Watchdog scolds Netanyahu over handling of 2014 Gaza war

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an event marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked on January 27, at the Yad Vashem synagogue in Jerusalem January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Jeffrey Heller JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was criticized on Tuesday by Israel's main government watchdog over what it said was a lack of preparation and cabinet consultation over a network of Hamas tunnels that confounded the military in the 2014 Gaza war. Political commentators did not expect the report, released by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira on the government's and military's handling of several aspects of the 50-day conflict, to seriously weaken the prime minister's grip on power. But the findings pose another challenge for Netanyahu as he tries to maintain an image as an indispensable leader and important player on the international stage amid ongoing criminal investigations into suspected abuse of power, an allegation he rejects. The long-awaited report accused Netanyahu and his defense and intelligence chiefs of failing, prior to the war, to make his security cabinet - which formulates strategies and approves military action - aware in a timely fashion of the strategic threat they knew the Hamas tunnel network presented. "Significant and necessary information that the cabinet ministers required in order to make their best decisions ... was not brought before the ministers in a satisfactory manner in the discussions that preceded the (war)," the report said. In response, Netanyahu said on Facebook that "the tunnel threat was presented in detail to the security cabinet in 13 separate sessions and was discussed in all its severity while examining all of the strategic and operational scenarios". The report also pointed a finger at the Israeli military, saying it had failed to prepare a proper and detailed strategy to destroy the tunnels and had improvised ways to deal with them only as the fighting progressed. Hamas fighters used the tunnel network to move between positions in the Gaza Strip and attack Israeli soldiers during the conflict and to mount cross-border raids into southern Israel. Israel said its military engineers unearthed and destroyed 32 tunnels during the war. Israel has since begun construction of an underground barrier along the frontier with the Gaza Strip that is meant to block such passages, defense and political sources said. According to Gaza health officials, 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed in 50 days of fighting. Israel put the number of its dead at 67 soldiers and six civilians. (Editing by Mark Trevelyan)