Did Israeli intelligence fail to spot an obvious mobile phone signal about the October 7 invasion?

Just before October 7, thousands of Israeli sim cards activated in Gaza


Horrifying: CCTV footage appears to show Hamas fighters preparing to behead Israelis

February 27, 2024 18:12

One of the worst-kept secrets in Israel for the past four-and-a-half months finally came out this week in an unorthodox fashion.

Let’s start with the facts. It’s been widely reported by now that the two Israeli intelligence agencies in charge of surveilling Gaza and assessing the intentions of Hamas there failed to interpret correctly various reports and signals that in retrospect could have indicated that Hamas was preparing its massive attack on October 7.

Some of the information, such as the large-scale exercises carried out by Hamas in the months leading up to the attack, the departure of a number of senior figures, along with their families, from Gaza in the previous few weeks, and suspicious movements spotted on the border on the evening before, have all been widely reported.

One key piece of information that arrived in the last few hours before the attack that has been suppressed until the beginning of this week was a specific electronic warning which was triggered in the early hours of October 7.

Israeli intelligence has the capability to track all mobile phones being used in Gaza. This is not new. One particular capability was being able to spot in real-time which of the phones were using Sim cards not supplied by one of the local Palestinian services. The surveillance software had been programmed to set off a warning when Israeli Sim cards were switched on within Gaza.

This in itself may not have meant anything sinister. Thousands of Gazans had, until October 7, permits to work inside Israel and would have innocuous reasons to be using the Israeli network. But nevertheless, the sudden activation of unknown Israeli Sim cards would set off a red light, something that needed looking into. When it happened early on October 7, the number and location of the mobile phones which were switched on was suspicious. It didn’t look like workers who were preparing to travel to Israel. On the other hand, it wasn’t conclusive either.

In the second of two emergency phone conferences held that night by senior officers in the IDF and the Shin Bet, the Sim cards were mentioned as another of the suspicious signals that had been received.

The prevailing view was that they could be related to another Hamas exercise or a small-scale attack on the border. Two Shin Bet tactical teams were sent to the border area and a third conference was scheduled for the morning. Just after 6am, the prime minister’s military secretary who handles his daily intelligence briefing was notified of this, along with the rest of the intelligence dossier on movements on the border. Twenty minutes later, Hamas attacked.

In the first intelligence debriefings held in the first days of the war, there was no longer any doubt. The Israeli Sim cards had been purchased and handed to commanders in the Hamas Nuhba Force so they could communicate once they were in Israeli territory.

The misinterpreted switching-on of the Sim cards didn’t remain a secret for long. Israeli journalists soon got wind of the story, but while other intelligence failures were reported in the media, the Sim card reports were suppressed by the military censorship.

This was a secret technological capability still in use, the media were told, and the enemy mustn’t know. Until last Sunday night when a panellist on a political talk-show on Channel 14, a hyper-nationalist and slavishly pro-Netanyahu outlet, quoted a retired general as saying at a conference that 1,000 Israeli Sim cards used by Nuhba members had been detected on the night before the attack. The panellist said that while IDF Chief of Staff Lt-Gen Herzi Halevi had been informed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had not.

While the low-rating show may not have attracted much attention, Channel 14 decided to highlight the panellist’s story on its social media accounts. This time the censorship didn’t intervene. The story was out.

Only it wasn’t the full story and it wasn’t the end of the story. The former general, a vocal critic of the Netanyahu government, in a lawyer’s letter to Channel 14 before taking legal action, denied having said what was attributed to him. The IDF and the Shin Bet began briefing that the number of Sim cards was nowhere near 1,000, that the chief of staff had not been informed, and in an official statement said the report was “false and far from reality”.

To muddy the waters further, Netanyahu’s office put out a statement on Monday morning saying that he “had not known about it until now” and that he had “only heard about it last night”.

How could so many reporters have heard the story from their sources, and the prime minister, who is directly in charge of the Shin Bet, not have read it in any of the intelligence briefings?

A few hours later, came a “clarification” that he had not known about it until October 7 but had been informed “of dozens of Sim cards” since then.

So why claim that he had not heard of it until this week? Was someone in his office trying to feed the conspiracy theories that have been circulated on social media, partly by anonymous “bots” operated from abroad and partly by some of Netanyahu’s most fervent followers, that there had been a plot to hide information from Netanyahu and even a plan hatched by some of the anti-government protest organisations and collaborators in high places in the security establishment to allow a Hamas attack to go ahead so Netanyahu would get the blame?

Until now, the assumption was that someone close to Netanyahu has been trying to push these conspiracy theories in the hope of boosting his plummeting ratings in the polls and to besmirch the generals. But why wait until this week to break cover on Channel 14?

The timing may be coincidental but it took place just a day after the Israeli delegation to talks on a possible hostage release and temporary ceasefire returned from another round of negotiations in Paris. Israel’s representatives in these talks are mainly members of the intelligence services, but in the last couple of rounds, Netanyahu has for the first time also sent his own diplomatic adviser to keep an eye on things. The same day the Sim cards story came out, an anonymous source briefed that Netanyahu had reprimanded the delegation for not being “tough enough”.

Netanyahu’s cabinet is split between the moderate wing led by Benny Gantz and Shas leader Arye Deri, who support the basic framework of the hostage and ceasefire deal, and the far-right leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, who are adamantly opposed.

Netanyahu has yet to weigh in on either side but will have to make a decision before long. Someone is manufacturing a dispute between him and the intelligence community. That doesn’t necessarily mean he will decide against the deal with Hamas. He is under intense pressure, not just from Gantz but also from US President Joe Biden, to take the deal, but he will need to defend his decision from the inevitable far-right criticism — and one way of doing so could be to blame the spooks for bringing him a weak deal.

February 27, 2024 18:12

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