Unlike some of his predecessors, Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai can look back at his tenure as GOCCentral Command with satisfaction. He may have taken flak from every direction on almost every topic, but that comes with the job. From his perspective, the sharp decline in Palestinian and Jewish terrorism statistics and the feeling of security in the area under the command’s control are the proof of the pudding.
Yadai’s main achievement was the Central Command’s success in preventing an outbreak of violence during Operation Guardian of the Walls in May. The West Bank remained relatively quiet during the conflict, unlike the Gaza Strip, the Arab Israeli sector, and even Lebanon and Syria. He believes this was the result of the judicious and precise use of force—something he was also criticized for, primarily because of the number of dead on the Palestinian side.
In a special interview with Israel Hayom, Yadai, formerly also GOC Home Front Command, responded to criticism against him and discusses a wide range of topics from the future of the Palestinian Authority and concerns it may be toppled by Hamas, through to the Evyatar outpost, current security operations, and the claim that the IDF has its hands tied. He also discussed issues pertaining to his next position as GOC Army Headquarters, such as the motivation to serve, and the consistent fear of employing ground forces.
“The Palestinian Authority is in a deep ideological crisis,” said Yadai. “Their core argument that any diplomatic agreement in the Middle East must pass through Ramallah has been eroded by the Abraham Accords. Its domestic legitimacy vis-à-vis the Palestinian public also no longer leans on ideology, but on daily functionality.”
That, he explained, is the reason that PA President Mahmoud Abbas took the decision to call elections, which he later ended up cancelling. “We were given a glimpse of what such elections would look like: Fatah is divided and plagued by internal rivalries; Hamas, on the other hand, has built up a top-level organizational and political infrastructure, which it aims to use in the future as the basis for a military infrastructure.”
Q: Would Hamas have won if the election had gone ahead?
“I don’t assume that it would have won, but it certainly would have become a significant player in the West Bank that could not be ignored. One can only imagine ministers who are Hamas members, as well as security apparatus commanders and regional commanders who are from Hamas.”
Q: What would the implications be?
“At present, we have good security cooperation with the Palestinians. It could have been damaged and taken on a completely different dimension.”
The elections were canceled, but Hamas got stronger nonetheless. This happened because of Operation Guardian of the Walls in which the organization took the lead in setting the Palestinian agenda. Moreover, the election process itself—in which Hamas was a legitimate candidate—meant that funds were able to flow to the organization.
Q: Don’t they understand that if they bring Hamas to power, they will be in the same situation as the residents of Gaza?
“They understand very well. That’s why they are ready to identify with the struggle for the Temple Mount, bur with tweets and less so with violent demonstrations. In Judea and Samaria, there is fatigue with ideological struggles; people want to live. Especially the 1.2 million young people in the West Bank who are in no hurry to die a martyr’s death for either Hamas or Fatah’s ideologies.”
The standard of living in Judea and Samaria is reasonable, he explains. “There are places where it is very high, and other places where it is not as good, especially in the refugee camps. Go into any mall in Ramallah or Nablus and you will see for yourself. In Jenin, you can”t find a table at a cafe. In Rawabi prices are like those in Kfar Saba. People have a life. You can travel from Jenin to Hebron and not see one roadblock along the way.”
Q: Some people would say that by not having roadblocks you are endangering the lives of Jews traveling on West Bank roads.
“I’ve taken flak from both sides, but I judge myself based on results, not by what people say. There were two deaths in Judea and Samaria over the past year—Esther Horgen and Yehuda Guetta. That’s a lot less than a regular year, and it’s the result of the IDF and the Shin Bet uncompromisingly hitting terror infrastructures on a daily basis.”
Three other reasons for the success of counterterrorism operations are effective security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority security apparatus, damage to Hamas’ organizational infrastructure (especially its finance apparatus) and use of advanced technologies as part of the “smart arena,” which enables “monitoring of terrorist activities in a way that makes it difficult to launch attacks, and if an attack has been carried out that we can track down the perpetrators and reach them within a short time,” he said. “Attacks that in the past took us days to decipher can now be deciphered in hours. That has made a lot of people realize that terrorism is pointless.”
Q: Nevertheless, there are attempts to carry out terrorist attacks all the time.
“That’s the security paradox in a nutshell. When things are good, nobody knows there is a problem. When things start to turn bad, questions arise.”
Attempts to carry out terrorist attacks are led by Hamas, mainly from Gaza. These efforts are part of its resistance ideology and it also identifies in the weakness of the Palestinian Authority a vacuum through which it can enter the West Bank. “Hamas heats things up and tries to take ownership of every incident and every struggle. This is part of its effort to create a foundation for a future challenge on the day after Abu Mazen.”
Q: Hamas is trying to carry out a large attack in Judea and Samaria. What interest does it have in doing so? After all, it will pay a heavy price.
“Hamas wants to destabilize the security situation in the West Bank. It believes that if an attack is carried out far from Gaza, it won’t pay a price. But it most certainly will. If there is such an attack, all of its military, political and organizational infrastructure—which we know how to reach—will suffer significant damage.”
According to Yadai, the Palestinian Authority’s weakness is causing a lack of governability in several areas of the West Bank. The most noticeable of these is the Jenin refugee camp, which turns into a battleground every time the IDF enters in order to carry out arrests and operations. “Counterterrorism in the West Bank is based on two components: intelligence superiority and operational freedom.
“My directive has always been that on these two components there can be no compromises. Because as soon as you lose operational freedom and you can’t make arrests anytime, anywhere, control over Judea and Samaria will fall apart in a moment. So, despite the price that these operations exact from us, and despite the risk, there can be no compromise. The reason that there are relatively few deaths is that IDF soldiers act with great proportionality, and make sure to strike only where necessary.”
Q: In view of the anarchy you have described, do you think we will see more guns turned against the IDF?
“In 99% of cases, our operations pass without incident, or they run up against minor popular protests. The events in the refugee camps of Jenin, Balata and Al Fawar are the exception, and we prepare ourselves differently to go in there. I believe that if we are determined and we continue with our operations, resistance will decline.”
Q: One of the claims made against you is that since Guardian of the Walls there has been a sharp increase in the number of Palestinian casualties, that IDF soldiers are “trigger happy.”
“Policy on the use of force has not changed. These were very violent events. Over 40 soldiers were wounded—one soldier was shot in the foot, others ended up with a broken jaw or shoulder. I don’t buy all the talk about innocent Palestinians being killed. The last thing you can say about someone who is shooting fireworks at a soldier from a range of 20 meters [yards] is that they are innocent.
“Wherever a soldier is in danger, he has all the legitimization to use his weapon to alleviate that danger. Some of those killed were carrying M-16 rifles in order to open fire. Some of them were carrying IEDs. Some attacked soldiers. None of them were innocent, the way I see it.”
Q: A 12-year-old boy was shot dead in Beit Ummar.
“That boy is in the category of innocent casualties. It was an event where there was an accumulation of tragic circumstances. I’m an adult, I’m married and I know what it means to have a child. Believe me that nothing makes my stomach turn like that incident.”
Q: It happened nevertheless.
“Professional errors were made during the incident. The soldiers were in their position which protects Route 60, near Beit Ummar. They saw someone near the position digging in the ground and burying some bags there. It was an unprecedented incident and therefore he was seen as a suspect. When he finished, they came down from their position to see what was going on. They opened the bags and saw the bodies of two infants. From their point of view, it was a dangerous crime and they immediately called it in. Meanwhile, they saw a car similar to the one that had unloaded the bodies. They were convinced it was the same person and ordered him to stop. The vehicle tried to get away and they conducted an arrest procedure and shot three bullets at the vehicle’s tires. One of the shots was too high and killed the child.”
Q: What did the inquiry reveal?
“First of all, if a baby dies shortly after birth it isn’t buried in a regular cemetery but at that place. We didn’t know that. Even if the soldiers thought a crime had been committed, it wasn’t a terrorist attack that necessitated opening fire. I see the incident as an operational failure that should be dealt with at the command level, and certainly not a problem of values.”
Yadai, 51, is married to Yifat and has three children. He began his military career in the Golani Brigade, rising through the ranks until becoming its commander.
He went on to command the Eilat Division and the Judea and Samaria Division at the time when three Israeli teens were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in 2014, an event that eventually led to Operation Protective Edge. Later he served as head of the Home Front Command, including during the period that the coronavirus pandemic erupted.
He was appointed GOC Central Command last July. Alongside the primary mission of dealing with Palestinian terrorism, he was forced to deal with quite a few incidents involving Jews.
One that stood out was the establishment of the Evyatar outpost near Tapuah Junction. The first attempt to set up the outpost was back in 2013 (as a response to the murder of Evyatar Borovsky, who was stabbed to death at a bus stop at the junction, and after whom the outpost is named). The second attempt came in May of this year following the murder of Yehuda Guetta in a drive-by shooting at the junction. Within a short time, the outpost had permanent buildings and infrastructures that housed 53 families. It was evacuated only after a compromise was reached in which the status of the land would be examined and a yeshiva would be built there in the future.
The IDF was heavily criticized for failing to evict the outpost as soon as it was established and allowing the residents to settle in, thus turning its evacuation into an explosive political issue. “I have known Judea and Samaria well for a number of years, and after almost every terrorist attack an outpost is established. People go and settle on a hill, and after a few days they leave,” said Yadai.
“That’s what we thought would happen this time as well. You have to remember that our priority is first of all to arrest the terrorist, who is at loose and armed. We were there with a small force, and all our efforts were aimed at catching the terrorist. I want to remind you that it was the eve of Ramadan, we were preparing for possible violent incidents and so we said that we would evict the outpost the following week. But then, Guardian of the Walls happened and the forces that were supposed to carry out the eviction—the Israel Police and the Border Police—were busy with other missions, and were sent to deal with the violent events in mixed towns.”
Q: Why wasn’t the eviction carried out after the operation ended?
“That was the intention. But then there was the [Jerusalem] flag march and the police commissioner made it clear to us that they couldn’t take it on and asked for a postponement. As a result, we issued a demarcation order, and everything was moved up to the legal dimension.”
Q: We already know that all it takes is one incident to set everything alight.
“Well, wherever I have seen that things are getting out of control, I have taken action. We have issued injunctions, we have distanced people; we did so out of the understanding that if there are those who are capable of destabilizing the security situation in Judea and Samaria, it is exactly those people, from both sides.”
Q: Let’s talk about Jordan. The border with Jordan is Israel’s longest and it’s not as stable as it used to be. How worried are you that terrorism could spill over into our territory?
“Operation Guardian of the Walls was a test. Thousands of demonstrators came to the Allenby Bridge, including on busses that came from Iraq. Our security coordination with the Jordanians was very good, and our strategic dialogue with them is important. Its goal is to maintain the stability of the Kingdom and to ensure that the border remains stable and safe. That’s something both sides have an interest in.”
Yadai served as GOC Central Command for only 13 months. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi named him GOC Army Headquarters because he wanted a seasoned officer, an experienced general in the position who could act as a professional authority vis-a-vis the rest of the army.
Yadai is aware of the harsh criticism regarding the ground forces’ war readiness. “Investments have increased during the terms of the last two chiefs of staff,” he noted.
Q: Perhaps because there is no sense of threat, and no real fighting going on, there is a decline in motivation to serve in the IDF in general and in combat units specifically?
“The challenges we face have grown significantly. Today, there are professions that contribute to battle no less than a combat soldier in Golani—professions such as Iron Dome, home front, intelligence, cyber. On the other hand, combat soldiers are the ones that cross borders, storm a hill, and expose themselves to danger. The better the security reality and the more that actual encounters with the enemy decline, the challenge increases. It is our job to make sure that the best people continue to want to come to Golani, Givati and the Paratroop Corp.
Q: How do you do that?
“What we need to do is to give people meaning, and to bring technology to the combat soldier in the field, and in particular, to explain to them that when D-Day comes, if we want to stay here, we won’t be able to do so just from the air or from the sea, and we won’t be able to do just with intelligence. At the end of the day, we need soldiers who will cross the border and capture a village or a hill. There is no substitute for that.”
During his service as a commander in Golani, Yadai experienced several mutinies of soldiers, particularly against the background of withdrawal of certain rights from veteran soldiers. “The army has changed. I think soldiers have tired of fighting over that,” he said. “The story is dying down.”
By Yoav Limor/IsraelHayom.com
(Excerpted from the original Israel Hayom piece)