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Inside Israel's catastrophic intelligence failure

Inside Israel's catastrophic intelligence failure
6 min read
24 October, 2023
Analysis: Hamas' surprise attack raised numerous questions about how Israel's intelligence and security apparatus failed to anticipate the large-scale operation. It will also have huge ramifications for future Israeli policies.

The unprecedented attack by Hamas on 7 October caught Israel by surprise and exposed glaring failures in its intelligence agencies and security policies.

Israel has so far responded with brutal daily bombardments and a total siege on Gaza, and a ground invasion is anticipated with the stated aim of destroying Hamas.  

But the question of what exactly went wrong for Israel still perplexes many analysts.

Israeli intelligence has long prided itself on advanced technologies while its surveillance systems are considered some of the best in the world. Yet Hamas fighters managed to penetrate and work around these highly sophisticated defence systems with relative ease.

These include a $1 billion security barrier completed in 2021 which surrounds Gaza, as well as Israel’s Iron Dome, a ground-to-air short-range air defence system which was overwhelmed by 3,000 or so rockets launched by Hamas at the beginning of their operation.

At the same time, Hamas targeted Israel’s autonomous machinegun towers, which are programmed to fire automatically during border incursions, by dropping grenades from drones.

The group also targeted at least four communication towers in the same way, effectively disabling Israel’s military communication network.

Another clear failure was Israel’s spyware capabilities, including Pegasus software developed in Israel and used in over 40 countries to track politicians, government officials, human rights activists, and journalists.

The controversial software infiltrates mobile phones and can access phone numbers, call logs, internet searches, passwords, social media, and phone cameras, but Israel clearly had an intelligence blind spot about Hamas’ plans.

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Intelligence or policy failure?

Hamas’ relatively modest methods, including the use of bulldozers and armed paragliders, were part of an innovative and meticulously planned strategy which overwhelmed Israel’s entire security infrastructure around Gaza.

But while much analysis has focused on how Israel’s highly vaunted agencies could have missed such a complex operation, dissecting such failures may prove difficult given the secrecy surrounding intelligence matters.

“As such, it is impossible to know whether this is an intelligence failure or a policy failure,” Dr Lewis Sage-Passant, Editor of Encyclopedia Geopolitica and Adjunct professor in intelligence and espionage at Sciences Po Paris, told The New Arab.

There were also a host of Israeli tactical failures as well as operational and logistical shortcomings on the day of the attack.

Hamas fighters broke through Israel's billion-dollar security infrastructure in Gaza. [Getty]

“We can already see a comparison to the Yom Kippur War and its intelligence failures, with Israeli intelligence potentially working under flawed assumptions that their adversary was less capable than it really was, and there may have been resistance to intelligence that challenged these assumptions,” Sage-Passant added.

Tensions between Israel’s far-right coalition government and Israel’s security and military agencies may have fostered this scepticism to relevant intelligence reports.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been protesting for nearly nine months against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans for judicial reforms to limit the power of the Supreme Court and give more power to Israel’s parliament.

Netanyahu himself has been widely accused of using the reforms to circumvent his own legal problems, which include charges of fraud, accepting bribes, and breaches of trust.

The public unrest may have weakened the military’s readiness to respond to Hamas’ attacks. In July, reports in Israeli media said that over 50 reserve officers in Israel’s 8200 elite cyber intelligence unit had announced they would no longer show up for duty.

During the political crisis in Israel this year, retired Israeli soldiers and reservists often spoke about how such instability would have a negative impact on the military’s operational abilities, according to Colin P. Clarke, Director of Policy and Research at the Soufan Group.

“That it took as long as ten hours for the Israeli military to respond to the area where Hamas launched its attack is proof that military readiness had indeed been attenuated,” he told TNA.

In recent years, the elite 8200 unit, effectively a cyber spy agency, is reported to have lost many talented engineers to the more lucrative commercial sector, which may have also played a role in weakening Israel’s intelligence structures.  

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Hamas outsmarted Israel

Even as Hamas militants trained for weeks on Israel’s border with Gaza, Israel clung to preconceived notions that such military exercises were mere posturing and that the group was more concerned with economic development, Clarke said.

“Incredulously, this remained the case even as Hamas constructed mock Israeli settlements that they subsequently conducted practice raids against,” he told The New Arab

In recent months, much of the Israeli military’s focus has been on the occupied West Bank, as well as around the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem.

Israel also seems to have overestimated its technological advantage over Hamas, with an overreliance on surveillance which was overcome by simple, but novel, means, such as drones dropping explosives on cameras and in some cases even the use of fireworks.

But the attack also demonstrated Hamas’s increased capabilities, including operational security (OPSEC), which is essentially a risk management process to protect sensitive information from being leaked.

Hamas' attack killed over 1,300 Israelis. [Getty]

Israel’s strength in recruiting spies within Palestinian militant groups meant OPSEC was a significant focus of Hamas’ ‘Al-Aqsa Flood’ operation, according to Clarke.

“Even as Hamas members trained, many of the group’s leaders were unaware of the plan and accordingly, deception formed a cornerstone of the plot, ensuring that details of the operation would not be leaked and discovered by the Israelis,” he noted.

Moreover, when Israeli communications outposts were attacked and disabled with drones, Israeli soldiers had no way to communicate with one another. Israel also failed to monitor Hamas’ communications and had clustered military commanders at a single border base.

In short, Israel severely underestimated Hamas’ operational capabilities, and intentions. 

“Over the past several years, Hamas has worked closely with elements of Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps- Quds Force (IRGC-QF) to train with sophisticated weapons systems,” Clarke said.

He added that advanced training with elite commando units took place in both Syria and Lebanon, with Hamas receiving tacit knowledge transfer from other members of the so-called “axis of resistance”.

While reports also said Israel ignored Egyptian intelligence reports that something big was being planned, Dr Sage-Passant says there are probably a lot of nuances missing, as “without knowing whether these warnings were actionable (i.e. specific) or vague, we can't know how appropriately Israel treated them”.

With the Israel-Hamas war having already killed more than 6,000 people, mainly Palestinians, Hamas’ attack and Israel’s catastrophic intelligence failure have the potential to continue triggering tectonic shifts in the region, with as yet unknown consequences.

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For Israel, this could also mean investigating the responsibility of its political, military, and security structures, with the potential for a huge overhaul.

One poll in the country said 86% of those asked, including 79% who support the current coalition government, believe Hamas’ attack was a failure of the country’s leadership, while more than half of Israelis think Netanyahu should resign.

Despite the initial surprise and scope of Hamas’ attack, Israel still maintains a clear military advantage and will likely continue to wage a war that could decimate Hamas, cause huge destruction in Gaza, and kill thousands more Palestinians.

But what Hamas’ attack could mean for the future of Israel’s intelligence and security services, as well as the political establishment, will take longer to become clear.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence.