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Israel’s Intelligence Failure: Tactical and Strategic Shortcomings in the Prelude to Hamas’s Attack

Image Credit: Creative Commons.
IDF Commando Unit Egoz Exercise - 4 IDF special forces trained in various types of terrain in order to maintain their readiness for any enemy threat.

Hamas’ surprise attack against Israel on Oct. 7 caught the Israel Defense Forces completely off-guard. The strategic shock has already been likened to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israeli intelligence failed to detect an impending invasion by combined Arab forces. 

With more than 1,000 Israelis dead and about 150 hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Israel’s focus is now firmly on its immediate military response, leaving no time for a comprehensive review of the intelligence failure. Nevertheless, prominent figures have expressed surprise that Israeli intelligence agencies such as Mossad and Shin Bet failed to foresee the attack. 

While details remain too limited to produce a comprehensive analysis of the intelligence failure, it is possible to conduct a preliminary review of the available evidence for shortcomings at the tactical and strategic levels. 

The tactical level concerns the ability of intelligence services to predict the attack itself, including details such as a probable time and locations, as well as the means and ways employed by Hamas to conduct the operation. The strategic level relates to longer-term trends and contextual understanding. Chiefly, this is whether Israel understood Hamas’ intentions and the capabilities it had to achieve them. Failure on both fronts can be explained by shortcomings at one or more points in the intelligence lifecycle, namely: planning and direction, collection, processing, analysis, and dissemination. 

Tactical Intelligence Failure

At the tactical level, the intelligence services were unable to predict the attack itself. Had there been adequate warning as to the time, location, and nature of the impending assault, within a reasonable degree of accuracy, the IDF would have been in a better position to repel it or launch a pre-emptive strike to prevent it. 

Israel has invested significantly in its intelligence collection capabilities to provide advanced warning of attacks from Gaza. These capabilities include an extensive number of electronic sensors and surveillance systems deployed along the border, which is lined with fences, walls, and watchtowers. Israel is also known to be highly capable at conducting signals intelligence and is capable of wiretapping telephone communications or hacking into computer documents.

Preparing for an attack of this magnitude in secrecy would have been difficult for Hamas. However, the group would have known that it is continually under heavy surveillance, and it probably conducted planning in areas secured from digital snooping. Knowledge of the planned assault would have been limited to a minute number of Hamas leaders, and the militants who conducted the operation were probably only given instructions to assemble shortly before its initiation. As retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Amir Avivi said, “The other side learned to deal with our technological dominance, and they stopped using technology that could expose it. They’ve gone back to the Stone Age.”

Israeli intelligence collection efforts may have been hampered by an overreliance on digital means at the expense of human intelligence (HUMINT). The feasibility of maintaining HUMINT assets in Gaza after the IDF’s withdrawal in 2005 and the forced evacuation of all Israeli settlers there would be severely limited, given the hostility of the operating environment. This might have meant that when digital means failed to penetrate Hamas’s “Stone Age” counterintelligence approach, alternative collection methods were not readily available.

Although there were limitations to Israel’s approach to collection, it is more probable that intelligence failure at the tactical level occurred due to shortcomings in the analysis phase. This is generally in keeping with the established literature that maintains, “Almost all recognized counter-terrorism intelligence failures have been caused by a failure of analysis, not evidence.”

According to a report by Haaretz, Shin Bet held two telephone consultations with military officers the night before Hamas’ attack, during which intelligence officials raised concerns about irregular activities by Hamas and the possibility of an isolated abduction plot. However, Shin Bet ultimately concluded that these were weak signals, and they did not recommend an increased state of alert. This suggests there was a failure at the analysis phase, and that intelligence practitioners produced faulty assessments which they then disseminated to the military, who acted based on their recommendations.

Blunders of these kinds are easy to make. Israel has the capability to collect vast amounts of intelligence about potential threats, and those emanating from Hamas are essentially endless. Processing and analysis is thus complicated by the fact that there is often too much intelligence, not too little. Former U.S. National Security Agency hacker Jake Williams made an apt analogy, commenting that, “Intelligence in an environment like Israel isn’t finding a needle in a haystack – it’s finding the needle that will hurt you in a pile of needles.” This time, the Israelis may have found the needle, but failed to realize it was the one that would hurt them.

Strategic Intelligence Failure

At the strategic level, Israel was blindsided by false assumptions about its adversary’s intentions and capabilities. It misjudged the probability that Hamas would initiate hostilities. Based on preliminary evidence, Israel’s misunderstanding of the strategic landscape appears to be based on at least two false assumptions about Hamas.

The first flawed assumption was that Hamas, despite its ideological opposition to Israel, had adopted a strategic posture that was more focused on domestic development and on building political legitimacy in Gaza, rather than waging another war against Israel. 

In recent years, Israel has attempted to maintain the status quo with a carrot-and-stick approach. In addition to military deterrence, Israel has tried to compel Hamas to comply by providing economic incentives. To this end, Israel has granted thousands of Palestinians in Gaza labor permits to work in Israel, where they can earn much higher salaries. The prevailing belief in Israel was that this strategy was working. Between 2021 and October this year, Hamas did generally refrain from attacking, which likely bolstered a false sense of security. Moreover, Israeli media reported that the intelligence services made an assessment that Hamas intended to “avoid a full-fledged war with Israel because it did not want to jeopardize past achievements that bettered the lives of the Gazan residents,” just one week before the attack.

The second false assumption was that Hamas was incapable of carrying out a major complex attack. The IDF’s prior experiences combating Hamas would appear to confirm this, as the militant group had until now been unable to infiltrate Israel from the Gaza Strip with much success. Rocket and artillery fire has been directed at Israel from Gaza on several occasions, but the Iron Dome air defense system has mitigated significant damage. It is therefore possible that Hamas’ capabilities were underestimated before the assault.

False assumptions can impact every level of the intelligence lifecycle. For example, planning and direction based on unrealistic preconceptions can lead analysts to pursue the wrong objectives and allow resources to be misallocated. Indeed, Netanyahu’s government has generally been more concerned about threats emanating from the West Bank, where clashes between Israeli settlers and displaced Palestinians have become common. Iran and its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon were likewise deemed a high priority. These are valid concerns, but they may have directed too much attention away from Gaza and Hamas. 

In a similar fashion, false assumptions can compromise the analysis phase through confirmation bias. When analysts hold preconceptions about the nature of the threat they are dealing with, they are more likely to reach conclusions that are consistent with their perceptual biases. For instance, if Israeli intelligence services held a preconception that Hamas did not intend to attack Israel, they might assess heightened militant activity to be posturing rather than preparations for an attack. In this way, misguided strategic-level vision can impact day-to-day intelligence operations at the tactical level.

Key Takeaways

In the aftermath of intelligence failures, scholars and practitioners spend decades assessing why they happened. Intelligence failures surrounding the Yom Kippur War, the Iranian Revolution, 9/11, and WMD in Iraq are all apt examples. This month’s attack by Hamas will be no different.

Nevertheless, the open-source information that has emerged in the days since the attack helps paint a broad picture. At the tactical level, there appears to have been a failure of analysis that caused intelligence practitioners to misread the signs of an impending attack. At the strategic level, decisionmakers and analysts held preconceptions about Hamas that were false.

Alexander E. Gale is an analyst specializing in security and international relations. A graduate of the University of Exeter, he holds a Master of Arts in Applied Security and strategy and has written on defense issues for several publications including The National Interest, Modern Diplomacy, and International Policy Digest.

Written By

Alexander E. Gale is an analyst specializing in security and international relations. A graduate of the University of Exeter, he holds a Master of Arts in Applied Security and strategy and has written on defense issues for several publications including The National Interest, Modern Diplomacy, and International Policy Digest.