The intelligence failure in Gaza was at every level and goes right up to the top

While the failure in detecting the massive terror attack has many sources, they go all the way to the top

October 09, 2023 11:16

On November 11, 2018, a small group of Israeli special-forces operatives were driving in civilian disguises near the Palestinian town of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip. They were stopped for inspection by Hamas members whose suspicion was aroused and called for reinforcements. A gunfight began and the Israeli force killed seven Hamas fighters. Lieutenant-Colonel Mahmoud Kheir el-Din, one of the commanders of the Israeli forces, was also killed in the gunfire before the force could be extricated from Gaza in a helicopter. 

Lieutenant-Colonel El-Din’s name and photograph could not be published for operational security reasons for three years. He had played a key role in the Special Operations Directorate of the military intelligence branch, and identifying him would have jeopardised operations ongoing after his death. 

Israel has never acknowledged the objective of the operation that was foiled that night in 2018 but senior officials have said that it underlines how crucial penetrating the terrorist organisation’s networks in Gaza is, and how difficult it has become. 

There is no doubt that the lack of any information that could have warned Israel’s security forces that Hamas was planning a massive attack on the border and Israeli communities and military bases nearby was a staggering failure of the intelligence community at all levels. At the same time, it serves as a bleak reminder that Israel’s enemies are not the bumbling idiots some have portrayed them as. Hamas has greatly improved the security of its internal communications, installing its own underground networks. 

The level of operational security maintained by those who planned and prepared Hamas’s attack was extremely high. The circle of those who knew any details was kept small and they would have refrained from using any form of electronic or phone communication which they knew Israel would be eavesdropping on. The terrorists sent on the actual operation would have been informed only a few hours in advance. 

Many questions are already being asked about how the hundreds of surveillance cameras and sensors positioned around the border failed to see Hamas members, vehicles and bulldozers gathering on the border. These questions will continue to be asked, but one of the assumptions at this point is that the bulldozers were nearby days and weeks in advance, working at what would have looked like (and perhaps were) building sites. Likewise, many of the terrorists involved would have already been living in neighbourhoods close to the border so their presence would not have aroused suspicion. 

The failures of intelligence both at the ground level of surveillance and signal and electronic eavesdropping are more easily explained. The fact that the human intelligence (HUMINT) level did not yield even one informant within the circle of Hamas planners and senior commander, and that the intelligence and political assessment of Hamas’s leadership got their intentions so wrong, is the most astonishing failure. 

The intelligence community’s assessment that Yihya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, preferred to focus on economic and infrastructure strengthening of Gaza rather than plunging the coastal enclave into yet another war has held for over two years, basically since the end of the May 2021 conflict. It remained the assessment right up until Saturday morning when it belatedly became clear that Hamas had breached the border at 29 locations and sent as many as a thousand terrorists into Israel. 

Did anyone question that assessment? Was there a serious discussion over any questions? Israeli intelligence has “red teams” of analysts whose job it is to question any and all assumptions about the enemy. Were they involved in the Gaza file or were these analysts being used mainly on other targets such as Iran and Hezbollah? 

Israel is now at war and most of these questions will have to wait for the long reckoning which will come after it. The shocked intelligence community is focused now on gathering as much information and rapidly updating its assessments for the battles that lie ahead.

But the questions will be asked of the chiefs of military intelligence and Shin Bet, as well as of the entire IDF General Staff, and also of the politicians, the security cabinet ministers and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Did they challenge the generals and intelligence chiefs in their periodic briefings? Were they even interested in discussing the situation in Gaza?

Priorities on intelligence-targeting ultimately come from the very top. The political leaders direct the intelligence services on how to focus and prioritise their resources. Hamas in Gaza was not at the top of the list, and while the failure in detecting the massive terror attack has many sources, they go all the way to the top. 

October 09, 2023 11:16

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