A Conversation with Major General Noam TibonBy
Alisa Roberts and Shalom Rubashkin
It’s easy to point out the problems in the Middle East; it’s much more complicated to come up with solutions. But Major General Noam Tibon, visiting Los Angeles with Our Soldiers Speak, thinks he has one. And with 35 years of military experience, specializing in counterterrorism and homeland security, General Tibon’s is not a word to take lightly.
The general was born in Israel, the first generation in his family. His mother’s family left Germany in 1933 to escape rising Anti-Semitism. His father descends from Hungarian Zionists; the family came to Israel even earlier. “Both my parents grew up in Jerusalem under the British Mandate. When they were 18, they joined the Palmach. They fought in the Independence War, and afterwards they built their kibbutz, Kibbutz Tzora, in order to guard the road to Jerusalem. I grew up in that kibbutz.”
In 1981, Tibon began his military career in the Israeli Special Forces. He worked his way up from commander in the Special Forces to Paratrooper Battalion Commander, then to Commander of the Bethlehem Regional Brigade, which was under his command during the Intifada. He commanded the Airborne Regional Brigade and the Infantry Brigade before becoming Chief of the Infantry, followed by West Bank Division Commander. In his last position before retirement he was Commander of the Northern Formation.
With a resume like that, it’s no surprise that he has a similarly impressive educational background. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Haifa University, where he graduated summa cum laude. He also holds two American degrees: a Bachelor’s from Harvard University, and one from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Virginia.
He’s proud of his service, but also of his family. “I married my wife, who is a Holocaust researcher. I have two boys. My oldest one is a journalist, and my younger one is learning to be a physician in a special program within the army.”
Gaza and Goldstone
General Tibon has a rare perspective on Gaza. In the last Gaza war, he headed an IDF internal investigation following the Goldstone Report. “We were under the eyes of the entire world. Most of the report, clear and loud, was not true. I will not say lies, but I will say not true. But the world read it.
“The world judges Israel different than it judges the U.S. military or other militaries, which are doing a similar job in different places in the world. Because of the Goldstone Report, it was very important for Israel and for the IDF to show the world that we are fighting according to international law. Of course we want to win. We use a lot of force and we use smart intelligence, but we don’t do anything which is an inch past international law.”
This goal was so important that General Tibon was removed from his command of the northern front to head the investigation. “They said, ‘Noam, we will give you a bunch of very experienced officers, and a bunch of guys from the military police, and you’ll work hand-in-hand with the military chief attorney. You can investigate whatever you think needs to be investigated; we aren’t giving you any rules or boundaries. You can use any source that you want – Palestinian sources, the press…whatever.” The goal was to bring any problems that existed to the proper authorities as soon as possible, so that they could be resolved.
But contrary to Goldstone’s incendiary report, there weren’t many problems. “I can tell you that we investigated. Of course in such a war there are many civilian casualties. They fight from neighborhoods. They don’t evacuate the civilian population, even when Israel tells them to, and in some cases they use them as human shields.
“International law doesn’t say you can’t fire. It gives you all kinds of measurements in order to do it right. If you have a terrorist surrounded by civilians, what efforts did you make to catch him alone?
“We use all kinds of tactics. For example, knock on the roof, where you use a small bomb to mark a house, let everyone out except the terrorist, and then you bomb the house. If you’re not sure that everyone left, then you don’t drop the bomb – even if you’re sure you can get the terrorist.
“Human life is something which – you know, we are Jewish – we believe you must respect a man just because he is a human being. So to take a human life is something you only do when it is necessary.
“I can tell you that we investigated almost 100 incidents – which is a huge number – during the battle. We found some problems, but usually it was problems in the orders. Nothing that went against international law. They were issues of how to be more precise, how to do a better job.”
That doesn’t mean they found no problems. The military attorney continued on with some of the investigations. “But at the end of the day, if you compare the IDF to any other military in the world that is fighting in such a scenario, we can be very proud.”
The problems in Gaza don’t end on the battlefield, though. “When you want to fight terror, military tools are only part of the tools you want to use. Military is a very important tool, but another important tool is economy. Every terror organization needs a lot of money. The ideology is important, but it’s not everything.
“You have to try to create space between the civilian population and the terrorists. Because once the population supports a terror group, there is almost nothing you can do. But if you can create space where people will say, ‘Okay. We don’t want you here’… We should find a way to give some hope to the civilian population, while being very tough with Hamas.”
He emphasizes the importance of a nuanced approach. “There is a big difference between Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank. In the West Bank, because we have Israeli forces there, there is a very good relationship with the Palestinian police force, and it’s something that really works well on a daily basis.
“When it comes to Lebanon, we have problems only with the Shia, which means Hezbollah. It’s 40% of Lebanon, it’s not the whole population. In the Middle East you have to look at the big picture, but then you have to look at the colors.”
A New Map
General Tibon has decades of experience seeing both the big picture and the colors, and he has a new take on how to solve the seemingly endless conflict in the region.
“I think today we are now just 100 years after the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which as you know was written by gentlemen from Great Britain and France—the superpowers. They drew some straight lines on the map and created countries. But you have countries like Iraq, with Sunnis and Shias, and you know that they hate each others’ guts.
“After WWII, they really paid attention to what they called the Marshall Plan, in Germany and Japan. During the war, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin tried to coordinate what would be after the war.”
But there is no such consensus today. “The main problem today, when you look at the war against ISIS, is that the two big powers – the US and Russia – are not well-coordinated. They are fighting each one after their own interest, and no one is thinking about what will be at the end of the day.
“I think that the American, and also the Israeli, experience is that when you go into a war you have to have an idea of what will happen at the end of it. It’s really easy to win the battle. It’s really hard to balance it into something that will work. You don’t have to use the term democracy, because it doesn’t exist in this region of the world.
“I think today the most important thing is to sit together, the big powers, and redraw the map of the Middle East.”
He’s given much thought to this idea. “What do we have? At least three wars happening simultaneously. We have the old war, the Sunnis and the Shias. The Axis of Iran, Assad, Hezbollah, against the axis of ISIS, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. Then you have the United States of America, fighting mainly in Iraq. Then you have Russia, who are fighting now, not against ISIS, but against the enemies of President Assad. Then you have the Turks, who are fighting the Kurds. It’s all mixed up.
“I think the solution is to separate the populations. If you asked me, the world should sit with the UN and ask, ‘What do we want?’ ISIS is going to be defeated; I’m sure. But what will be after ISIS, no one is thinking about and nobody knows.
“You create four states: the Kurdish State in parts of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey; then the Shia State, in part of Iraq; then a Sunni State, mainly in the region today controlled by ISIS; then an Alawite state, which will be between Damascus and the Mediterranean Sea. I think this is the solution.”
An intriguing solution; but is it a practical one? “I think that everyone is getting sick and tired of this long war. But if you don’t think about next steps, it will be just like what happened in Iraq. They’re stuck in this swamp. You have to figure out what the solution is, otherwise it will continue to breed forever.”
The Terror Trend
Unfortunately, without practical steps, radicalization isn’t something General Tibon sees going away. “I think that, unfortunately, the world is changing. In the 1973 war, the Arabs understood that they couldn’t beat us in strength. And after the two Gulf Wars, people saw how strong America is, when it comes to military against military. Terror, for many years, was the power of the weak. And that’s why they decided to use terror, to break you from the inside.”
He has a personal story to illustrate. “I was here during September 11th. I was a student at university. I have a very funny story, but I think it can tell you a lot.
“I came with my small family straight from Hebron. It was in the middle of a very bloody Intifada in Israel. A lot of suicide bombings. We all got on a plane, including the dog. He was named Buddy, after Buddy Clinton. To take a dog with you, you buy a cage, and he goes with the suitcases. We went to London, and then we flew to New York. We were exhausted. We landed in Logan airport. The cage came, and it’s empty.
“My wife and my kids freaked out. And then I got what we call a direct order.” He pauses, addressing the men. “Are you married? My wife told me, ‘Go and find him.’ This is something you cannot disobey.
“So I went all the way back to the plane, getting on the runway, whistling ‘Buddy, Buddy!’ Nobody asked me, ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’ And I was walking there for at least half an hour, behind the scenes. You know, in Israel, this cannot happen,” he adds, more serious for a moment.
“The good part of the story is that there were dog lovers in Great Britain, and they thought the cage was a little too small for Buddy. So they upgraded him to business class; he arrived in a huge cage, with a blanket.
“The sad part was that on our way to Brookline, I told my wife, ‘Americans are crazy.’ And exactly three months later, from the same Logan airport, came the hijacking that changed the world.”
General Tibon is pragmatic, but not unhopeful. “Terror is something which always searches for where it can attack. Where it can create the biggest damage. If you check what happened to the U.S. after Sept 11, in terms of dollars, it’s unbelievable, the number. And that’s why you have to be very smart, when fighting terror. You cannot sit and say, ‘I’m good. I’m protected.’
“When it comes to security, and I’m a professional in security, the way the Israeli forces operate is something which should be heard and learned all over the world. We have a lot of experience. Terror is a worldwide problem; this knowledge must be heard. We don’t think we are the smartest guys on earth. But the Israeli point of view, when it comes to security, is a very important one.
“That’s why Our Soldiers Speak is so important. We should not give up. People must hear the true voice of Israel. There are many arguments to say things against the State, but the soldiers, who Benjamin brings here, are a very loud and clear voice of what Israel is, and what the IDF is, and how to fight terror.”
Our Soldiers Speak
Our Soldiers Speak is an educational organization that brings Israeli soldiers to the U.S. to speak on college campuses, as well as bringing IDF leaders to discuss policy with US Congressmen and Senators. Sgt. Benjamin Anthony founded the organization, and still feels passionately about its mission:
“We’re not an advocacy organization. Why not? Because we don’t believe that the State of Israel is a defendant in the dock of a criminal court. We are here to promote and we are here to educate. We’re not here to debate our legitimacy of existence as a Jewish state. But we are willing to discuss policy and security.”
In addition to bringing speakers to the U.S., Our Soldiers Speak is going to bring law students from top Ivy League law schools for a 10-day tour of Israel this summer. General Tibon will be one of their keynote speakers. “We believe that there is no greater ambassador for the State of Israel than the State of Israel,” said Anthony.
“The General is thought of as being an upcoming major thought leader within the state of Israel,” explained Anthony. “We’re very privileged to have him here. There are many subjects that are debated in the international community that affect the state of Israel, but the Israeli voice is absent in the conversation. The General has come here to bring the Israeli voice to the subject matter and to these issues.”
General Tibon is equally enthusiastic about Our Soldiers Speak. “Though almost every Jewish organization asked me to work with them, I decided that I would work with Our Soldiers Speak, because I believe in their mission. We need the support of the Democrats, we need the support of the Republicans, we need the support of the American people. That’s why what Benjamin does is so important. And that’s why I’m working with them.”
For more information visit oursoldiersspeak.org
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