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A Former Israeli Intelligence Chief on Atrocities, the Coming Invasion of Gaza, and the Fate of Hostages

14 minute read
Karl Vick is an editor at large at TIME. He has also served as TIME's Jerusalem bureau chief. He has reported from 60 countries and in 2001 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of the spread of AIDS in Africa.

Among the casualties of the devastating Oct. 7 terror attack was Israel’s reputation for destroying threats before that threat was even apparent to others. Amos Yadlin was a fighter pilot in the squadron that in June 1981 stole across the Middle East to destroy Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. But Yadlin, 71, is best known for the five years he spent as the major general in charge of Israel’s military intelligence directorate, one of the agencies that apparently failed to detect Hamas’ plan to breach the barriers surrounding the Gaza Strip, and kill some 1,200 Israelis.

Speaking with TIME on Thursday from the offices of the consulting group he founded, MIND Israel, Yadlin declined to address security shortfalls around the incident. But he spoke of other pressing matters—including details of atrocities Hamas carried out in the collective communities, or kibbutzim, bordering the Strip; Israel’s terms for the release of at least some of the at least 150 hostages dragged back to Gaza; the inevitability of the impending Israeli invasion of the Strip ending in its re-occupation; and the possibility that the war could, in time, produce a political accommodation with the Palestinians.

TIME: What's your assessment? Where are we?

AMOS YADLIN: Let me put it this way. Israel was attacked by a neighboring state, a mini-state controlled by Hamas and we have to refer to this conflict is if a country was attacked by a neighboring country. Go back to 1939 or go back to September 11. We see Hamas as accountable for this attack. We see Hamas, attack Israel by surprise and we are going to war to destroy Hamas. Last night the war. objectives were declared by the Prime Minister, the defense minister and General Gantz who join the government. This is a very high objective and what we have to put behind us is all the thinking before Saturday, because the paradigm was that Hamas, even though it's a terror organization, is a reasonable government that cares for the population of 2 million Gazans, and they behaved like that. They got money from Qatar, for the people through Israel, they send the worker to work in Israel and they behave like a responsible government. This assumption no longer exists. We now see. Hamas as worse than ISIS. Hamas was not "an address" to anybody, for negotiation for arrangement, for agreement. We are going to destroy Hamas. This is the goal of the government. Don't write "we" because it's not me, but the Israeli government has decided to destroy Hamas. The paradigm of "an address," a responsible address, deterred Hamas. The need to reinforce your deterrence is gone. We are not anymore in a deterrence game. We are in denying Hamas the capabilities to attack Israel. We are not dealing with their intentions. We are dealing with them capability. And this is a tough job.

I will not put forward our operational plan but you can imagine it is a very, very wide and strong air campaign and then a ground campaign, which we tried to avoid in the previous conflicts. But since it's a full scale war I don't see that Israel will do it only from air.

What does destroying Hamas look like? Because it also exists as a brand, as an ideology, even if you remove all of its military capabilities.

We are not dealing with ideology. We are not trying to convert them to Judaism or to Christianity. They are terrorists and they believe in terrorism. They proved it. What they have done is unacceptable. They killed families, women, beheaded children, raped young girls, killed 90-year-old elderly and behaved like animals, so we cannot change the ideology of 21st-century Nazis. That's how we treat them now, the way the Allies treat the Nazis—not to convince them to be liberals and democrats, but to destroy their capability to inflict harm on Israel and the Jewish people.

The worst things you mentioned—I mean, everything is horrid. But the the beheading and the rapes, these have been alleged and then not confirmed; you're confident in the reporting?

Absolutely. The stupid terrorists filmed themselves. We have the clips. We found them and they were even stupid enough to put some of it on the social media. Of course, they are now trying to remove themselves from what they have done. But in the 21st-century with social networks, with everyone having iPhones, they documented their atrocities, no doubt about it. We can prove it but you will start crying, believe me.

Israeli soldiers patrol on October 12, 2023 near Kibbutz Beeri, the place where 270 revellers were killed by Hamas militants during the Supernova music festivalon October 7. Thousands of people, both Israeli and Palestinians have died since October 7, 2023, after Palestinian Hamas militants entered Israel in a surprise attack leading Israel to declare war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip enclave the following day. (Photo by Aris MESSINIS-AFP)AFP via Getty Images

I'm not asking to see it but you're saying Israel has documented rape and documented beheading?


They killed 1,200 people. Two hundred of them are soldiers. I guess 50 of them were slaughtered on the first attack. You know, you are taking an observation post with five women and they killed all of them and they did more than killing, but soldier to soldier you can accept it. But what they did in the kibbutzim is unacceptable. They burned people alive. They burned them alive.

And this is a nightmare of every Jew since the Holocaust, that he will be at the mercy of animals that want to destroy him. I grew up like this, knowing that it can happen again and swearing that it will not happen again. I served 40 out of the 75 years of Israel's life to make sure that it will not happen again. In a way it's more serious than the Yom Kippur War, because in Yom Kippur war the Bar Lev Line fell but it was soldiers who were there. And we had some civilian settlements, kibbutzim in '48, about two or three with atrocities. But this time, it's like 12 kibbutzim that were basically taken by Hamas and what happened there was unbelievable. I saw generals crying when they saw the pictures. Crying.

Did they recover the phones themselves or is it something they got from the cloud?


To complete its mission, does the IDF have to re-occupy Gaza?

It's a possibility. But my recommendation, as a strategic expert, is not to re-occupy Gaza for long term. If you remember in 2002, after the Second Intifada and the killing at Passover in Netanya, we had an operation called Defensive Shield. The operation took over the West Bank for months. And for about two years we went from home to home to take the terrorists away. And we gave back the cities to the PA [Palestinian Authority] only after our [Yassir] Arafat passed away and Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] took over and denounced terrorism as the method Palestinians should use to achieve a state. And so we can take over Gaza, do the cleaning, the destroying of Hamas, and then hand it over to the PA after Hamas is destroyed, or to Egypt or to any Arab country that wants to control this piece of land.

And if not, well, the disengagement line from 2005 is not a holy line. Israel will deploy its forces around the Strip according to our defense needs and will not let them do it again. I think we should have a perimeter, mined, so next time, they will not easily come to kibbutzim. It should take some time. Maybe we need to bring back something like the Philadelphia Route, which separated Gaza from Egypt; all the weapon was smuggled from Iran through there.

But this is a discussion for the end of the operation. It's not necessarily that Israeli will control of 2 million Palestinians. But we are no longer telling ourselves, "We need Hamas as an 'address' otherwise ISIS will take over." We saw that Hamas is even worse than ISIS. So let the Palestinians decide who will control them and Gaza. But we will destroy and will continue to target any attempt to have a military power in Gaza. Not to the last Kalashnikov, but the way they built, under ceasefires, this force that attacked Israel.

Is the West Bank a model?

In a way, yes. Why is the West Bank a good model? Because Israel controls the whole envelope, the Jordan River and the borders with Israel. That's why I mentioned the Philadelphia Route.

And is it a model in terms of Palestinian internal security that's cooperating with Israel?

If the PA will take over Gaza, yes. If it will be militants again—I don't know who will take over: Hamas again, Islamic Jihad, ISIS—it will be different rules of the game. What you described, the West Bank model is the right one, but I'm not sure it will succeed. It might be a Somalia model. No, no, that's not a good example. I'm trying to think of a model that will fit the intention to destroy any military buildup in Gaza.

How do you do that in the Gaza setting—which is very different setting than the West Bank—without having a Israeli military presence?

From the air. Raids. See, we are not in Nablus every day. We are not in Jenin every day. But when we know that there is a laboratory of IEDs we are going in and destroying it. When we know that the terrorists are building a team of terrorists to attack an Israeli settlement, we address them at night and we target them. So we'll have to find the right operational tools to do it. And as you said it depends who will be the head of the gang in Gaza.

Is there any opportunity here to reset with the Palestinians? Is there too much blood on the floor, or is there strategic thinking that that tries to leapfrog to a new generation or something that does not yet exist in the Palestinian political realm? They say never waste a crisis.

There's so many similarities to 1973: A surprise, a concept that was far from reality. And the two sides have demands far far apart that they were unable to get. And then a bloody war. But you do need two leaders that are saying, "Out of this bloody war, we are going to peace." It is very difficult to see anybody from Hamas speaking about peace, no more war, let's have peace. And they don't even accept the first demand of recognizing Israel, denouncing terror and being part of the Oslo agreement between the PA and Israel. Otherwise the Europeans would recognize Hamas.

Didn't [then Hamas leader] Khaled Meshaal come close during the Arab Spring?

Not so close. But once again, if somebody from Hamas will say I saw the bloodshed in Israel I saw the bloodshed in Gaza and is makes no sense to continue the war, and I want to come to Jerusalem to join the PA in the Oslo Accord? And there will be an Israeli leader on the other side? Maybe. I can't see it today. But it took [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat four years until he came to Jerusalem. Not the next four weeks, not for the next four months. Four years maybe.

Abu Mazen has been saying it for years.

Abu Mazen is another story because anytime he got a reasonable two-state solution proposal from Israel, he rejected it. I was chief of intelligence when [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert gave him an even better proposal than [Ehud] Barak gave Arafat in 2000 and he rejected it. So he was not up to the challenge as Sadat was.

Do you have any insight into how these Hamas units were trained? This attack was a whole nother level of complexity for that group.

I'm not into the details. I haven't been the head of intelligence since 2010.

So let's speak about Hezbollah and Iran. Is the war going to stay in Gaza or expand to the north?
Until now [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah hasn’t want to go to war. He remembers very well 2006. He cares about Lebanon. Lebanon is, not because of Israel, a failed state in a very, very severe crisis and going to war with Israel will make everything even worse. He is also working as an Iranian proxy. And the Iranians need him to deter Israel from attacking Iran. So the conventional wisdom is he don't want to go to a war.

However, he needs ideologically to support Hamas in a way that we are seeing now. Here and there, the rocket and antitank missile, some Hezbollah people were killed, but very much on the low level. He may go another step up if he will try to deter Israel from a ground assault on Gaza, but still trying to avoid the threshold of going to a full scale war. But here, on the second stage, he can make a mistake, and the escalation may get out of control. Controlling escalation will be difficult. Israel has to behave as if Nasrallah is already here [at the higher position]. Reading intentions is difficult. I was near Prime Ministers when we discussed an issue and they asked me about the intention of the enemy, like Bashar al-Assad or the Supreme Leader or Nasrallah. I said, Mr. Prime Minister, I'm sitting with you. I'm in your team. I'm not reading your mind. I don't know what you will decide at the end of the discussion. And sometimes you decide A and you do B. So on intentions, chiefs of intelligence have to be very modest.

And Iran?
There is the question whether Iran was involved. And the Iranians are very careful not to be seen as those who were behind the attack. I think they were behind the general atmosphere of "Israel is weak. This is a time to start and be more aggressive against it. The Israeli deterrence failed. Israelis are fighting each other. Let's do something." But they were not part of the details of this attack. And they did not operationally plan it or coordinate it. They gave Hamas some of the weapons, and some of the tactics, but they're very careful not to have Israel or the U.S. pointing at them.

This conflict has gone on 75 years, or, really, 100. The fight is not going to go out of the Palestinians, is it?

We are not going to solve the Israeli Palestinian conflict by this war. But we want to make Israel safe. We came to Israel after the Holocaust, and said there will be no pogroms anymore. That women and children will not have to hide in closets, in shelters and face bloodshed. So, at this moment, we not about the conflict. We care about the security of Israel. And let's hope that in the next generation, the two sides will understand that they have to live together.

I lived in Israel for four years. It's the most powerful country in the region, and has most uneasy population. It's the feelings inside your society now that will drive events, won't they?

Yeah. And the feeling is that it is unacceptable, what happened. We are not going to punish Hamas but we are going to destroy their capabilities to do it again. And we are going to demonstrate to all our enemies that if they contemplate doing the same, what are the consequences? What will happen to them? That's why it is going to be very bloody in Gaza in the coming weeks. Both in humanitarian terms and militarily. Every Hamas point in Gaza will be attacked. Every Hamas command post, intelligence post, logistic post, weapons production post and even where they are living. Should I remind you what was done to Germany? We will be much more precise. Not like Dresden. We will not even be treating them as the U.S. treated ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa. But this time we are not going to "knock on the roof" and ask them to evacuate the homes. We are going to attack every Hamas operative and especially the leaders and make sure that they will think twice before they will even think about attacking Israel. And as I say, even if they think about it, they will not have the capabilities.

But there are the hostages. As a tactic, it’s always worked for Israel's enemies before. Even holding a body would keep the IDF at bay.

The hostages are a humanitarian issue. They have to immediately bring back the girls, the women, the elderly, the babies. If they have prisoners of war, fine, we'll deal with it. But the humanitarian crisis in Gaza will be solved only when our prisoners will come back, our hostages.

So that's the that's the price of restoring Gaza's power and everything else?


And that's been communicated?


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