Interview with Avi Dichter

A reckoning in Gaza

Former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter describes his vision for deterring Hamas in Gaza, uprooting terror and holding Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmud Abbas responsible.

A couple of days before the government authorized Operation Protective Edge, former security minister and Shin Bet head Avi Dichter took a tour of Sderot. “I live in Ashkelon and I go to meet friends in Sderot. I was there when the ‘red alert’ siren went off and I saw the people and saw a ghost city….[this is] what it means to have today more than half a million Israelis living in a war of attrition… The government must take responsibility.”

Dichter was born in Ashkelon, the son of Holocaust survivors. He still lives in his hometown, which continues to suffer from rockets from Gaza.

An energetic man with a soft smile, he was a member of the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit when it was commanded by Ehud Barak in the 1970s. Dichter honed his skills in security with the Shin Bet in the late 1980s and 1990s, spending much of his time focusing on Gaza and the south.

He became intimately familiar with Arab culture and learned the language. Between 2000 and 2005 he was director of the Shin Bet and from 2006 to 2009 internal security minister when he was a Knesset member for Kadima. In the November 2012 Likud primaries, he placed outside the top 20 slots and was No. 59 on the party’s election roster. Since then he has devoted his energies to being chairman of the Foundation for the Benefit of the Holocaust Victims in Israel, a cause he is passionate about due to his family background. He hopes to compete in the next Likud primaries and return to politics.

Sitting down to discuss Hamas in the midst of a coalition crises that has seen Avigdor Liberman separate his Yisrael Beytenu party from Likud and a national crises of Arab rioting throughout Israel, he says, “You have to understand, those searching for one tool [to stop terror], there is no one switch to end terror; it isn’t like switching the lights on and off; you must work on all switches, concerning the West Bank and Gaza.” He has just gotten back from a tour of Sderot.

Is he suggesting an escalation? “If what Hamas is doing isn’t an escalation, then I don’t know what is… up until we suffer fatalities is it not an ‘escalation’? How many? Thousands?”

Let’s begin with the West Bank; what is the situation with the terror infrastructure there, especially in light of the murder the three Israeli teenagers?

It exists… they were weakened by putting thousands of them in jail [during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002], some of them for life, but they didn’t disappear.

What happened recently, post-reconciliation [between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in April]… Hamas started to use it as a leverage to strengthen themselves in the West Bank… The talks of the reconciliation lasted a few months before the unity government agreement in April. Hamas did it for one reason; to strengthen themselves in the West Bank.

They used the cover of the talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas? 

Once you begin talking you dismantle the capability and will of the PA security to block and bother them. It left the stage to the Israeli security agencies that, by definition, are limited when they have to deal with Hamas in PA territory in the West Bank, in Areas A and B. What Hamas did practically is that they took the opportunity to strengthen themselves.

When the Egyptian regime, in order to serve Egyptian interests, began to block the tunnels into Gaza, which supply everything including weapons, money, and food… so Hamas in Gaza started to be in trouble; mostly financial. A cash crisis began and they could not pay salaries. After [Egyptian President Abdel Fatah] al-Sisi launched the military coup and toppled the [Muslim] Brotherhood and put in jail thousands and labeled them as a terror organization; Hamas understood they are in trouble because they define themselves… as the Muslim Brotherhood branch in the Palestinian land.

How do we understand the Hamas logic?

I don’t think we should understand. Over the past week we are suffering hundreds of rockets and that is something impossible, intolerable, and we don’t have to ask ourselves how come they don’t use all the batteries they have…. They know the Israeli response is only 1% of what we can do in Gaza.

Should Israel up its response?

Israel must have a full and coherent plan to dismantle the infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. Prepare the troops, the reserves [on July 7, shortly after the interview, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge], the Iron Dome; political, economic aspects, and decide when we are going to start the large operation to dismantle the terror military infrastructure; it isn’t a matter of a week like Operation Pillar of Defense (November 14-21, 2012], or weeks, like Cast Lead (December 27, 2008, to January 18, 2009); it is [an operation that will require] more than a year… and must be very, very determined; because it is impossible that for 13 years a terror entity will decide when they will run a new round of attacks against civilians on Israeli soil.

Are we talking about what [Ariel] Sharon did in 1971, when he launched a major operation to root out terror in Gaza? 

In those days we were the regime; but since 1994 the PA is responsible for the Gaza Strip; they have a total responsibility, and since 2005 they have got the full responsibility for everything that happens in and from the Strip. So I am not talking about conquering the Gaza Strip; but dismantling the [terror] infrastructure.

It is huge compared to 1971.

Should the goal be to strengthen the PA or Fatah? 

As far as I understand, it is not in coordination with the PA. But it doesn’t mean they are losing their official responsibility. I hope that they will be able to implement their practical responsibility much better than they do it; or have done it, over the last seven years since the Hamas coup [in which Fatah and the PA were essentially thrown out of the Strip].

Let’s turn our attention to the riots in east Jerusalem and the Arab-Israeli community that have rocked Israel since Wednesday July 2.

We must differentiate between Jerusalem area Palestinians and the riots and attacks against Jews by Israeli Arabs. Although the results might be the same…what happened in Israel by the Israeli Arabs didn’t surprise me; many of the Arab municipal leaders, employees and other leaders understood that the mistake they made in October 2000 [when massive rioting coinciding with the outbreak of the second intifada led to the deaths of 13 Arab-Israeli demonstrators] should not repeat itself. The damage caused to the communities 13 years ago was a disaster for them. They understood that if it is going to repeat itself today it will take years until things will go back. Except for some local areas like Kalansuwa or Wadi Ara and Umm al-Fahm; it was contained by the police and the Border Police, and with a kind of assistance of local leaders.

In east Jerusalem, mainly in Shuafat, they destroyed everything that was labeled as Jewish, even if it served the Jerusalem Palestinian community; mainly the Light Rail. I am sure the municipality and Transportation Ministry will discuss whether it is smart to put another budget of tens of millions of shekels in order to rebuild the light rail in this area.

How has Abbas handled the situation? Has he been good for Israel? 

He was not good for us, he was serving the interests of the Palestinian Authority… That is why he can allow himself… to be two-faced; for example he didn’t do anything to dismantle the unity government with Hamas during the kidnapping of the three kids or when the bodies were found. But he is calling for an international committee [to investigate the] murder of Muhammed Abu Khdeir. That is two-faced.

So I thought that post the kidnapping of the three kids; we should hear a little bit more just to see something happen; condemnation by the chairman of the PA is good but we expect from such a person to do more. He is not the secretary-general of the UN; he is in charge of such terror activity.

But he didn’t know about it or order the kidnapping and murder in the West Bank? 

I think he is directly responsible for the terror activity of Hamas; when he brought them into his government [and didn’t ensure] that they will stop and call their people to stop terror activity; he knew such a terror activity would occur. How did he know it? I’ll take us back eight years. Eight years ago, Mahmoud Abbas, in his same position, formed a unity government with Hamas, and the prime minister was Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip; the Quartet put conditions on it and… Hamas rejected totally to accept conditions including cessation of terror.

In June 2006 Hamas tried to kidnap three soldiers on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip; they killed two and kidnapped Gilad Schalit.

So it is a similar pattern? 

June 2014; same event. Exactly. This time they didn’t wait two months [after the unity government]; but just two weeks. We need to tear the mask off Abbas’s face. He is our partner but he must know that he can’t come wearing a mask.

What about planning for a future after Abbas? 

We don’t plan the Palestinian future. The last time we tried to shape the future of another country was in Lebanon and it failed in 1982. [Palestinians] must choose their leadership. We must decide if we will negotiate or not. I reject totally the claims that ‘Abbasele’ [an endearing Yiddish term implying Abbas is a friend] is the last one that will talk to Israel…we must serve our interests of two-states, side by side, in peace. What happens now is everything but not peace.

How do you think the security services handled these recent events? 

I think the Shin Bet, army and police behaved in the most professional way to find them, alive, but unfortunately dead. I was surprised that in less than three weeks it ended. In my experience it took us months or years, in some cases, to find bodies of kidnapped soldiers; with Avi Sasportas [kidnapped and murdered in February 1989, body found in May] and Ilan Sa’adon [kidnapped and murdered in May 1989, body found in August 1996].

And with the six Jews accused of the murder in Shuafat?

It is nothing but terror activity. Same as the man who killed Shelly Dadon [in Afula in May]. Once it is not a criminal event but terror activity due to “nationalist- ideology,” we define it as terror activity. Thank God they got the murderers.

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