; what should be the final and what should be the mission accomplishment in this round?
The answer is, yes, we may find ourselves -- and always after three or four or five days when they start to show disasters on the ground and it will be shown on the major, in Europe and in the United States, the pressure raise up and we will find ourselves in the same situation.
The best thing for us was to finish today, okay? Which mean after the success of the opening then the best thing was that they understand it and this is what, at least for the time being, they don’t want to deal with but I’m sure that they themselves are under a strong pressure as well and the big question mark is; where is the balance between both sides and mainly the other side to continue in there and the understanding to give up and to stop? If it will be before invasion on the ground that’s obviously better. If it will be after, then we don’t know what the development will be.
Steven Spiegel: Okay. Let’s open this up to the group. Operator, can you please give the instructions on how to ask questions?
Operator: Our first question comes from the line of Ethan Bronner. Your line is open, please go ahead.
Ethan Bronner: Thanks, very much. General and Alon and whoever else is welcome to answer. We had a little election here the other day so I wasn’t paying the closest of attention in the last week or two. What is it that led to this increase in activity in the South? I mean did something change in terms of the way Hamas was either taking credit for rockets or dealing with rockets and so forth? And that’s the first question. So, how did we get here?
And then my second question is; what is the goal of this operation? I know, General, you said that they have been vague, purposely vague, in stating the goal, but is there a general sense that the buildup that Hamas has had in ammunition and weapons in the last year or two of smuggling is unsustainable and they simply have to have a reason to go in and take that stuff out? So, those are my two questions. Thank you.
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: The answer to your first question is that in the last six or seven weeks they launched, from time to time, rockets not by the Hamas but by the other organizations. On a regular basis, the tactic which was used by us that every time that they do anything then we retaliated on the spot. So you did not even heard about it because it did not took any headline which means they launched one rocket or two and then we retaliated, but a short attack, not mainly but only by the air force on the same day or the same evening on the same night. This went on for about six or seven weeks.
Then at the beginning of this week, there was something that was pre-planned probably and we don’t know exactly what was the purpose of that. They launched a direct rocket on a vehicle which was patrolling on the border between Israel and Gaza. It was a terminal-guided type of missile which hit directly the vehicle and we were lucky because it went through one side and went all the way to the other side, so four soldiers were very badly injured.
This was kind of a crossing a red line and actually this was the opening of this round because we retaliated and then after 48 hours -- but we retaliated in a very moderate way. And then as I already described (inaudible) missed that (inaudible) as by us making the statement that this, from our side, the round is over and then we targeted the leader of their military unit.
So, the question is and this is something that, I mean not everybody else agrees, but there are two options. One is that they did what they have done but they did not believe, not them nor the Egyptians, that we would retaliate the same way as we did. That’s one option.
The other option is that it was on purpose. They are, after years of collecting thousands of rockets and long-range rockets and all these ammunitions, they felt like they’re ready and they took the chance; that they do what they did and maybe on purpose; they expected our retaliation and this is what happened.
What is the truth between these two options I cannot tell you for sure. Also, maybe it is connected to the coming elections in our side. Again, it was their initiative and they crossed the red line. They did what they have done and launching this rocket against this vehicle was far, far beyond the usual red line.
Steven Spiegel: Let me just say for one second, a year or two ago, you remember they used a missile and hit a school bus and I mean to go after Jabari after this seems to me an enormous escalation of the back and forth that has been -- I admit that hitting a jeep and wounding four guys was a step, but it doesn’t sound to me like it was the most unbelievable thing that’s happened in the last four years.
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: Well, you are right. There was a case when they hit a school bus. You’re right. But, I think that after this period of time you cannot compare the situation and the resilience by the Israelis, the way it was then, to compare it to the way we see it today. The sensitivity of both sides is much, much higher and this government -- well, let me put it this way, somehow it is connected maybe, maybe to the elections and on purpose they did what they have done today knowing that to the government is more sensitive to any actions today whether than it was two or three years ago.
Steven Spiegel: Of course, every time there’s a situation like this, as happened four years ago, it usually helps the right wing block. To test Israel at this very time is almost an invitation to conflict and to a Likud government which they may calculate is better for them. Let’s not get into that, let’s move on to the next question.
Ethan Bronner: Okay.
Steven Spiegel: And, operator, do we have that question?
Operator: Our next question comes from the line Joe Lauria. Your line is open, please go ahead.
Joe Lauria: Yes, thank you. What, is the fact that we’re here again four years later, would military operations say about the effectiveness of the blockade and of military operations if every four years or so this has to be done again because there’s continuously more rockets come in there? And has there been any evidence of an increase of weapons coming from Egypt since Morsi took over?
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: Well, first of all let me correct you. This has not been only four years ago. We’ve been going through this disaster for 100 years. Which mean that -- and maybe what I should also add to that is that is that -- excuse me for one second -- The blockade is not as it used to be years ago. I mean, practically, I mean as it is appears on the media especially as it is being used by some of our opponents like today the Turks and the others they prefer to remind the world that Gaza in under blockade but, practically, this not the way it is today. So, you push the situation forward a few steps and then you go backwards a few steps and this is how we’ve been living for many years.
Steven Spiegel: Let me follow up by asking about something that Riyad Mansur, the Palestinian Representative of the U.N., said yesterday. He believes this military operation by Israel is directly linked to the announcement on Monday that the Palestinians would go for a vote on November 29 for observer state status at the U.N. Do you see a link there whatsoever?
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: I’m not sure about it but what I can say there is a very, very strong tension between Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas. You are taking me deeper into the conflict. There is a theory, which by the way I am believer in this theory, that at least the Hamas and many of them they do not want any solution, any peaceful solution. What they want is to keep the conflict as it is forever until somehow in their dream, which will never happen, but somehow they will be part of the entire Israel.
So for them to accept this notion by Mahmoud Abbas on the November 29, it somehow will fix the direction into two states solution. Forget about Israeli perspective on that move, but I mean the way it is looked by the Hamas is, no whatsoever. We want to continue. We see ourselves as part of Haifa and Jaffa and the Galil and we have to make sure that the fire is on all the time until we will get rid of all the Jews here in the region. So, you may connect it to the 29th. This, I believe that if you accept this theory, it might be a connection between these two things.
Steven Spiegel: Okay, operator, next question.
Operator: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Mel Levine. Your line is open, please go ahead.
Mel Levine: General and Alon. I guess my questions are kind of now follow ups to two of them that have already been asked. One by Steve and Ethan with regard to objectives, and the first one is; if Israel does decide it needs to go in on the ground, in light of the lack of clarity about objectives, how will it decide whether its objectives have been met? Number one. Number two; with regard to the tension between Hamas and the PA how does this all play out in terms of the Palestinian world, in terms of who gains and who loses between Hamas and Abbas?
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: In regards to the first question. In my opinion, I can assure you that after all this will over you will see an ongoing debate on the media, in Israel and everywhere, between those who will say that we achieved the goal and some others who would say, no. You also, even before that, there will open a debate; should we continue or should we stop or should we -- ? This is, unfortunately under this kind of circumstances, I know what’s going to happen.
But I want to say one thing. This is in regards to assuming the resuming the deterrence. Practically they were free to collect a huge amount of ammunitions in the last few years and mainly after the revolution in Egypt and after President Morsi and the Muslim Brothers took over. No matter what they say and no matter what will be the conclusion after the debate here in Israel, there is one fact that no one can argue with. The fact is that, if not all, at least a huge amount or maybe most of their storages and most of their ammunitions will be destroyed.
That means that practically and technically in order to be ready for, I hope never, but if they want to get ready for next round it will take, technically it will take two or three years, at least, for them to rebuild their forces. So, no matter what are the statements and the declarations and the debates on the media, practically, after this kind of punishment they will be ready for next round not before two or three or four years. So, this is in regard to the first question. The second one I’m not sure I know the answer.
Steven Spiegel: Let me just follow up for a moment on the first one. That’s a little closer in terms of defining an objective, I think, than what we had heard earlier. How much of that can be accomplished from the air and how much of that needs to be done on the ground?
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: I think that most of it can be accomplished from the air with no price. If you’re asking me, the operation on the ground is more an outcome of the general pressure to do something and to satisfy the people and the players and all that stuff. Practically, I believe and I know that most of the goal can be achieved from the air.
Listen, this is a relatively very small territory. We are free, 100% free, to fly over it. The weather is wonderful. You can come from all around and you’re monitoring the entire area 24 hours a day; every single spot. I mean if there is a place in the distance from the home bases like a few minutes of flying time. I mean you have all the best condition to operate from the air.
But knowing that there is an option to get in on the ground and people will still see rockets coming from out of there. They always have this ray of illusion of thinking that maybe we should go onto the next step. Professionally, if you’re asking me, it can be accomplished and it should be accomplished only from the air.
Steven Spiegel: Okay. Thank you.
Mel Levine: So, are you saying that what may be the answer to this problem is every two or three or four years Israel has a few days when it just takes out the missiles they’ve accumulated; kind of lancing a boil every once in awhile
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: Unfortunately this is what was happening in the last -- I mean until we reach a point until where we can at least agree on a long-time cease fire what they call Hudna, which never succeeded, but what can I do? The first 40 or 50 years since our independence we were forced to (inaudible), in Independence in 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and now it is changing until we reach a point where we can live peacefully together.
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: Gentlemen, I am almost running out of time so just one or two minutes, okay? I apologize.
Steven Spiegel: I think that we do have to end. We know you’re under enormous pressure.
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: Yes.
Steven Spiegel: So we want to thank you for giving us time at a critical moment. I think you made the Israeli situation and the Israeli-Gaza confrontation much clearer than many of us on the call understood. We apologize to those who couldn’t ask more questions but as you see, the General must leave us. So, Eitan, we thank you so much and we hope we can talk to you again.
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: Thank you very much.
Steven Spiegel: Even during this crisis, you’ve really clarified it and done, I think, a great service to all of us who will spread your word and of course the recording of this call will be available on the IPF website so that others can hear it as well.
It’s been a very important call and we thank you very much. Thank you all that did ask questions. They were extremely cogent and applicable. Thank you all. Thank you very much on behalf of IPF, we look forward to talking to you again soon and hope the situation will improve successfully. Thank you.
Eitan Ben Eliyahu: Thank you. Thank you.
Operator: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your participation in today’s conference. This does conclude the program and you may all disconnect. Have a great rest of the day.
Eitan Ben Eliyahu, the thirteenth Commander in Chief of the Israeli Air Force, was born in Jerusalem in 1944. He enlisted in the IDF in October 1962 and volunteered for pilot training, from which he graduated as a fighter pilot in November 1964. He completed an operational training course with the "Wasp" Squadron, and served there as an Ouragan jet pilot until August 1965, after which he trained to be a flying instructor at the IAF Flight School. He served as an instructor at the school until April 1967, and also helped establish the IAF's aerobatic team.
During the Six Day War which broke out in June 1967, he served as an Ouragan pilot. In December 1967 he transferred to flying the Mirage as part of the "1st Combat" Squadron. In September 1969 he transferred again, beginning his service in the "The One" Phantom Squadron, where he was appointed Second-in-Command B and Second-in-Command A.
In September 1973, he transferred to IAF Headquarters, as head of the Operations Planning Department. One month later, with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war, he returned to the "The One Squadron, this time as Squadron Commander.
In January 1976, Ben Eliyahu was appointed head of the team for receiving the F-15, and in July 1976 he took command of the "Knights of the Orange Tail" Squadron, Israel's first F-15 squadron.
In June 1979, he was promoted to colonel and became head of the Weaponry Department in Air Force Headquarters. In 1982, he began studying for a bachelor's degree in Economics and Business Management at Bar-Ilan University, and on completion of his studies in July 1984 he was appointed commander of the Ramat David Airbase.
In 1986, he completed Harvard University's Advanced Management Program and in February 1987 was promoted to brigadier general, and appointed head of the Air Group. In 1989 he began to study for a master's degree in Strategy and International Relations, and in 1991 was appointed head of Air Force Headquarters.
Ben Eliyahu received the rank of major general in April 1995, and was appointed as Assistant Head of the Operations Branch at IDF headquarters. In July 1996 he was appointed Commander in Chief of the Israeli Air Force, taking over from Herzl Bodinger.
During his term as Commander in Chief, the Air Force received the F-15I ("Ra'am"), and the decision was made to acquire the F-16I ("Sufa"). This period also saw Israel's first female combat navigators graduate from pilot training, nearly five years after it had been opened to female candidates under Ben Eliyahu's predecessor, Herzl Bodinger.
Under Ben Eliyahu's command, the IAF also began to operate the Arrow ("Hetz") missile, and the first Israeli Astronaut, Ilan Ramon, began his training with NASA. Ben Eliyahu is a graduate of the USAF Air Combat School and shot down four enemy aircraft during his service.
In April 2000, Ben Eliyahu handed over command of the IAF to Dan Halutz.