Secret reports

Image: Artem Saranin


The unanswered question is: why was Hamas' intention to attack Israel ignored, when Tel Aviv knew what could happen?

I went to Beirut for the first time more than a year after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, when it became clear that the men then in charge of the White House – George Bush and Dick Cheney – would respond to Osama fanatics bin Laden going to war against Saddam Hussein's secular government in Iraq, which had nothing to do with 11/XNUMX.

I then conducted the first of long interviews with Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah. His Shiite militia provoked anxiety and fear throughout the Middle East, as well as in official Washington. Hassan Nasrallah's initial message to me was one I had heard previously from a prominent Middle Eastern oil man: America will not change Iraq, but Iraq would change America...forever.

That trip was the first of many to Beirut, and I had further meetings with Hassan Nasrallah in the years that followed, but what never failed to startle, and then depress, me were the lingering signs of the 15-year civil war that eventually engulfed Israel and Syria, as well as various political parties and military factions within Lebanon. Apartment buildings on both sides of the Green Line, a main thoroughfare that divided Christian and Muslim communities, were riddled with bullet and rocket holes, some grouted and some not. I had European friends who lived in one of the hole-filled buildings and it was unsettling to visit them, as if I were in bombed-out Berlin after the Second World War.

It turned out that the Israeli bombing that destroyed Lebanese Muslim society in 1982 was justified by Israel's false claim that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had threatened the life of an Israeli diplomat in London. Israel got what it wanted with its bombs: the forced exile that summer of PLO President Yasser Arafat and more than 8.000 members of his battered army to Tunis.

This whole story was alive for me. I had written previously about Henry Kissinger's neglect – perhaps disdain is a better word – for the PLO's lack of understanding that the only important issue in the Middle East at that point for the White House was to move Soviet influence there. Yasser Arafat – would observe Kissinger dismissively in his 1979 memoir, The White House Years (The years in the White House) ― called for the creation of a “democratic secular state” in Palestine, “which would theoretically allow Jews, Arabs [Muslims] and Christians to live together with equal rights”.

Israel's most recent murderous and disproportionate response, to the Hamas attack on October 7, took me back to the work of Rashid Khalidi, a charismatic and highly respected professor of modern Arabic studies at Columbia University. I began knowing Rashid Khalidi as a former professor at the University of Chicago, where he was one of many liberal, if not radical, scholars[I] who befriended Barack Obama and his wife while the latter was teaching law there [from 1996 to 2004]. Barack Obama would relegate most of them to indifference during his meteoric rise from state representative to a seat in the Senate, and then to the presidency of the United States.

I got to know Rashid Khalidi much better, however, through his academic writings and public statements about the United States' refusal to be an honest mediator in the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. His groundbreaking study of the PLO's struggle for survival, The Hundred Years' War on Palestine (The Hundred Years War in Palestine), published in 2020, contains a stark analysis, from a Palestinian perspective, of how the Israeli leadership achieved its objective during the 1979 Camp David peace talks under the leadership of President Jimmy Carter.

This objective, stated Rashid Khalidi, was to “put the Palestinian issue in the fridge” in exchange for Israel’s return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, to keep the latter out of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As Rashid Khalidi astutely recorded, this agreement “completed Egypt’s transition from the Soviet camp to the American camp, neutralizing the most dangerous aspects of the superpower conflict in the Middle East.”

Jimmy Carter's intentions regarding the fate of the Palestinians may have been noble, but the widely praised peace treaty that resulted, wrote Rashid Khalidi, "signaled America's acquiescence to Israel's extreme expression of denial of Palestinian rights." . And this was “a path cemented by the Ronald Reagan administration.” Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his successors from the right-wing Likud party – Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu – formed, said Rashid Khalidi, an “unyielding opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state, sovereignty or control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” Palestine would belong exclusively to the Jewish people, “and there would be no Palestinian people with national rights”.

It was June 4, 1982, a Friday. Rashid Khalidi was attending a meeting at the American University of Beirut, where he taught for six years. Suddenly, 900-kilogram bombs fell, clearly coming from Israeli planes. The usual panic ensued, and women and children were taken to safety. There was no warning of the heavy attacks on targets in Beirut and southern Lebanon, which to this day is firmly under Hezbollah control. This was followed by an Israeli ground invasion of Lebanon. “During the siege,” said Rashid Khalidi, “entire houses were destroyed and large areas were devastated in the already heavily damaged western [Muslim] half of the city. Nearly fifty thousand people were killed or injured in the worst attack on an Arab capital since World War II. The attacks only resumed with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

During the ten weeks of fighting that ended in mid-August 1982, more than 19 Palestinians and Lebanese, mostly civilians, were killed and more than 30 were injured. Three large Palestinian refugee camps were attacked by Israel or its Lebanese allies in the following weeks, including the notorious Sabra and Shatila camps, whose refugees were massacred. Israel also prevented the provision of water, electricity, food and fuel to survivors. A murderous scenario that would be repeated in Gaza forty years later.

Then, as now, writes Rashid Khalidi, the United States supported Israel with weapons, information and money. The decision to invade Lebanon in 1982 was taken by the Israeli government, admits Rashid Khalidi, “but without the express approval of the US Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, or without the diplomatic and military support of the United States, combined with the complete passivity of Arab governments, it would not be feasible.”

Rashid Khalidi's criticism of the moral and political failures of the United States and the Arab States is, in my opinion, supported by the fact that, in his book, he is also willing to criticize the leadership of the PLO, for what he calls “authoritarian behavior and often arrogant” that significantly undermined popular support for the movement. The PLO's retaliatory attacks inside Israel, he writes, "often targeted civilian targets and apparently did little to advance the Palestinian national cause, if not harm it." Rashid Khalidi especially blames the PLO leadership for its inability to “recognize the intensity of hostility aroused by its own misconduct and misguided strategy, which constituted one of the PLO’s greatest weaknesses during this period.”

Eight days after the most recent Israeli invasion of Gaza, the New York Times published a cautionary essay by Rashid Khalidi on his opinion page. He urged Joe Biden's administration to carefully consider its offer of near-unconditional support to Israel following the Hamas attack on October 7.

“The last time,” wrote Rashid Khalidi, “that a president and his advisers allowed unimaginable losses to dictate policy was after 11/XNUMX, when they launched two of the most devastating wars in American history, which destroyed two countries, caused death of half a million or more people and caused many people around the world to vilify the United States.”

Rashid Khalidi no longer appeared on the opinion pages of New York Times since then. And after carefully rereading his book, I was intrigued by the fact that the Israeli bombing of Beirut in 1982 was not a direct response to a specific act of aggression, as was the case with the invasion of Gaza last fall. The Israeli leadership was apparently convinced at that point that the mere presence there of the usually confident Arafat and his PLO would justify the bombing.

Would the leadership of Hamas, secretly subsidized by hundreds of millions of dollars from Qatar, with the knowledge and consent of Israel at the highest levels to do so, represent an imminent threat to Israel in 2023, as was Arafat in 1982? If it were not, then it would be necessary to casus belli to justify once and for all the elimination of another Palestinian threat?

There have been a series of reports in the Israeli press about high-level intelligence reports, based on interceptions and other sources, detailing Hamas' plans for much of the past year for a cross-border invasion of southern Israel. The feared attack took place with surprisingly little resistance, and Israel's leadership, under Benjamin Netanyahu, has repeatedly assured the public that there will be a full investigation into the intelligence community's failure to properly evaluate and forward such reports. It has also become clear that this investigation will only take place after the ongoing war in Gaza has ended.

The subject of this investigation disappeared from the headlines as the planned attack on Gaza turned into a bloody urban war, with the number of Israeli combat deaths rising steadily, among the countless innocent Palestinians who are no more than “collateral damage of violence.” , as they say in all wars.

I have written many times about American secrets over the past seven decades and have retained from them two pieces of information that, when placed side by side, indicate, for this case now, either gross incompetence on the part of the Israeli politicians and generals who are fighting this war, or else a plan to… involve the Hamas leadership in an attack and a war that it could not win.

It was widely reported in Israel that last summer a brilliant and observant officer in Israel's top-secret electromagnetic intelligence agency, Unit 8200, began observing and reporting on a Hamas training program, clearly designed to find a way into in Israel to invade and take military hostages. Reports of her went unnoticed, and she went public. This was widely publicized by the local and international media, and official statements about it ranged from – I'm exaggerating the first here – the idea that the agent in question was just an easily excitable girl, to the idea that Hamas definitely it was not a force that could conduct such an operation. What she would have seen would be just an exercise in possibilities.

In November, as the Unit 8200 issue was fading, I learned from other sources that highly secretive and powerful US satellite cameras and sensors had provided Israeli authorities with videos of Hamas training. The American video showed that Hamas had set up a kibbutz simulation similar to the one attacked on October 7, and the video contained full dialogue.

O New York Times later obtained copies of the original Unit 8200 reports and concluded in a front-page story that the attacking Hamas units had “followed the plan with impressive precision” as described in the original Unit 8200 intelligence reports. New York Times also reported that it was not “clear” whether Benjamin Netanyahu, the man in charge of the war, had not also seen the original documents from Unit 8200.

As I learned this week from a well-informed Israeli source, Benjamin Netanyahu actually “saw and read” the Unit 8200 assessment, and was warned by Israeli army intelligence that his “internal regime change plan had become a matter of high-level debate” – apparently also intercepted by Unit 8200 – “within Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. And they were accelerating plans to attack Israel, convinced that the Israeli military and public opinion were significantly weakened due to political division and the conflicts generated”.

The Israeli source said that Benjamin Netanyahu is “now making a last-ditch attempt to stay in power, accusing the military, the Shin Bet and the Mossad” – Israel’s two main intelligence agencies – “of withholding information from him.”

Forty years ago, when I was investigating a sensitive story for the New York Times, about an illegal shipment of nerve gas to Germany, home of Zyklon B,[ii] I discovered that Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel's deputy ambassador to the United States, was a privileged interlocutor of the newspaper's Washington office regarding the most secret intelligence information from the United States.

I had left the paper in 1979 to write a book, but Abe Rosenthal, the paper's editor-in-chief, loved headline-grabbing stories and allowed me to appear on the front page whenever he had something to offer. (Abe told others it was like milking a cow without owning the cow. For me, it was like publishing articles in the newspaper without being in the newspaper. And that worked for both of us until Abe Rosenthal retired.)

Any story involving Germany and a deadly gas was a difficult topic, and an experienced reporter from the New York Times in Washington advised me to visit Benjamin Netanyahu. I called and was invited to a late-night meeting at the Israeli embassy in northwest Washington. I spoke briefly with the man, who was smart and quick, and he said he would get back to me.

The next afternoon at the newspaper I received a large envelope containing two top-secret satellite photographs showing canisters of nerve gas being discharged at an identifiable location in West Berlin. The photos, which I did not use, were the evidence I needed to publish the article. (I was writing about American intelligence, and top secret satellite photos, which were part of a project called Talent Keyhole, were not authorized to be shared with foreign governments). What other reporters from New York Times What they did was none of my business, but I was disturbed by this interaction.

When necessary, I sought intelligence information to break a story the public needed to know. I believed then, and still believe, that Benjamin Netanyahu was doing everything he could to ingratiate himself with the New York Times, the most important newspaper in the United States, because it glimpsed a political path towards Israel's leadership, and the New York Times it was an unavoidable asset for this objective.

The unanswered question in all of this is: why was the issue of Hamas' intention to attack Israel, as clearly elaborated by Unit 8200, not pursued? Lack of resources? The frenetic pace of daily reports? Incompetence? Or was it a conscious decision to look away? Whatever the reason, those who looked for an excuse to massively attack Gaza and expel its residents got what they wanted.

*Seymour Hersh is a journalist specializing in geopolitics, intelligence activities and military affairs in the United States.

Translation: Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel.

Originally published in Substack/Seymour Hersh.

Translator's notes

[I] The author uses the classic North American topology here, which classifies the country's political aspects according to three characterizations: conservative, liberal and radical. The latter, which had its most visible presence in the 60s and 70s of the XNUMXth century, is today, in the institutional scenario of that country, practically a museological excrescence.

[ii] Zyklon B was the gas used in Nazi death camp chambers.

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