The Gaza Trap: One Israeli Soldier Recalls Last Ground War

Israeli soldier preapring to enter Gaza on July 17.
Israeli soldier preapring to enter Gaza on July 17.
Céline Lussato

JERUSALEM — Nobody wanted to believe it. Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet had of course called up reservists and warned the 100,000 inhabitants of Gaza who lived near the border not to stay long.

But for most Israeli political analysts, this had appeared to be mainly an exercise in communications. And everything pointed to their being right in thinking that way.

The Israeli Prime Minister himself showed signs of hesitation and almost of good will towards the Palestinians by accepting Egypt’s successive cease fire offers.

He did deploy his air and naval forces in "Operation Protective Edge" in retaliation for Hamas strikes that had reached as far as the large city of Haifa in the north of Israel. But "Bibi" seemed little inclined to start a ground offensive which would be very risky for soldiers whose death — or worse, abduction — would be traumatic for Israelis.

The experience of Operation Cast Lead, which began in December 2008, still lingers in Israel's memory. Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas and hence one of the most dangerous and unpredictable for combatants in a local war.

Without a military objective

Ethan, a reservist who took part in Operation Cast Lead, recalls the events of five-plus years ago: “To avoid risk to human life, in fact what they sent us on was a punitive operation."

He shares his memories in a Jerusalem café.

"An armed operation has by definition an objective that is not only clearly outlined but is also, in the opinion of the general staff, considered to be attainable," the young war veteran explains. "But what is it in Gaza? There isn’t a single mission there that can be accomplished by a ground offensive."

He recalls how his unit was assigned to a small zone several kilometers west of the Karni crossing, on a hill at an altitude of about 300 meters. "When we got there, all the people who lived there had already cleared out," he said.

Contrary to what he’d thought at the beginning, Ethan’s unit was not there to search, confiscate weapons, and make arrests which would have put the soldiers at considerable risk. “What they expected of us was that we raze the zone. The ground trembled the whole time as houses were destroyed one after the other …"

The young father continues: "And there were indeed traps in some of them, hidden explosives that caused second explosions and tunnels that could have swallowed us up."

The idea was to cause as much damage as possible, to make Hamas understand "don’t play this game with us anymore." But the dangerous nature of the operation led to disgrace."

The army had been given instructions to return quickly and without losses so the rules of engagement were changed. “Anybody on a roof was a legitimate target, for example. So there was no need to warn them or to have proof that they were armed and represented a threat."

The rule "don’t shoot when in doubt" was applied in the inverse. "There, it was: If there’s any doubt, shoot. It was the cause of a lot of civilian deaths but also losses in our ranks down to friendly fire."

It was just the kind of military quagmire that Netanyahu appeared to want to avoid, until Thursday night.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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