Few armies of its size attract the world’s interest and attention to the extent that the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) does. From real-time announcements and statements, to inquiries relating to everything from rules of engagement, incidents and input from the political echelon, Lt.-Col. Jonathan Conricus, the first Israeli army officer to be deployed to the United Nations, is the face of its army.
Conricus is a husband and the father of four children ranging in ages from 5 to 12. A native Jerusalemite, he lived in Sweden until age 13. His first assignment in the army was in the elite Givati Brigade which Conricus said was a perfect fit because “I like to blow things up.” He later served as liaison to the United Nations peacekeeping forces for Lebanon and the Golan Heights.
He was hosted by Felice Friedson at The Media Line Mideast Studio on Aug. 28, 2018 – his first all-topics interview since assuming the post of spokesperson to the international media.
Let me ask you, colonel: has a mother ever come to you to ask that you not draft their son into the Israeli army?
No, I don’t think that is the case at all. I think the IDF still enjoys tremendous support based on trust in the Israeli society. We have the highest persistent approval rating among all the different institutions in Israel…that is key for the IDF. We, as you know, are a popular army. We rely on the trust and the faith of everyday Israelis that they trust in the commanders, the orders, the moral leadership of the officers and commanders and I think it’s a great sign of strength that we enjoy that level of trust.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently suggested that a peacekeeping force be created specifically to protect Palestinians from Israel. The Israelis are outraged. Do you feel this is necessary?
Many things are necessary for civilians in Gaza. A UN peacekeeping force…less so. I think what really is necessary is for those who govern the Gaza Strip to have the interest of the civilians there on their list of priorities. As we see it now, Hamas, a terrorist organization that rules the Gaza Strip, has been fighting Israel, terrorism and hurting Israelis as its top priorities. Caring for Gazan civilians comes very far down, if at all. We see how Hamas spends its money. Much of the generous international aid that is provided to the Gaza Strip, with good intentions and for good purposes to build, to create, to strengthen the economy, to create jobs, and to alleviate the situation there – is unfortunately squandered by Hamas. So, a UN peacekeeping force probably isn’t what we are looking for. We should be looking for a government that has the interest of the civilians at his heart.
I have never spoken to an Israeli who expresses confidence in UNIFIL (United Nations peacekeeping force). You have served extensively with them; does UNIFIL contribute to Israel’s security?
I wouldn’t call myself an expert in anything, but I did have the opportunity and the honour to serve at the UN at the behalf of Israel. I was on loan from the IDF to the UN and I served as a liaison officer with UN peacekeeping forces for quite some years. I’d say there is a delicate balance. On one hand, it must be said – and it’s not said enough in the international media – there is UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which clearly states that in southern Lebanon from the area of the Litani River to the Blue Line, the border with Israel, that area should be free of “illegal arms” which refers to Hezbollah weapons. By terms of the resolution, the only armed entities should be the Lebanese army and UNIFIL. Now is that reality? Unfortunately, not. Hezbollah today is armed with approximately 120,000 rockets, the vast majority of which are within that designated zone. The reality on the ground is that Hezbollah, rules southern Lebanon, in violation of 1701. UNIFIL is on the ground and they have made efforts to improve the situation, but unfortunately there’s a UN Security Council Resolution with a peacekeeping force that is suppose to enforce it. Reality, as we see it, differs and that is, of course, unfortunate because it puts the entire region at risk.
What is the situation on the Israel – Syria border in the Golan Heights?
Well, as of now, we are at a hold… we are assessing the situation. The Syrian regime has rolled back and it is back along most of the area that borders Israel. The organizing agreement that we have in place is the 1974 Cessation of Hostilities Agreement between Israel and Syria. That is the legal, binding document. We abide by it and we expect the Syrians to abide by it and for the time being, there are still Syrian civilians in Israeli hospitals who were taken in previously. They will continue their medical treatment and then we’ll see how the situation unfolds. There have been thousands of Syrians whose lives were saved in Israeli hospitals and Israel; and the IDF has provided hundreds of thousands of tons of humanitarian goods over these years.
Terror tunnels are very sophisticated and until recently, virtually impossible to detect. How serious is the threat today?
I’d say that if you compare it to a book, we’d perhaps have ended a chapter. In this effort by Hamas and other terrorist organizations, Hamas was really the leader in trying to terrorize Israeli civilians and trying to circumvent Israeli defences. We’ve been able to block them on the ground, in the air, at sea so they dug beneath our defences in order to get into Israeli communities to terrorize Israeli civilians. I’m happy to say that since the October 30, 2017, we have discovered and neutralized, destroyed 12 terror tunnels by Hamas and by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
A question that we often hear is why aren’t they stopped altogether?
That’s a good question. They get support, they get external support. We see that Hamas, despite the fact there is severe civilian suffering in Gaza, focuses on military buildup, trying to acquire weapons or manufacturing by themselves or smuggling them in through a different means…weapons that they acquire from Iran and other places. That is very unfortunate. Until Hamas comes to an understanding that what they call the “armed resistance” is futile and it won’t lead to any gains, the IDF will have to continue to defend against those types of attacks.
There is also a web of tunnels in Lebanon. Would it be more difficult to deal with destroying the tunnels in Lebanon?
I’d say that Hezbollah has really done almost everything it can, everything it could to hide their military infrastructure beneath civilian infrastructure. There are approximately 250 villages in southern Lebanon, all except 10 are Shi’ite and they’re controlled by Hezbollah. And you have houses where there is a living room, a kid’s room, a kitchen and then there’s a missile room or a weapons storage facility or an entrance to a bunker. And what Hezbollah has done is to abuse the civilian infrastructure in Lebanon, mostly in southern Lebanon, but not only, they do it in Beirut as well, where they use the civilian infrastructure for military purposes. They’ll fire at Israeli civilians using Lebanese civilian infrastructure, trying to kill Israeli civilians and while doing so, we will have to respond to defend our civilians against that threat. Hezbollah is then counting on the so-called collateral damage – deaths of civilians –to happen. It’s a double war crime, using their civilians in order to strike our civilians. That’s a challenge. I’m less concerned about tunnel networks. We are more dealing with this abuse of civilian infrastructure in Lebanon, but unfortunately it is being allowed to occur and we have warned many times, the IDF has been very clear saying that the situation as it is today, where Hezbollah is nested within Lebanon, there is a rogue element, a proxy organization that is not subordinate to the Lebanese government and answers to Iran. It’s a threat first and foremost for Lebanon and the Lebanese civilians. So that is a concern that we have.
What do you feel is probably the most difficult situation that Israel is facing today?
We face a lot of threats, different organizations along our border that really would like to kill Israeli civilians, inflict damage, etc. There are ISIS enclaves in the north, on the Golan and in Sinai and there is of course Hamas in the Gaza Strip…there are different attempts by Hamas to gain a foot hold in Judea and Samaria. But I would focus on the north and say that Hezbollah is the most significant, military threat that Israel faces, mostly because of the arsenal, the size and the asperity of the missiles and rockets that Hezbollah possesses and has in Lebanon aimed at Israeli civilians, at Israeli cities…that is probably the biggest, current military challenge we face and next to that would be Iranian efforts of military entrenchment and to establish a forward operating base in Syria.
Does the IDF ever get it wrong?
As always, you know, fighting, war, and any friction, any type of combat is always a chaotic and a difficult environment like any military, we of course do mistakes, but I can say that contrary to any other military, we do investigate ourselves and we have quite a robust, independent mechanism that has the authority and the ability and a proven track record of investigating events on the ground and bringing them to the necessary conclusion, whether it is an investigation that leads to a review and a change of order, etc. or the standard operational procedure or in a case of activity that is deemed not according to our ethical code and are also investigations that are criminal.
Despite success on the battlefield, the IDF has had back to back challenges…first in the form of the lone wolf – or not so lone – wolf attacks. Then came a child’s toy that seems to have brought one of the greatest armies to its knees, in a way, a flying kite that are explosives. So how do you deal with that when it’s something that you didn’t even fathom would be something used in war?
So, it’s good that you remind us of the first wave of what we called the “lone wolf attackers” and it started approximately three years ago. You saw there was an intensive period of learning, a steep learning curve, where the IDF responded, deployed, changed its intelligence collection mechanisms and after a few months was able to provide advance warning and effectively, except for a few isolated incidents, each one of them, of course a tragedy for the victims that are involved, but if you look at it from a broader spectrum, we’ve seen fewer attacks and longer periods between them where the IDF, together with the other security agencies, have been able to detect and to thwart many of these attacks. Now that’s organizational learning.
You talk about the kites. Kites actually were an issue that we identified and adjusted to. Found the necessary, technological means and actually were able to deal with it quite effectively. Balloons and flying condoms are even more challenging and we have not yet found a 100 per cent solution for that challenge, but that is something that we are working on.
It’s the 21st century – it was tanks, it was planes years ago – today we’re looking at computers and from very difficult situations at best, when it comes to outsiders trying to wreak havoc on Israeli intelligence.
What I can speak about are the military components of what we call cyber security. The IDF obviously has a vast array of components that are within the cyber realm. The IDF is responsible for defending those, but like many things they are interconnected with national infrastructure that is done in cooperation with the relevant Israeli authorities. I totally agree with the fact that the premises here that this is a future front and this is something that of course, merits our attention. The IDF is very much aware of that. There are different attempts and challenges, different organizations and regimes that like to threaten. Recently on the lower end of the spectrum, we’ve seen Hamas with social engineering and different types of apps that they designed and tried to have soldiers download in order to harvest the information from their smartphone, in order to solicit intelligence. We’ve seen that, we’ve been able to stop it but then there are, of course, even more sophisticated attempts that we’ve been able to detect and to stop. In general, yes, that is another type of threat that we face. I usually say that, in the IDF, we deal with everything on the military spectrum, from the lone stone thrower, or the stabber, the lone wolf that you spoke about before, all the way up to intercontinental ballistic missiles, even perhaps with unconventional or non-conventional weapons and everything in between, cyber being one of them. So we have that spectrum to deal with.