Ami Ayalon, former military chief: ‘A lot of people are going to die in Gaza: Israeli soldiers and many more Palestinians, but we have no other choice’

The former Labor minister and member of the Guardians, former security commanders who champion peace with the Palestinians, anticipates the obliteration of Hamas’ armed wing

Juan Carlos Sanz
Ami Ayalon Benjamín Netanyahu
Ami Ayalon, at a protest in Haifa against Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies, in April, in a photo provided by the interviewee.

Israel’s doves, the champions of peace with the Palestinians, speak the same language as the hawks, those who reject a two-state solution. The attack unleashed by Hamas on October 7, which claimed the lives of more than a thousand people and resulted in the kidnapping of nearly 200, has roused all Israeli Jews, 80% of the country’s population, in the face of what they believe to be a common threat. This is also the case among the so-called Guardians, former senior commanders of the security forces who advocate democratic values and the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. Ami Ayalon, a 78-year-old former chief general of the elite naval commandos, former head of Shin Bet, the internal security service, and former Labor minister, was the epitome of the retired leftist military figure who dreams of an Israel at peace after a lifetime of warfare against enemies. But the rumblings of war have now roused him.

“The reality of Israel today can be perceived from various angles, but what I see is the horror. I speak now not as a military person, but as a citizen. I see the collapse of virtually all of our security and, more importantly, the collapse being felt by the younger generation. We are afraid. This is an earthquake that can alter the face of Israel. We face many questions,” he says of his bewilderment in a telephone conversation from his home in a moshav, an agricultural settlement, in Mount Carmel, in the north of the country.

We are afraid. This is an earthquake that can alter the face of Israel

“From a military point of view, we face the collapse of a security policy, which Benjamin Netanyahu’s governments have implemented over the past 15 years, supported by many citizens with their votes,” he argues. “We are witnessing the collapse of a concept: that of basing our security on the division of Palestinian society, between those who reside in Gaza and those who live in the West Bank. Netanyahu’s goal has only been to avoid having to negotiate with the excuse ‘what do you want from us if you don’t even have a single government?’” explains Ayalon.

“In order to achieve the goal of dividing the Palestinians, Israel strengthened Hamas, which was a minority group among the political forces 30 years ago, and allowed it to rule in Gaza through the financial support of Qatar. We pay a price for this regularly, with episodes of violence in which Israelis and many Palestinians are killed,” he says in reference to the 2008-2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021 wars. “It was a price we were willing to pay as part of the policy of conflict management, rather than conflict resolution. It was a failure. Like other Shin Bet officials [his tenure ran from 1996 to 2000], I warned the government that Hamas only seeks to destroy Israel and create a Palestinian state governed by Sharia [Islamic law],” he recalls now as a politician in the opposition.

Ayalon points out that Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a politico-religious group established a century ago in Egypt. “But the behavior of its military wing has now resembled that of the Islamic State, the barbarism of ISIS. That’s what we have seen in the attacks on the Gaza border with the killing of women and children. It was not an act of war, but of radical terrorism,” he adds, adopting a view that has become predominant in the Jewish state. He believes it is “obvious” that Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, must be fought: “It is unacceptable that they still control a border where Israeli children live just a few hundred meters away.”

The veteran soldier, honored for his courageous military exploits; the former head of counter-espionage who rehabilitated the Shin Bet after the fiasco surrounding the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1955; the politician from Labor’s pacifist faction who challenged another former general, Ehud Barak, in the party’s leadership contest; the Guardian does not hesitate to answer the question. “The objective of the war? We have to go into Gaza and do whatever is necessary from a military point of view to ensure the destruction of all of Hamas’ military strength. It will take time. A lot of people are going to die. Israeli soldiers and many more Palestinians,” he says. “But we have no other choice.”

When asked about defensive errors that allowed the large-scale attack by Hamas, he replies: “It was the result of a big failure. The belief that, thanks to technological superiority, we are invincible. But this is a system based on digital communications, cellphones, the internet. If an enemy knows how it operates, it can disable it, and our units will become uncoordinated and in the dark. It stems from a wrong premise.”

Ayalon also stresses that the government firmly believed that Hamas had no reason to launch an attack in recent months, while the Islamist leaders were focusing on the economic reconstruction of the Palestinian territory and on easing their unemployed (50% of the working population) into the Israeli labor market, through cross-border work permits.

“The May 2021 offensive brought devastation to the Gaza Strip, and destroyed a great deal of what had been rebuilt since the 2014 war,″ he explains. “Indeed, it was probably not understood at the time that Hamas would eventually seek revenge.”

He recalls that in recent months several units had been deployed from the Gaza border to the West Bank, in the face of the intensity of the conflict with armed groups in Jenin, in the north of the other Palestinian territory. “‘Everything is calm in Gaza,’ was the government’s message at the time. I don’t know if there was a lack of intelligence information, I’m not currently active, but my impression is that there were clearly major failures,” he concludes.

But for Ayalon, the current armed conflict doesn’t compare to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “From a military point of view, it can’t be compared to the combined attack by Egypt and Syria in 1973. But that isn’t the only possible perspective to gauge a conflict. This war is going to create a long-lasting impact, especially among the younger people, who haven’t yet experienced such a threat in their lives.”

“Nobody knows for sure when the military ground operation in Gaza will be launched,” he continues. “It’s difficult to know how large it will be, how long it will last, how deep it will go into the Gaza Strip,” he responds, in light of the array of scenarios that are opening up for the Israel Defense Forces in the event of an invasion of the Palestinian coastal enclave.

When asked if the armed wing of Hamas could be defeated for good, he replies: “Yes, it is possible. It is always possible to destroy the enemy’s military capacity. We can do it and we must do it. But the cost to human lives will be very high.”

Moving on from the military and intelligence strategy he exercised in the past, the veteran Labor leader turns to a political analysis. “Hamas is not only a military force, but also an ideology. And you can’t use the army to kill an ideology,” he stresses. “To defeat an ideology you have to counter with stronger ideas. If we don’t offer a better future to the Palestinians, a political horizon that involves an end to the Israeli military occupation of their territories, with a Palestinian state, we will never defeat Hamas. In five or ten years it will have rearmed again,” he concludes.

“We lost hundreds, thousands of soldiers in 1973, but shortly after, in 1977 and 1979, Egypt agreed to sign a peace agreement with Israel. That is the lesson we have to understand now,” he adds, stressing the need for a political solution through the two-state solution and the 2002 Arab peace initiative, initiated by Saudi Arabia. “We have to understand the Palestinians. They voted for Hamas not because they all believe in Sharia, but because Hamas showed them that the only way to achieve a state of their own is to use military force against Israel.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

Tu suscripción se está usando en otro dispositivo

¿Quieres añadir otro usuario a tu suscripción?

Si continúas leyendo en este dispositivo, no se podrá leer en el otro.

¿Por qué estás viendo esto?


Tu suscripción se está usando en otro dispositivo y solo puedes acceder a EL PAÍS desde un dispositivo a la vez.

Si quieres compartir tu cuenta, cambia tu suscripción a la modalidad Premium, así podrás añadir otro usuario. Cada uno accederá con su propia cuenta de email, lo que os permitirá personalizar vuestra experiencia en EL PAÍS.

En el caso de no saber quién está usando tu cuenta, te recomendamos cambiar tu contraseña aquí.

Si decides continuar compartiendo tu cuenta, este mensaje se mostrará en tu dispositivo y en el de la otra persona que está usando tu cuenta de forma indefinida, afectando a tu experiencia de lectura. Puedes consultar aquí los términos y condiciones de la suscripción digital.

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS