Home Interview “United; Focused on Victory”

“United; Focused on Victory”

An inFOCUS interview with Brig. Gen. Amir Avivi IDF (ret.)

Brig. Gen. Amir Avivi IDF (ret.) Spring 2024

Brig. Gen. (res.) Amir Avivi is the founder and chairman of Israel Defense and Security Forum, a group of more than 22,000 reserve officers and operatives from all branches of the Israeli security forces dedicated to ensuring that Israel’s security in the homeland of the Jewish people is never taken for granted. BG Avivi’s service in the IDF included Deputy Comptroller of the Security Forces, Director of the Office of the Chief of Staff, Deputy Commander of the Gaza Division, Commander of the Sagi Division, Commander of Battalion 605, and Commander of the School of Combat Engineering. JPC Senior Director Shoshana Bryen spoke with him recently.

inFOCUS: You spoke to the Jewish Policy Center last summer, and you were concerned about how the people of Israel stick together. Since October 7, there’s been a big change. Tell us how the people see the things that divide them and the things that unite them.

BG (res.) Amir Avivi: We can see a big change since October 7, and I think it is part of our DNA. When the people of Israel are at risk, they join together and fight. And there is a strong sense in the Israeli society, and not only Israeli society, but in the Jewish world, that we are fighting an existential threat; that it’s them or us, and we need to win decisively. On October 7, we really saw the nation united. Hundreds of thousands of reservists went and joined their units to fight against Hamas and in the north. And since then, most of Israeli society remains united.

Unfortunately, we still see some forces that are divisive, talk politics, want to have elections, and things that are inconceivable in the middle of such a big war. But overall, especially on the battlefield, soldiers from all backgrounds joined together and really focused on victory – defeating Hamas and bringing back our hostages. Israeli forces are going at it every day on the battlefield.

iF: A number of young Haredi (ultra-religious) men came to enlist in the IDF after October 7. And part of the demonstrations was about the role of Haredim in Israeli society.Did those young men volunteering for the State make an impact on society and it will last?

Avivi: We definitely see a change, and looking at the long term, we definitely need a society that joins together. The challenges are huge, and we need everybody to be part of this mission of defending the state of Israel. And among the ultra-Orthodox community, the Haredim, there are many people who understand the need to serve the military or other missions like Magen David Adom (Red Star of David) or ZAKA (search and recovery teams). The Haredim did a very important job on October 7 and the days after with ZAKA and with MADA, and many of them went to the Army and asked to join the Reserves.

But this is just the beginning. The challenge is with the leadership of these groups, which is not changing at the pace society is changing. It’s a challenge because I see a young generation among the Haredi communities that is different from the old generation that is leading them.

Social change takes time and cannot be done by force or by changes in the law. It’s really a matter of discussion in society to bring this change gradually to the place where the vast majority of the Jewish people serve in the Army, and also having people contribute to society in other ways. Being in the Army is not the only way to contribute, but it’s the main way, and the most needed one.

iF: To be clear, there are ways to serve that are not in the IDF.

Avivi:  Yes. We are in the process, for example, of building a National Guard; we need a much, much bigger police and border patrol. We need to be able to defend the towns and the cities. And this is for example, a good solution for many Haredi who can join the National Guard and not just do military service.

By the way, it is important to say that the problem of people not serving is not just the ultra-Orthodox; there are other groups who are not contributing fully. So really, it’s about educating the whole Israeli society to be part of the contribution to the security of the State of Israel.

iF: Hamas said they won’t give you a list of the hostages. That’s it. I’m not sure the United States won’t accept that. Will Israel accept that?

Avivi:  I would like to address the issue of the hostages in a broader way and not specifically about the talks we’re having now.

We set very clear goals for this war. The complete destruction of Hamas as a government and military entity and to bring back all our hostages. And the State of Israel means that. We’re going to bring back every single hostage. And the way to do it is military pressure. What made Hamas release more than 100 hostages was the ground incursion in the northern part of Gaza. They desperately needed a few days of ceasefire. We’ll have to continue pressuring them until where they say, “Okay, that’s it. Please stop. Take the hostages.”

And maybe even bargain for their own lives.

We are operating and moving forward. We’ll have opportunities to release hostages militarily. This is going to happen. And I think that controlling humanitarian aid would help.

As long as there are hostages in Gaza, our two goals complement each other. Many people think that winning against Hamas and the return of the hostages are two different things. No, they are the same thing. By beating Hamas, we’re going to release the hostages. Maybe Hamas will be pressured enough to negotiate a deal and get a few weeks of ceasefire and maybe not. And if not, we’ll go into Rafah and we’re going to release the hostages eventually.

Everybody in Israel understands it must happen, it must be done. We have to reach both goals, to destroy Hamas and to bring back all the hostages.

iF: What’s happening in the north of Israel where people have been forced out of their homes by Hezbollah? What is Israel’s plan for Hezbollah and for the northern communities so they’re safe?

Avivi: When the war began, we didn’t know whether there would be a full-scale war in Lebanon as well. So, at the beginning, we sent forces to the north and also evacuated a large part of the population living along the northern border, almost a hundred thousand people, including the whole city of Kiryat Shemona; they’re all displaced. They are now in hotels, not at home. There is a clear understanding that we cannot live with the current reality on our borders.

And there are only two ways to take them out.

It’s either going to be diplomatically by implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1701 – for which we need American leadership to build a coalition to pose a credible military threat to Iran and Hezbollah. Without that, we probably will see Israel making a ground incursion into South Lebanon (and maybe beyond that), destroying Hezbollah’s forces, and forcing them north.

iF: The US and the Israeli militaries have gotten along extremely well for a long time, and Israel’s entry into CENTCOM was a big deal. Have you seen a change in the military relations since October 7?

Avivi: Military relations are very, very good. There is a very good understanding among the militaries about the enemy and the challenges we face. If it was for CENTCOM to decide, it would probably advise the American government to deal with Iran – to pose a credible military threat as Iran moves toward nuclear capabilities.

CENTCOM is very closely following the war in Gaza, wanting to learn how the IDF operates and seeing that it is doing an amazing job in Gaza, destroying Hamas, killing between 50 and 100 terrorists every day. The IDF operates in an urban environment in a way that no army in the world had ever operated – both above and underground.

The challenge is more at the political level.

The American administration, over the past few years, has done everything to avoid confronting Iran. It’s all about appeasement. It’s all about talks. And Iran sees appeasement as weakness. They understand force, and they need somebody to really pose a credible military threat to them to understand that they need to stop the aggression all over the Middle East and in the Red Sea and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Ground Incursion

iF: Some Americans believe the IDF has killed 30,000 people, 29,000 of whom were children. We know that’s not true. And I imagine that the American military understands that’s not true. But people are getting a very emotional look at Gaza.

Avivi: I would have expected the world to be emotional about the raping, the beheading, the torturing, the people who were kidnapped from their homes, from the kibbutzim, from the hometowns, by Hamas. These are crimes.

When the IDF started the ground incursion, we encouraged the Palestinians to move out of the areas in which we were operating. More than a million Palestinians left Gaza City and moved south. Basically, we launched the attack in the northern part of Gaza after evacuating most of the people. And most of the fighting was against terrorists.

It’s important to say that all the numbers you hear are numbers Hamas is giving the world. And they are a bunch of liars.  There is no army in the world that could have fought so precisely, and with pinpoint operations, as the IDF. 

Now, it is a war; it is not zero casualties, but we encourage civilians all the time to move, and we help them move. We create humanitarian routes for the people to leave the war zone. This is what happened in the north of Gaza. This is exactly what happened also around Khan Yunis and in the central camps. And it comes as no surprise that almost all the Gazans now are in the city of Rafah. This means that they really went into the one place we were not attacking.

But now we are at the next step. When we enter Rafah, we’ll have to move them.

Egypt’s Role

The amazing thing to me is that people want to get out of the war zone, but Egypt is blocking the way. No one can get out to the south, and nobody is saying anything about that. Where is the world? Where are all these people who care about humanitarian issues when babies and women cannot get out of a war zone because Egypt is not willing to open the border? Imagine in Ukraine, if these 10 million Ukrainians who left since the war began had been blocked by the countries around them.

iF: The New York Times reported that Egypt was in fact building a temporary camp in Northern Sinai for refugees.

Avivi: The fact is that Egypt has completely fortified the border. They brought two armored battalions – it looks like the border between North and South Korea now, and they’re not letting anybody out. And this is outrageous because the only way to really make sure that people are not in danger is taking them out of the war zone to the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, at least for now. Then they can go back.

iF: Humanitarian aid is a big deal in the United States. People are figuring out that Hamas is stealing it, but it hasn’t changed our policies.

Avivi: People have to decide whether they really care about Palestinians and what’s going on there because anybody who really cares should do one thing, pressure Egypt to open the border and let them go out into a safe zone while war is being waged in Gaza.

The Aid

iF: We have seen airlifts, some coming from Jordan and some from Israel and maybe from Egypt, too. Is that a reasonable way to do this?

Avivi: A few weeks ago, we in IDSF met with the leaders of the army and the government, including the prime minister, and we said, “The time has come for you to take full responsibility for the humanitarian aid. You cannot continue to just let trucks go into Rafah; a minute later, Hamas takes control of them. Or people storm the trucks to try to steal food and they get shot by Hamas. This is not the way to deal with this.”

When you take over an area, especially if you want to bring down the existing government, which is Hamas, there’s only one way. You must take care of the humanitarian issues and you must distribute the food to the Palestinians. The Israeli Army needs to do that. It didn’t happen; Hamas stole the food, and when is no food, there is chaos.

So, Jordan and the US intervened.

To me, this is a sign of Israel’s failure – we should have done that weeks ago and we still can do it. We need to take responsibility. Also, this is the way to signal to the people that the reign of Hamas is over. You want food, it’s we who are feeding you, not Hamas. And then you can get intelligence. Then you can get the Palestinians to understand that it’s game over for Hamas.

The Future

iF: Are the people of Gaza still committed to the idea that Hamas or perhaps the Palestinian Authority (PA) will rule them?

Avivi: The people of Gaza overwhelmingly support Hamas. They’re all a product of Hamas. And to change that is a long-term process.

I will remind you that after the Second World War, when the Allies defeated Germany, they had military control for four years. And during these four years, they created the Marshall Plan and the process of de-Nazification of Germany.

The only way to really change the mentality of the society in the long term is to control the education, change the books, change the way the people talk in the mosques. This is being done in the United Arab Emirates; this is being done today in Saudi Arabia. They’re trying to change the mentality of the society through education. And Israel needs to do this. If we don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it. And Israel already said the day after, there is not going to be not Hamas, not Palestinian Islamic Jihad. 

And not PA because the PA is as much a terrorist organization as Hamas. They want to eliminate Israel. They paid billions to terrorists; their schools are not much different. And we need, along the way, after we bring down Hamas, to build a new bureaucratic leadership base, probably through the local clans of the cities. This is a process. It’s not going to happen in one day. But if this works, then we might look at the West Bank – Judea and Samaria – and say, “You know what? It works in Gaza; we can probably implement it also there.”

iF: There you cross wires with the United States. Is it possible for Israel to manage the change in Gaza, or do you need some outside partner?

Avivi: I don’t see anybody volunteering to come and help. 

The Palestinians themselves detest the PA. The PA doesn’t even have 5 percent support in the West Bank – the Palestinians see them as corrupt; they’re fed up with them. The American administration needs to answer the question, “Forget about what Israel thinks. If the Palestinians don’t want them, and they want something else, what’s the alternative?”

I believe the day after [Palestinian leader Mahmoud] Abbas goes, the most likely scenario is that the PA will dissolve in one way or another. The US has no answer for that.

Gaza is going to be one big experiment in which we have to do everything differently than was done before.

I’m a big believer that it is Israel that needs to put forward a vision, a viable plan to secure Israel for generations to come and offer solutions that ensure the prosperity and security of the Jewish people. And once we’re united behind the vision, I believe that we’ll always find the right administration to put our vision forward. So first we need to decide what we want. And then I’m sure, 100 percent sure that we’ll find the administration that supports our vision, especially if we are united.

iF: That’s the optimist view.

Avivi: I’m an optimist.

The Investigation

iF: Before October 7, a lot of people thought they knew a lot of things about what was happening in Gaza. What was the failure in Israel between October 6 and October 7?

Avivi: First, I must say we don’t know exactly what happened that night. There will be a thorough investigation after the war.

But I think that what happened on October 7 was the outcome of a worldview that said Hamas wanted economic incentives. We have to give them money. We have to let them work. They won’t fight us.

No matter how many times they started operations against us and attacked us, no matter how many rockets they produced and all the military capability, and no matter that they told us what they were going to do, the security forces really didn’t want to believe it would happen. Two years ago, we, in IDSF, presented the government and all the security forces with a very, very in-depth national security assessment saying, “War is imminent.”

We are going to war, we said, and we have only two choices. It’s either going to be Six-Day War scenario or Yom Kippur War scenario. Either we’re going to be proactive and attack fast, or they’re going to attack us and it’s going to be a complete surprise. We knew that. I talked about it. “You need to stop everything. You need to unite. You need to prepare the army for war. We need to weaponize. We need more munitions. We need to get organized. We need to prepare the society we are going to war.”

We were very clear, but our politicians wouldn’t listen. The army, the Mossad [foreign intelligence], the Shabak [domestic intelligence] wouldn’t change their preconceptions and that was a terrible mistake.

And this is why we found ourselves with the 7th of October.

Iran and China

iF: It seems one reason Iran was in favor of attacks on Israel,is because the Abraham Accords changed Israel’s position in the region. Are those countries now thinking they need to find a way to live with Iran? Or do they have faith in your ability to pull it out?

Avivi: This is not a local war between Israel and Hamas; it’s a regional and a global war.

In March 2023, we sent a delegation of IDSF to Washington. We met with congressmen and senators and with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We told them, “There is a Chinese/Russian/Iranian front in the Middle East, and it is going to take over. The US needs to be proactive. You need to build a coalition; you need to bring forces. We need to build a coalition that will side with the West because without that, the East is organized, and more and more countries will side with them.”

We talked at length about it. And then we came back to Israel and two weeks later, China brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Suddenly, the administration realized that something big was going on. They phoned us and said, “How did you know?” We said, “What do you mean? We live in the Middle East, and we see what’s going on.” And at that moment, you saw a complete change of policy of the Biden administration in the Middle East.

For three years, Saudi Arabia was probably the most detested country on the planet. Suddenly out of nowhere, the American administration started pushing a peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is not just about another Abraham Accord country. This is the leader of the Sunni world.

A peace agreement with Saudi Arabia means normalizing relations with the whole Sunni world: Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Oman. This is a huge alliance extending from the Pacific to the Middle East to the West to stand and really be able to deal with this Chinese/Russian/Iranian front that has emerged not only in the region but also in Africa and in other places.

And when Iran saw the administration moving very fast with Israel and Saudi Arabia, they said, “Okay, it’s not going to happen. We’re going to stop this.” They decided to stop the process by launching Hamas to disrupt the buildup of this alliance. They didn’t also launch Hezbollah because Hamas was enough. They knew this would be enough to disrupt the process, and they need Hezbollah intact in order to defend themselves.

On October 7, the first question I asked myself was, “Okay, why isn’t Hezbollah fighting?” The second question was, “What is Hamas thinking?”

They surprised us – it was a terrible attack. But as a general, I was sure that it would take us a day, two days, three days. We would stop them, kill them, push them back. We brought the whole army.

And what exactly did Hamas think would happen? The sad truth is that THEY were sure that they would launch such a murderous attack and THEY would survive. Why? Because they looked at Israel in the past year. They saw insubordination, they saw riots. In their eyes Israel had no air force, the army was not functioning, the government was not functioning. Society was torn apart. This is how they viewed Israel. And they thought in this version of reality, “We can really, really attack, hit hard, maybe get the whole Arab society to revolt.’

But none of this happened. And we united and we’re going to destroy them completely.

The Long War

iF: Was the IDF thinking, or prepared for, as long a war as this is becoming? The ‘67 war was short, and the ‘73 war was short, and the Rocket Wars were short because you made ceasefires. Is the IDF ready to keep this war going for as long as it looks like it has to?

Avivi:  This war can go on for years. Start with Gaza. We can reach the goal of destroying Hamas as a governmental and military entity in a short time, let’s say in a few months. The prime minister talked about weeks. I’m saying months. All we need to do is launch the attack on Rafah, take over Rafah and its game over.

Hamas will be destroyed. But conquering an area is one thing. Clearing it is a completely different thing. In Operation Defensive Shield in Judea and Samaria in 2002, it took us a month and a half to take over all the Palestinian cities. It took us five years to stabilize the area.

The same happened with the US in Iraq. It didn’t take much time to take down Saddam Hussein, but then dealing with controlling Iraq afterwards, that was a big deal.

Also, it’s very hard to see how we avoid a big war with Hezbollah, which probably will be much bigger than the war with Hamas. But we will deal with it. And this is before talking about nuclear Iran, which also must be dealt with. And there is the future of the Palestinian cities in Judea and Samaria, the West Bank. We have a lot of work to do.

The Golden Age

But I’ll tell you something, since I’m an optimist: I really believe what I’m saying now. First, we’re going to win decisively. It’s going to be long, but we are going to really win decisively on all fronts. And the bigger the win is, the more decisive it will be. The bigger the golden age of Israel and the Jewish people will be after. There will be peace agreements. Our economy will bloom, and there will also be a baby boom, and there will be massive Aliyah to Israel. Many good things will happen.

But first, we need to win the war. We need to stay united, focus on one thing, on victory.

iF: Gen. Avivi, on behalf of the Jewish Policy Center and the readers of inFOCUS Quarterly, thank you for an outstanding overview of Israel’s war in Gaza.