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The Israel-Hamas War: Operation Iron Sword
The Intelligence Failure

(October 7- , 2023 - 2024)

In what analysts have called the greatest failure of intelligence, governance, and military preparedness in its history, Israel was surprised by an invasion of an estimated 3,000 Hamas terrorists from Gaza on October 7, 2023, 50 years and a day after the 1973 War. Though compared in the media to the Egyptian and Syrian surprise Yom Kippur, experts noted that Israel did have intelligence the war was coming before that war started and had the opportunity to mobilize its troops. Israel has said there was no indication a sophisticated land, sea, and air attack by Hamas was imminent. Some reports have suggested Egypt passed on a warning some attack was likely; others have said that was untrue. The facts will probably not be ascertained until after the war. As in 1973, the day of the assault was a holiday, this time the usually joyous celebration of Simchat Torah marking the end of Sukkot.

As much of a disaster as it was, the Yom Kippur War did not see dozens of civilians, including children, the elderly, and women, slaughtered and taken captive by the enemy. The number murdered on the first day of the war – 900, proportionally equivalent to 32,000 Americans – was the highest one-day Jewish death toll since the Holocaust. By October 12, the death toll had risen to more than 1,300, including 30 U.S. citizens. The terrorists, whose declared goal is the destruction of Israel and the killing of Jews, murdered everyone they could, including Arabs, Thai workers, and a nurse from the Philippines.

While the Israeli intelligence failure was highlighted worldwide, less attention was paid to another similarity with 1973, the failure of U.S. (and other nations’) intelligence. The U.S., whose Middle East intelligence capability has long been criticized for its failures (think Saddam Hussein’s WMD, Iran’s effort to develop a nuclear weapon, and unpreparedness for the Arab Spring), was also caught unaware. Just days before the invasion, United States National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, “The Middle East is quieter today than it has been in decades.”

Israel believed it could maintain calm by allowing humanitarian aid and providing work permits to allow thousands of Gazans to enter Israel. The government mantra was “calm for calm.” Israel also became more complacent when Hamas began providing intelligence on PIJ. The government was lulled into a false sense of security with this policy as it planned to execute the invasion.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot had warned that the enemy was drawing inspiration from the Israeli public’s disunity and demonstrations against the government’s proposed judicial reform that included soldiers refusing to report for reserve duties if what many protestors referred to as a “coup” continued. Still, the government did not anticipate the attack.

Reports since October 7 revealed the IDF did have some indications that something was afoot. Israeli intelligence had foreseen a possible attack. A document code-named “Jericho Wall” written in May 2022 said Hamas was planning to attack on a Saturday, Shabbat, or on a Jewish holiday, when fewer soldiers would be guarding the border. Rockets, it said, would provide cover for an assault on Israeli communities and military bases while drones and snipers disabled surveillance cameras. Officials discounted the ability of Hamas to conduct such a sophisticated operation.

In July 2023, an officer in Unit 8200, Israel’s version of America’s National Security Agency, warned that Hamas had conducted a training exercise that looked suspiciously like the plan outlined in Jericho Wall. “It is a plan designed to start a war,” she added. “It’s not just a raid on a village.”

The alert was dismissed. Some Israelis have suggested it was because it came from a woman.

That was not the only warning. “A day before everything happened, I saw people with maps,” one IDF lookout told N12. “They were looking at the fence and pointing at it. I told everyone: ‘Listen, something is going to happen. I see them planning things.’ I noticed that something was different on the front. I even told the person next to me in jest: ‘Listen, they’re going to storm our post.’ It just looked different.”

The lookout said her commanders “discounted” her concerns, telling her, “Hamas is just a bunch of punks, they won’t do anything.”

Concerns were also ignored regarding problems with observation balloons used to monitor the border. According to Haaretz, three balloons broke down weeks before the attack, but repairing them was not considered a priority. Hamas brought down four other balloons on the morning of the attack as part of the coordinated plan to neutralize the army’s monitoring capabilities. Commanders believed that drones were doing an adequate job.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said nothing about who was responsible for the failure to anticipate or be prepared for the attack, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, the head of Military IntelligenceShin Bet security service chief Ronen Bar, IDF Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and Education Minister Yoav Kisch were among the defense establishment and government officials who accepted responsibility and expressed remorse. By contrast, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi said, “I am hearing, ‘apologize, take responsibility.’ For what?”

As the war progressed in Gaza, Netanyahu continued to be asked if he would accept any responsibility. In one interview, he said, “Did people ask Franklin Roosevelt, after Pearl Harbor, that question? Did people ask George Bush after the surprise attack on September 11? Look, it’s a question that needs to be asked… And  I’ve said we’re going to answer all these questions, including me, I’m going to be asked tough questions. There’ll be enough time for that after the war.”

Reckoning

Several Israeli officials took responsibility for the intelligence failure. In April 2024, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, Israel’s director of military intelligence, became the first to resign.

As the war dragged on, reports dribbled out suggesting the government received warnings about the threat of a Hamas attack. In May 2024, for example, the Israeli press reported that Israeli intelligence sent four warning letters between March and July 2023, indicating that Israel’s enemies believed that the divisions over judicial reform, during which thousands of reservists refused to report for duty, made Israel more vulnerable. Netanyahu denied he received any warnings about a possible Hamas attack. To the contrary, his office said, “The assessment in the documents that Hamas was not interested in escalation and was interested in a resolution with Israel was consistently shared by all security bodies, who went so far as to claim that Hamas was deterred.”

In July, the Shin Bet’s Southern District head resigned over the intelligence failure. “I feel a personal and ethical duty to apologize. To apologize to all those whose loved ones were murdered, whose children were killed in battle, who were kidnapped — those who’ve returned home, and those still in enemy captivity — and all those who are displaced in their own land,” he reportedly said in his retirement speech.


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