Hamas’s attack was Israeli and American colossal intelligence failure on multiple fronts

Palestinians celebrate on Saturday 7 October as an Israeli military vehicle burns after it was hit by Palestinian gunmen who infiltrated areas of southern Israel. Photograph: Reuters

“Hamas has challenged the very fundamental concept of Israeli deterrence,” said Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., a retired Marine Corps general and former top American commander in the Middle East. “It can only be re-established with the application of overwhelming, shocking violence. And it is only getting started.”

The vicious success of Hamas, the Islamic movement that controls Gaza, in launching a massive terrorist attack on October 7th against communities in southern Israel, leaving at least 800 dead within Israel, without their plans being unveiled is matched by the astounding failure of Israeli intelligence at every level.

This was a complex assault, involving scores, if not hundreds, of militants.

There were multiple breaches of the barrier around the Gaza strip. It was a carefully coordinated operation involving thousands of rockets, explosives to pierce the border fence, ultralights, motorbikes, cars, drones, and even a (failed) attack by boat.

And Israel had no idea that any of it was coming. If it had, the Israeli military would have been prepared. Its soldiers would have been on alert. There would have been checkpoints on the roads. Rapid response forces would have been ready to take on the attackers.

Instead, the attack early on a Saturday morning caught the military and civilians alike by surprise, at border outposts, at the towns closest to Gaza, on the roads and at an all-night music festival attended by thousands of young Israelis.

Officials are in shock that an assault that must have required months of planning and that entailed a significant military buildup escaped their notice. That will surely be the subject of multiple investigations once the fighting in Gaza is over. But it is already clear that the failures came in two forms: one of intelligence-collecting and the other of assessing and interpreting that intelligence.

Israeli soldiers are seen in a staging ground near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel. (AP)

Israel’s intelligence and security services have been called into question for failing to anticipate the large-scale attack launched by the Palestinian militant group Hamas on Saturday.

Both Israel and Egypt try to monitor efforts to smuggle components, many originally from Iran, through the Sinai Peninsula and into Gaza through underground tunnels, according to former U.S. intelligence officials. In 2021, Israel reported destroying 62 miles of underground tunnels and built underground barriers 65 yards deep. Egypt has also worked to seal tunnels between Gaza and the peninsula.

If it is surprising it is because Israel’s surveillance of Palestinian society is both highly sophisticated and highly invasive, with monitoring of Hamas’s activity in particular one of the most important tasks for the security establishment.

Following some reports, about 1,000 militants gunned down civilians and military targets inside Israel in an attack unprecedented in scale.

According to Israeli media, at least 700 Israelis were killed and more than 2,100 were wounded. Israel responded by launching air strikes on targets in the Gaza Strip. More than 400 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,300 injured.

The death toll is likely to grow as fighting continues.

“No national intelligence agency is omniscient or flawless, but this is just a colossal failure,” said Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s just astonishing that this could occur.”

Israel had long prided itself on its advanced border fence and underground wall near Gaza. But on Saturday, Hamas fighters were able to breach the border fence in at least one location with explosives and heavy equipment, according to videos from the scene. Militants also conducted an amphibious operation on the Mediterranean Sea and used paragliders to reach two dozen locations in Israel.

The militant group also launched thousands of rockets, to the surprise of Israel’s vaunted intelligence agencies and surveillance system. Israel is believed to be able to listen to almost any phone call in Gaza and has a large number of informants there.

“We were surprised this morning. About failures, I prefer not to talk at this point right now. We’re at war. We’re fighting,” Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces, said Saturday on CNN.

“They’ve been planning this for a long time,” former Israeli National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata told Reuters. “Obviously this is a very coordinated attack, and unfortunately they were able to surprise us tactically and cause devastating damage.”

The Israeli intelligence apparatus had its attention elsewhere

In recent months, much of the Israel Defense Forces’ focus has been in the West Bank, where battalions of young Palestinian men have launched their own initiative against the Israeli occupation.

“The West Bank was consuming their attention,” said Hoffman, who has studied Israeli-Palestinian relations for the past 40 years.

Palestinians celebrate on Saturday 7 October as an Israeli military vehicle burns after it was hit by Palestinian gunmen who infiltrated areas of southern Israel. Photograph: Reuters

Israeli officials have also been preoccupied with tensions around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the most holy Muslim site in Jerusalem, also sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount, after Israeli police conducted raids on worshipers back in April.

“There were a lot of assets and resources focused on monitoring events in Jerusalem,” Hoffman said.

At home, Israel was divided and was celebrating a holiday.

The country has become increasingly divided and rife with domestic political problems. In July, Israel’s parliament voted to prevent judges from striking down government decisions on the basis that they are “unreasonable.”

The controversial changes to the judiciary, pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government, sparked public outrage and mass protests. Some members of Israel’s military reserve also refused to report for duty recently, though they’ve all reported to duty in this crisis. Hoffman said it is not a surprise that Hamas would choose to strike during a polarizing time.

“They strike precisely when they sense an opportunity,” Hoffman said. “When they see a gap generally in their enemy’s defenses, generally caused by distraction or preoccupation with other threats or challenges.”

The assault also took place during the Jewish Sabbath and in the early hours of the Simchat Torah holiday. Israeli soldiers guarding the border wrote on social media that militants overtook their base, killing soldiers — and there were fewer troops on duty because it was a Jewish holiday.

In Gaza, Israeli military did not expect ground assault

Over the past decade, Hamas has largely attacked Israel by launching rockets. As a result, Israeli forces around Gaza were not prepared for a ground assault, Hoffman said.

“They weren’t at all battle ready,” he said. “I think there was a complacency that all was quiet on the border with Gaza.”

That should have been suspicious and concerning, he added. On the other hand, Hoffman said the sheer scale and complexity of the attack was unimaginable and overwhelming.

Hoffman, who described Israel’s intelligence as “second-best” to the U.S., said Hamas’ combination of air, land and sea attacks was “unprecedented” for terrorist groups in recent history. Israel and the U.S. have labeled Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, as a terrorist group.

“I can’t recall any time where a group was able to put them together and stage a simultaneous coordinated assault using all three venues,” he said.

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