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The sudden and devastating Hamas attack on Israel has so far claimed over 900 Israeli lives and wounded 2,700 more. Many of the dead are civilians, including children, and Hamas has also taken many dozens of prisoners. Proportionate to its small population, far more Israelis died than Americans did on 9/11. Although more Israelis died in the Second Intifada, which saw over 1,000 dead when fighting raged from 2000 to 2005, these 900 have perished in only a few days. Indeed, in the all-out war Israel fought with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in 1967 it only lost 700 people, and those were almost entirely soldiers. The Israeli response has already killed almost 600 Palestinians, many of them also civilians, and far more are likely to die in the coming day in Israeli operations in Gaza.
Israel’s legendary intelligence services failed to warn of and stop the Hamas attack. “This is a major failure,” lamented Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And in the days and weeks to come, more and more fingers will be pointed at the leaders of Israel’s intelligence services.
But intelligence failures come in many forms. We are still (very) early in the conflict, but there are five potential forms of intelligence failure to consider: poor assessments by the Israeli government about Hamas’s capabilities; poor assessments about Hamas’s intentions; misunderstanding the impact of Israel’s own policies; overestimating the effectiveness of Israel’s security services; and the possible unwillingness of senior Israeli policymakers to heed intelligence warnings. Some of these problems may stem from poor or incomplete collection of intelligence, while others may be due to cognitive biases or other analytic challenges.
Israeli leaders appear to have wrongly assumed that Hamas, while hostile to Israel, could not launch a major attack. Part of this comes from Hamas’s track record, which is usually a good way to judge an organization’s goals and capabilities. Hamas has repeatedly used rockets and missiles to attack Israel, but the salvos have been more modest in size. Hamas has never done a mass infiltration of Israel from Gaza: this time it sent in hundreds of fighters or more. In addition, although Hamas has long sought to attack Israel from Gaza, some of the means used—such as the “kite war” in 2018—suggested limited capabilities, at best. Israeli defensive systems like Iron Dome seemed highly effective, while the “smart fence” protected Israel from infiltration.
The question of intentions is bound up in the issue of capabilities. If Hamas lacked the ability to launch a massive attack, then its intentions would, in practice, need to be more modest. But even beyond skepticism about capabilities, Hamas was assumed to be more of a status-quo actor, focusing on seeking legitimacy through economic development. It also appeared to recognize Israel’s military superiority and, as a result, Israeli deterrence seemed to be working, with Hamas quickly calling off attacks after negotiations began. However, if, as now appears likely, Hamas’s intentions were more maximal, it would focus more on improving its capabilities to meet its aggressive goals.
One of the hardest tasks of intelligence is understanding the effects of a country’s own policies on an adversary. Israeli officials appear to have believed that its carrot and stick approach to Gaza was working. As Thomas Nides, the former American ambassador to Israel, notes, Israel “issued 15,000 work permits, for workers in Gaza who came into Israel each day, and I believe there was a view that Hamas would not screw that up.” These workers made much higher wages, which in turn brought income into the impoverished Strip. For Palestinians, however, promises of economic progress have rarely been a substitute for greater political rights. This misjudgment has repeatedly plagued Israeli policy (both the first and second intifadas occurred after years of economic growth in Palestinian areas) and should not have been a surprise.
Perhaps the biggest failure concerns the effectiveness of Israel’s intelligence and police collection capabilities. Israel’s intelligence services have proven formidable, hunting down terrorists and their supporters not only in Palestinian areas, but also in Lebanon, Dubai, and Iran itself. Gaza is a confined space, and Israel was thought to have a vast intelligence network of human assets, signals intelligence, and overhead imagery that it has used to disrupt Palestinian organizations.
It is likely that Israel underestimated Hamas’s ability to adapt. Hamas seems to have smuggled into Gaza (or constructed) a vast arsenal of rockets and missiles without detection. Israel seems to have had too few soldiers and policemen near Gaza to counter any potential breakthrough. Adaptation seems particularly likely in the case of operational security, where Hamas seems to have hidden a vast operation underneath the noses of Israeli intelligence, perhaps avoiding cell phones and email and otherwise limiting communication. Amir Avivi, a retired Israeli general, contended, “They’ve gone back to the Stone Age.”
At times, intelligence is simply too vague to be useful. There are some reports that intelligence picked up vague plans of an attack, but they lacked a how or when, making the information of limited value.
One of the biggest challenges for intelligence officials is convincing policymakers of the threat. Richard Betts, a senior scholar of intelligence, warns that policymaker disbelief is responsible for many supposed intelligence failures. We do not know what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his senior advisors were told about Hamas and Gaza. However, it is likely that they were focused on Iran, the growing crisis in the West Bank, including the increasing violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians, and Netanyahu’s many legal and political troubles. This is an area to watch – it may simply be that Israel’s intelligence services failed to warn, but historically such failures are often interwoven with policymaker biases and priorities, and their resulting unwillingness to heed the warnings of intelligence officers.
To be clear, as someone who has long followed terrorism in the Middle East for many years, my own record is poor on several of these issues. Before the latest crisis, I did warn of significant Palestinian anger and presented reasons for why Hamas might seek to attack Israel. I have long been skeptical that Israeli economic concessions would make Hamas more pliable. However, I shared some assumptions that were brutally proved wrong. I assumed that Hezbollah was a bigger threat than Hamas and that unrest on the West Bank was a bigger concern than Gaza. I also assumed that Israel’s intelligence services would detect any large-scale operation and that Hamas would be too cautious to risk a large-scale strike.
Israel should be on guard for future surprises in the days to come. Given how well Hamas planned its current operations, it may have anticipated a likely Israeli ground operation in Gaza. Tunnel networks to move men and surprise Israeli soldiers, prepared ambushes, and the use of hostages as human shields are all among the many possibilities that face Israel as its troops enter Gaza. Terrorist attacks from Hamas cells and sympathizers on the West Bank are another possibility.
Hamas, for its part, may be in the middle of its own intelligence failure if the terrorist group’s leaders assessed that this strike would lead Israel to fold or that, in the long-term, the deaths of so many Israelis would put Hamas in a stronger position in Gaza. Although I and others have speculated as to why Hamas struck when it did, it is unclear that it will be in a better position when the dust settles. Israel expert Natan Sachs writes, “If you convince Israelis that they are in a fight for their lives, for the lives of their families, they will fight. And Israel remains far stronger than its enemies, today’s debacle notwithstanding.” The end result of the latest fighting may be many dead Palestinians, a destroyed Gaza, and a decimated Hamas that has less, not more, political control over Gaza.