The day that stunned Israel: attacks shake faith in intelligence services

It was a day that stunned Israel. Early on Saturday, as much of the country slept, Hamas militants launched a devastating multi-faceted attack from the Gaza Strip, firing thousands of rockets at Israeli towns and cities while hundreds of its fighters stormed into the country by land, air and sea.

So deep was the disbelief that the Middle East’s most powerful security apparatus had been caught off-guard that, within hours, Israeli analysts were comparing the events to the biggest intelligence failure in the country’s history: the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when Egypt and Syria shocked the Jewish state with a co-ordinated attack from the north and the south.

The scale of the failure was underscored by the casualties: by Saturday evening at least 200 Israelis had been confirmed dead with more than a thousand injured, and dozens had been taken hostage by Hamas militants. Israeli forces were still fighting Palestinian militants at 22 locations in the south of the country.

“This is a failure that is no smaller than the Yom Kippur war,” said Amir Avivi, former deputy commander of the Gaza Division of Israel’s military. “I am surprised by the failure not only of the overall intelligence, but also of the tactical forces. Even if they were surprised, you would expect the Gaza Division to do a much better job in defending the border.”

Reserve soldiers line up to register for duty in a northern Israeli town © AFP via Getty Images

Fearing threats from all sides, Israel has built the most formidable intelligence service in the region and established a network of informants throughout the Palestinian territories, as well as in hostile neighbours such as Lebanon and Syria, and in its arch-nemesis, Iran. It has also constructed a high-security barrier around Hamas’s stronghold in hemmed-in Gaza, buttressed by motion sensors and extending deep under the ground.

But despite this, hundreds of Palestinian militants were able to breach Israel’s defences — via paragliders, motorbikes and boats — to attack civilians and infiltrate military bases in numerous sites around the Gaza Strip. The attack’s planning went undetected even though security officials conceded that it must have taken months, if not longer.

Hamas has shown resilience over the years in its ability to rebuild its armoury even after being pounded from the air, land and sea. Michael Milstein, a former IDF intelligence official, estimated it had taken a year to plan the attack, adding that it showed the Islamist movement was a “quasi-military” force.

“It’s multi-dimensional effort,” he said. “If you prepare such an operation there must be signals . . . and they really succeeded to promote a hidden, very clandestine move in a tragic manner, in a great success.”

Avi Melamed, a former intelligence official, said the episode also suggested Israel had “misread” Hamas’s intentions, and that Israel’s strategy of offering piecemeal economic relief to Gazans — such as permits for a limited number to enter Israel for work — while maintaining a crippling blockade of the strip had failed to deter the militant group.

“I guess one of the calculations within Israeli intelligence was that since Israel is taking these measures and alleviating the pressure on people in Gaza . . . it would avoid such a harsh move,” he said. “Apparently, Hamas has different calculations.” 

Avivi said Hamas had probably been emboldened by the political turmoil in Israel, where a controversial judicial overhaul pushed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government has sparked months of protests, as well as threats by thousands of reservists to stop volunteering for duty, sparking questions about the military’s readiness.

“This whole campaign and insubordination sent a strong message to our enemies that Israel is weak,” he said. “They feel that we are divided.”

An injured soldier is brought into Tel Aviv’s Surasky Medical Center © Amir Levy/Getty Images

Other analysts said that the multipronged attacked showed how the capabilities of Hamas — which has fought four full-scale wars with Israel — had developed. The group deployed tactics similar to Hizbollah, the powerful Iran-backed Lebanese movement that fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006.

“What Hamas pulled today strategically and operationally is everything Hizbollah has been training to do since 2006,” said Emile Hokayem, director of regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

The attack inflicted Israel’s highest death toll since a Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada ended in 2005. Its scale and the fact that Hamas claimed to have taken dozens of hostages have prompted calls from some in Israel for a full-scale invasion of the coastal strip, which is home to 2.3mn Palestinians.

“Once we find out the number [of hostages being held], this will become the main issue in Israel, and the way that we manage the campaign in Gaza,” said Zvika Haimovich, former commander of the Israel Air Defence Forces. “It’s a big number.”

Sending troops into Gaza — something Israel has not done since 2014 — would represent a major escalation of its conflict with Hamas and involve combat in the narrow streets of the densely populated enclave, bringing with it huge risks, both for Gaza’s civilian population and for Israeli forces.

But some Israeli analysts said that they feared that not only this, but also a broader, regional escalation involving Iranian proxies such as Hizbollah. “I’m quite sure this is the beginning of much broader conflict between us and Hamas,” said Milstein. “But it can quite quickly spread to [other] fronts — and we are really worried about the northern front.”

For now, those calculations are dominating the Israeli military’s attention. But analysts said that once the conflict was over, an inquest into how it began was inevitable.

“At the moment, we are trying to focus more on what’s next,” said Avivi. “But I believe that after everything finishes, we will spend years checking what happened.” 

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