Days after Hamas terrorists conducted its most brutal and complex attack ever on Israel, more questions than answers remain regarding how Israel failed to see the operation coming.
Hamas’ terrorists six-pronged Saturday assault on Israel — resulting in more than 1,000 Israeli deaths and a declaration of war — caught Israel by surprise despite the nation’s reputation as a top-tier intelligence power and its near laser focus on Gaza, The Associated Press reported. Nearly four days after the attack and as Israel prepares to carry out a massive war on Gaza, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation they remain baffled at how neither the U.S. nor Israel appear to have anticipated the operation.
While Hamas fighters trained, Israel let itself be deceived by Hamas leaders while turning greater attention to violence on the West Bank, political turmoil and fears of Hezbollah, experts said.
“The Israeli services are among the best in the world, so missing something of this magnitude is truly shocking,” Emily Harding, a former intelligence official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the DCNF. “A combination of collection gaps, analytical failures of imagination and disciplined operational security by Hamas could all have led to this intelligence failure,” she said.
“Strategic surprise is like a plane crash — it’s not any one thing that goes wrong, it’s lots of things that add up to a disaster,” Harding said.
None of Israel’s intelligence services — the Mossad, Shin Bet or Aman (military intelligence) — received any specific warning of the complex attack, The New York Times reported, citing an Israeli defense official and U.S. officials. This is despite reports, denied by official sources, that Egyptian intelligence warned Israel of an imminent attack.
During the attack, Hamas fighters infiltrated Israel in at least six different locations along a 15-kilometer arc with engineers to deconstruct obstacles, showing unprecedented tactical and strategic prowess that suggests the involvement of foreign powers, Can Kasapugolu, an analyst at the Hudson Institute, said in a statement shared with the DCNF. Hamas first took out Israeli surveillance outposts with drones before conducting a second wave of air assaults with rockets and paragliders, Times of Israel reported.
The plan likely took months to come together, with preparations beginning as early as mid-2022, The Washington Post reported, citing a Western intelligence analyst.
Hamas’ ability to prepare for the attack without raising alarms raises serious questions regarding Israel’s knowledge of terrorist groups and how Iran uses them to threaten Israel, experts said.
“HAMAS, PIJ, and the other groups involved exercised exceptional operational security discipline and engaged in purposeful disinformation and deception to indicate that no sort of attack was likely,” retired Col. Rich Outzen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told the DCNF.
“Israel’s ability to detect indications and warnings is unmatched,” Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the DCNF. That there is nothing to suggest either the U.S. or Israel anticipated a complex attack suggested that Hamas “and likely its terror sponsor in Iran have developed methods of evading intelligence collection,” he said.
Hamas fighters trained for the operation sometimes in plain sight while the political wing led Israel to believe it would accept economic carrots like work permits in exchange for cessation of violence, Reuters reported, citing a source close to Hamas.
As part of the preparations, Hamas built a mock Israeli settlement and filmed military drills storming the settlement, the source told Reuters.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another Islamist group operating in the Palestinian territories, learned of the operation just hours before it was scheduled to begin when Hamas invited the group to participate, Al Jazeera reporter Ali Hashem reported, citing an Islamic Jihad source. The same outlet reported even most of Hamas did not know, citing a Hamas source. Details of the operation were known only to a small group within the Qassem Brigades, which the military wing of the Hamas organization, the source reportedly said.
Reuters offered a similar account, saying that Hamas sought to minimize leaks by including only a handful of leaders in the planning process. Most Hamas fighters did not know the purpose of the exercises.
Israel has not had an overt physical presence in Gaza since 2005 but appeared to maintain significant covert electronic sensors and human sources in the region even after Hamas took control in 2007, according to the AP. Precision strikes on buildings ostensibly concealing Hamas leaders and tunnels used to ferry fighters and supplies through the region appeared to demonstrate Israel’s persistent eyes on the small territory.
Expert consensus has not yet emerged on what may have contributed to the failure, and who to blame.
Israel may have assumed that its defenses, including the Iron Dome air defense system, border fences and sensors, would deny Hamas any route by which to launch major attacks, according to Haaretz and The Economist writer Anshel Pfeffer. It may have relied too heavily on the belief that economic relief would suppress hostilities to a manageable level. Finally, it may have believed Hamas would not risk triggering a war with Israel.
Hamas had not attacked Israel in two years, leading Israel to believe the organization’s Gaza-based leader Yahya Al-Sinwar had no time to coordinate assaults amid struggles to manage chaos within Gaza, Reuters reported.
“We believed that the fact that they were coming in to work and bringing money into Gaza would create a certain level of calm. We were wrong,” an Israel Defense Forces spokesperson told Reuters.
“The problem is that intelligence was available but conflicted with prevailing opinions about intent,” Outzen told the DCNF. “The deception, and the view that longstanding operational concepts of containment, limited retaliation, and positive inducements were working led to missing the pattern that turned out to be real.”
Internal dysfunction also played a role, according to Kim Ghattas, a fellow at the Columbia Institute of Global Politics, said. Political disunity distracted the Israeli government from external developments.
“There’s deep disunity in [the] system,” she wrote. The army and intelligence agencies may have communicated to parliament, but politicians in their “hubris” could have ignored the warnings, she suggested.
Harding disagreed. “Intelligence professionals are mission-focused, and a mission as important as protecting Israel against terrorist attacks is above political wrangling,” she told the DCNF.
Levels of trust between Netanyahu and the military have declined amid institutional disagreement with the prime minister’s proposed judicial reforms, Outzen said.
Others said that Israel has devoted more attention to the threat from Hezbollah to the country’s north. Larger and more advanced than Hamas but no less hostile to Israel, Hezbollah was seen to present a greater danger. Israel also re-positioned military resources to the West Bank following a spate of minor clashes with militants there, where Jewish settlers who comprise part of Netanyahu’s base have called for a security crackdown, according to the AP.
“Right now, with terrorists on the loose, rockets flying, hostages held and a massive counteroffensive being planned, there’s little time for finger pointing. But there will come a time for that once the dust settles,” Goldberg told the DCNF.
Questions have also emerged regarding whether Israel misinterpreted or shrugged off more obvious warnings of an attack.
In August, a senior Hamas leader told the pro-Hezbollah network the organization is “preparing for an all-out war” and is “closely discussing the prospects of this war with all relevant parties.” But, he said the strongest resistance would come from the West Bank.
Swirling reports of sometimes contradictory information further complicate the picture.
Egypt’s top official for intelligence allegedly warned Netanyahu that Hamas was planning “something big,” but Israel ignored repeated warnings from Cairo, an anonymous Egyptian intelligence official said, according to Times of Israel. However, Netanyahu denied the reports.
“No early message came from Egypt and the prime minister did not speak or meet with the intelligence chief since the establishment of the government — not indirectly or directly,” Netanyahu’s office said, according to TOI.
Unnamed Egyptian sources also denied the story, Haaretz reported.
“Judging adversary intent is always the hardest,” Harding said.
Micaela Burrow on October 10, 2023