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The Hamas Sneak Attack on Israel Is a Game Changer

What will inevitably be remembered as an infamous Israeli intelligence failure has opened up a panoply of threats and challenges for Israel.

F-35I from Israel. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Photo by Liz Lutz Job Reference Number: FP161047 Murray WMJ Reference Number: 16-03883 Customer: Allie Murray, Communications Event: AS-1 First Flight, CO-2 Flight Aerials Aircraft: F-35, Israel Pilot: Alan Norman Location: Fort Worth, TX Date: 07-27-2016 Time: 1100-1300 This image is Public Release Approved per Allie Murray, F-35 Communications

What will inevitably be remembered as an infamous Israeli intelligence failure has opened up a panoply of threats and challenges for Israel.

The Hamas assault on Israel involved hundreds of militants from various cells and units. It required lengthy and sophisticated planning, training, and coordination, and the integration of disparate tools and platforms — infantry, missiles, and anti-aircraft defenses among them. In addition, Hamas logistics had to include the assembly and importation of vast amounts of equipment. 

The footprints for such expansive activities and planning should have been evident to Israel’s spies and watchers, who are believed to be embedded into the fabric of the Gaza political and military environment. 

That intelligence agencies failed to pick up the oncoming threat has left Israel with a number of different challenges, and these are magnified in the Israeli public’s psyche by the unprecedented casualties inflicted, and the numerous hostages being hauled back to Gaza.

One crucial unknown is whether and in what way Hezbollah might act. UN peacekeepers in Lebanon are hunkering down for potential military activity, and Hezbollah might politically see an uncommon opportunity to take on Israel once again. Long supplied and trained by the Iranian regime, Hezbollah possesses an estimated 130,000 rockets and missiles that could be launched into Israel. 

Thus far Hezbollah rocket strikes have been very limited compared to the war in 2006, and Hezbollah might not engage in much more than small, symbolically supportive border-area exchanges. What is now a legitimate Lebanon political party took both a military and political beating in its 2006 war with Israel. The wide destruction of the war diminished the group’s popularity and its legitimacy among the Lebanese public, setting back its efforts to move closer to the mainstream of Lebanese politics. That history might cause Hezbollah leaders to pause now.

How might Iran react? With the recent U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf, Tehran will be wary of taking any direct action that might draw a U.S. retaliation in defense of Israel. But Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps units in Syria could be employed in some way — perhaps in a symbolic redeployment to the southern Beqaa Valley that would force Israel to move units north as a precaution. Revolutionary Guard units could carry out rocket attacks from northern Lebanon or nearby Syria. That is unlikely, but another potential threat toward which Israel’s military must divert some resources.

As a show of support for Hamas, Iran likely will seek to rush more rockets and arms to Hamas through clandestine channels. Israel’s ability to interdict such supplies is in question. Indeed, how did Hamas assemble such a large fleet of rockets with which to bombard Israel? Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have the capability to build some of these weapons, but the thrust and tracking of the projectiles seen on social media suggests sophisticated versions supplied from outside. And the Sinai is a sieve—smugglers include experienced local Bedouin, militant operatives, a lackadaisical Egyptian military and security apparatus, and a large dash of local corruption.

The potential Saudi-Israeli normalization accord will certainly be paused. If Netanyahu follows through on his vows of “mighty vengeance” against Gaza, these discussions would undoubtedly become a casualty. Saudi Arabia, which describes itself as the “custodian of the holy places” in Mecca and Medina, cannot be seen in the Middle East as tolerating or excusing a devastating assault on fellow Arabs in Gaza. 

Domestically, Israel equally faces a range of internal security threats that will stretch resources thin. The audacity of the Hamas attack will likely almost certainly inspire and inflame the West Bank into another intifada-like period of severe unrest. West Bankers are increasingly pessimistic and combative in their perceptions of a creeping annexation of the West Bank, an oppressive IDF crackdown in villages, and repetitive violations of Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif and its holy al-Aqsa mosque. Within the occupied territories, every Jewish settlement will be a potential target needing beefed-up protection.

At the same time, thinned security resources will also need to be strengthened within Israel proper against what will likely be an upsurge in terrorist attacks, via bombs or vehicles. Added to the mix, many Israeli Arabs share the pessimism of their West Bank brothers. An uptick in protests and even violence in Galilee, for example, also will require more security presence. 

This volatile combination will almost certainly evolve into a new, longer-term period of broad-ranging unrest, and it will come at a time when more Palestinians in the West Bank have weapons instead of stones. 

But the Israeli hostages taken back to Gaza present the most complicated challenge, both to Israeli policymakers, and tactically to the Israel Defense Forces. Israeli leaders would traditionally order targeted but massive airstrikes on Hamas leaders, headquarters, operations buildings, and military assets within Gaza. Indeed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to turn “all the places where Hamas hides….into cities of ruins.” Ground incursions of varying scope might be utilized to ferret out militants, networks, and weapons caches, and to  seek to close supply routes and tunnels for clandestine arms. 

But with each of these options, Israel risks making collateral damage of its civilians and IDF personnel who are held captive. Do you launch airstrikes on buildings where Israelis may be held as shields? As Israel itself has pointed out numerous times, Hamas strategy routinely involves embedding their operations centers within civilian buildings. Now, those buildings may hold Israeli prisoners coldly sprinkled among key centers. Any ground incursion might be even worse, with hostages caught up in the fog of war inherent in the heavy fields of fire laid down by tanks, artillery, and advancing troop formations.

Solid intelligence could of course minimize the risks, revealing locations where hostages are held, by which Hamas units, and even the topography for possible rescues. But which Israeli politician wishes to trust intelligence on such hard-to-discern, small-scale activities, when Israeli intelligence missed the big footprints and long-term planning involved in the massive Simchat Torah holiday Hamas assaults? 

The Hamas offensive has shifted regional paradigms. For weeks and perhaps months to come, hostage politics, an emboldened Hezbollah, Iranian meddling, and a likely new intifada will consume Israel. 

About the Author

Richard Sindelar, a retired U.S. diplomat with three tours of duty in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, now serves as a Non-Resident Scholar in Global Diplomacy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. 

Written By

Richard Sindelar (bio), @FSOProf, a retired U.S. diplomat with three tours of duty in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, now serves as Director of the Center for International Studies at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, where he teaches courses in U.S. foreign policy and international law, among others.