Haaretz has just published a revealing story (Hebrew version) adding further details to the failed IDF commando raid last November, which led to the killing of a Sayeret Matkal commander and nearly 20 Palestinian militants who detained them at a Gaza checkpoint. In the aftermath of the disaster, two senior IDF commanders have been either forced to retire or relieved of command.
The most shocking detail in the article is that the unit leader, Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheireddine, was killed in crossfire by his own men. And the officer who killed him is is under consideration for a commendation for his “grace under fire.”
Equally odd is that IDF military censorship has prohibited from Day 1 the reporting of Kheireddine’s name, though I did so the day after the operation happened. For nine months no Israeli reporter could whisper his name. Why? Censorship is supposed to protect national security. How does suppressing the name of a senior officer killed by his own troops do this? What it does is covers the ass of the senior commanders who try to sweep up the mess made by operations like this. They would prefer not to have to explain too much to the public about their own failures, so they bury them. That’s why no one was held to account for these operational failures.
The report, written by Israeli military reporter, Amos Harel, verges on being a travesty. It relies on anonymous army sources who trumpet the operation as an example of extraordinary courage and sacrifice on the part of both the troops on the ground and their commanders:
These investigations also reveal breathtaking drama. If not for the resourcefulness of the soldiers in the field and their commanders, the night could have ended in a colossal catastrophe. The description of the events will rightly generate amazement at the courage of the soldiers operating deep in enemy territory and the ability to extract them once they were discovered.
The report hews so closely to the military narrative that even facts which have been widely reported outside Israel are portrayed as unknown or mysterious:
For some reason, which the army is not explaining in detail, something about their behavior stirred the suspicions of local Palestinians, among them members of Hamas’ military wing.
Actually, the AP reported, based on eyewitness interviews in Gaza, the precise reason Hamas suspected the unit:
…The scheme began to unravel when the team made its way to Abassan. Suspicious residents alerted Hamas security, which stopped their van.
One official said the leader of the Israeli group, reportedly a member of Israel’s Arab Druze minority, spoke the local dialect fluently and remained calm.
But several things did not appear right. He said a woman was sitting between two men, even though their IDs showed them to be members of different families. Under local customs, it is frowned upon for a woman to sit alongside men who are not her relatives.
“That was the major reason for the suspicions,” he said. Under further questioning, the team told Hamas that they were going to visit a woman who does not live in the area.
This again indicates how poorly the unit prepared for its mission. Not understanding such local customs and adhering to them was one of the fatal blows which exposed it. This would seem almost elementary intelligence work and you wouldn’t expect a unit as elite and prestigious as Sayeret Matkal to make such a grave mistake.
Here is how the English edition describes how Kheireddine died:
M. distracted the Hamas men and in the split second that this gave A., the latter acted. He pulled out his handgun and opened fire. Three Hamas men were killed, but apparently Lt. Col. M. was hit by the same fire.
The Hebrew version is somewhat more explicit and makes clear that the commander was killed by Officer A.:
M. [Kheireddine] distracted the members of Hamas and in the split-second afforded him by this, A. managed to act. He drew out his pistol and opened fire. Three Hamas members were killed in the shooting, but it appears that the bullets also killed Officer M.
Hamas reported last November that the commando operation involved planting listening devices throughout Gaza enabling army intelligence to intercept critical communications within the Hamas military wing. The Islamist group presented pictures of electronic surveillance equipment. Experts whom I’ve questioned said that the pictured objects appeared to be older specimens of surveillance technology. The IDF agrees in part, with a telling caveat:
The army says the equipment that the Palestinians presented as captured is not important and does not reveal information that would let Hamas cause damage in the future.
This may be true as far as it goes. But if Hamas captured more advanced technological equipment it likely would not have displayed this to the camera. It would have whisked it off to be examined by its own engineers, or even examined by Iranian or Hezbollah personnel who would be most interested in knowing the technology the IDF was using. Note that the IDF is only admitting that the images Hamas published featured old technology. It is not admitting that more advanced devices might have been captured as well.
Harel alludes to another unanticipated failure (though he refuses to use the term) by Sayeret Matkal and military intelligence:
From the description of the partial details in Arab-language media, it seems that there are a few parallels here to the uncovering of the operation attributed to the Mossad in which senior Hamas man Mahmoud Mabhouh was assassinated in Dubai in January 2010. After that operation, as in the case in Khan Yunis, the Dubai police published photographs of people allegedly involved, and fake passports.
Actually, there were far more than “partial details” and not only in the “Arab language media,” but on many social media platforms. The government and military censor pressured Facebook and Twitter to ban the photographs of the commandos which Hamas was circulating. Facebook actually censored my posting of this Wanted poster and suspended my account as “punishment.” Why? As I asked at the time, why did these international social media companies cave to Israeli pressure and censor their users despite the fact that the picture and the story in general was a major news story? Is it the job of such companies to protect Israeli soldiers who violate the sovereignty of other states and territories and murder their residents?
Despite their best efforts, the identities of the unit members were exposed widely and they were compromised for any future such covert operations.
Further, if the Mossad was caught flat-footed when Dubai revealed it had CCTV footage of virtually the entire assassination operation leading to the murder of Mahmoud al Mabouh, why would Sayeret Matkal not have anticipated this possibility? Why wouldn’t the operatives themselves have noticed surveillance cameras in the stores and other locations they visited in Gaza? This too is an operational failure which Harel refuses to acknowledge fully.
The story closes by noting that the operation was not judged deficient as a result of the investigations that examined it. None of the commanders or troops involved face any disciplinary proceedings. Though two senior officers lost their jobs, a number of personnel are being considered for commendations. Amidst all this flag-waving, it’s extraordinary that while Haaretz says that the operation was riddled with error, it appears no individual made any errors; or at least no one will face any consequences as a result of these systemic misjudgments.
Another unseemly piece missing from Harel’s report is the “cover” the unit used in order to move freely around Gaza. They assumed the identity of an existing humanitarian relief NGO in Gaza which distributes wheelchairs to those wounded by IDF sniper fire during the Great March of Return. Not only is this a gross violation of international law, it jeopardized the safety of those doing genuine relief work in Gaza. It shows the complete and utter disregard for human decency of the IDF. It is a despicable violation of every norm; a cynical exploitation of the IDF’s own murderous campaign to kill and maim hundreds of Gazans seeking little more than freedom and dignity.