Learning from Failure: Deconstructing Israel’s Defense and Intelligence in Hamas’s Operation

On 7 October, Israel experienced a devastating terrorist attack, raising questions about the failure of Israel’s intelligence, military, and government. The attack, led by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, targeted Israeli civilian sites, causing 1,400 casualties and taking 240 people hostage. The event marks a crucial turning point in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. President Biden declared it the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust.

The operation, led by Hamas, targeted various settlements, cities, and a music festival. The international community’s reactions have varied, with Iran’s top leaders commending the attack and criticizing the “ferocity of the fake usurper regime against the Palestinian nation” while the White House condemns the “Hamas terrorist atrocities” and reaffirms Israel’s right to self-defense. The operation unfolds within the context of a 75-year conflict in the Holy Land, with significant symbolism encompassing the struggle for rights, self-determination, historical and religious significance, and cultural contraposition. The conflict’s impact transcends local borders and influences global alliances due to its enduring and polarizing nature.

Israel’s failure to anticipate the events of 7 October has raised questions about intelligence collection, dissemination, and counter-terrorism efforts. The meticulous preparation by Hamas raises concerns about the effectiveness of counter-terrorism efforts. The Israeli Government must be scrutinized for failing to take necessary action and politicizing intelligence.

The events of 7 October exceeded Israel’s worst-case scenario, and General Herzi Halevi, Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), declared ‘We will investigate, but now is the time to fight’. Establishing a commission to provide official answers from Israel will likely take months or years, and due to the sensitive nature of intelligence, it is unlikely that all findings will be disclosed to the public. Therefore, open-source intelligence (OSINT), statements from third parties, and unofficial sources will be relied upon to piece together the most accurate picture possible.

Israeli soldiers

Israeli soldiers

On the day following the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, Israel faced attacks from air, sea, and land. Over 2,500 rockets were launched from Gaza, with Hamas claiming as high as 5,000. The Iron Dome, the world’s strongest air defense system, was stretched to the limit. Hamas used quadcopter drones with explosives to target Israeli surveillance and satellite towers along the Gaza border. They infiltrated Israel through hang gliders and motorised paragliders, securing terrain and breaching the physical border with explosives and bulldozers.

Hamas’s Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, a complex and large-scale operation, required two years of extensive planning, training, and significant military, intelligence, and financial capabilities. The cost of the operation is estimated to be in millions, with financial intelligence failing to detect the most expensive terrorist plot in history. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced criticism for allowing substantial financial inflow from Qatar into Gaza during his time in office. The Israeli National Bureau for Counter Terrorism Financing has highlighted the increasing use of cryptocurrencies by Hamas and PIJ since 2021. The US and its allies need to disclose the involvement of other regional state actors in preparations for an attack on Iran, as the extent of Iran’s involvement is still under investigation.

The first spillovers are visible in Lebanon, with escalating tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, ongoing strikes between US bases and Iranian-backed militants in Iraq and Syria. Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militia has recently claimed to have launched drones and missiles at Israel, targeting the city of Eilat. With Iran accusing Israel of launching a ground invasion in Gaza, the likelihood of a retaliatory response from the ‘Axis of Resistance’ is on the increase. Hamas’s operational success likely exceeded expectations, as it now faces ongoing battles. The group’s two-year deception campaign led Israeli intelligence to believe its main goal was economic development in Gaza.

Hamas used traditional statecraft to evade Israeli signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection, which involves gathering intelligence from electronic signals and systems. Palestinian militants used hand-held radios to coordinate the attack on 7 October, a communication channel that Israel’s SIGINT National Unit 8200 had stopped monitoring due to deprioritisation. Hamas’s compartmentalisation, limiting knowledge to select inner circles, enhanced operational security, and likely led to Palestinian fighters training without explicit warfare necessity awareness, with factions remaining unaware of each other’s actions.

Hamas float over the heavily-fortified border with Israel using motorised paragliders

Hamas float over the heavily-fortified border with Israel using motorised paragliders

Hamas demonstrated an excellent knowledge of Israel’s defence system, relying on publicly available information such as border structure, communication tower locations, automated defense firearms, surveillance systems, road maps, and kibbutzim positions. With 17,000 Palestinians commuting across the border and back to work in Israel, it is plausible that Hamas exploited this human resource, creating a vast network of human intelligence (HUMINT). Detecting this extensive ongoing HUMINT operation within Israel’s borders was the responsibility of Israeli counter-terrorism.

The CSIS report reveals a core intelligence failure in Israel’s deception, which was due to Hamas’s overreliance on intelligence collection capabilities and defense systems, leading to a false sense of security and miscalculation of their intentions and operational readiness.

Israel’s intelligence penetration capabilities have been criticized for their shortcomings in the effectiveness and reliability of the country’s HUMINT network. The Shin Bet, Israel’s Security Agency, faced challenges in strategically placing human sources within Hamas’s inner circle or dealing with compromised agents. In ‘denied areas’ like Gaza, where espionage is extremely risky, intelligence agencies typically recruit members already within the targeted organizations rather than attempting to infiltrate with their own personnel.

Israel’s technological and military superiority was assumed to deter Hamas from launching an assault, but it failed to discern critical signals amidst the noise. Israel’s 60km concrete wall and fences, part of a smart-border system, were deemed inadequate in preventing Hamas from tunneling into Israeli territory. Reports of irregular activity along the border before 7 October were underestimated, leading to the deployment of the ‘Tequila Squad’ to the southern border with Gaza. Around 70% of Israel’s military resources remained focused on the West Bank, including Gaza Strip units.

In recent years, Israel’s focus has shifted to Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic groups in the West Bank, a site of rising violence, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a site of religious dispute between Islam and Judaism, influenced by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies and domestic political polarization. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Chief of Staff, Herzi Halevi, and Director of Shin Bet, Ronen Bar, have been blamed for a massive failure in counterterrorism efforts, while Prime Minister Netanyahu has not. A CSIS report highlights that intelligence agencies are often used as scapegoats for policymakers to avoid accountability.

The executive branch sets priorities and allocates resources across intelligence and military sectors. The failure of intelligence officers to provide actionable information and the Prime Minister’s receptiveness to warnings remain subject to analysis. Israel was on high alert due to escalating concerns of a potential attack, but there was no specific mention of Hamas and Gaza, leaving them off-guard. Netanyahu was not informed of the activities in the Gaza Strip until the attacks began.

In July, the Prime Minister failed to attend a briefing session to convey urgent warnings. Egypt has unofficially warned the Israeli government about an impending Hamas attack, which Netanyahu denies. Egypt’s warning may have been ignored due to Israel’s perception of its credibility and the lack of actionable or reliable intelligence.

Deconstructing Israel's Defense and Intelligence in Hamas's OperationGazaGaza–IsraelHamasIntelligenceIsraelIsrael DefenseIsrael's DefenseLearning from Failure: Deconstructing Israel's Defense and Intelligence in Hamas's Operation