A massive intelligence failure in Israel

The scale and complexity of the attack on October 7 indicated that Hamas had been planning it meticulously for months

October 23, 2023 01:17 am | Updated 08:48 am IST

Relatives and friends mourn during the funeral of Toni Levy who was killed by Hamas militants on October 7, in in Revivim in southern Israel.

Relatives and friends mourn during the funeral of Toni Levy who was killed by Hamas militants on October 7, in in Revivim in southern Israel. | Photo Credit: AFP

No words can be strong enough to condemn the massacres carried out in Israel by Hamas, the Gaza-based Palestinian terrorist organisation. A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in the densely populated Gaza Strip as Israel, expectedly, responds with the full might of its armed forces.

The scale and complexity of the attack indicated that Hamas had been meticulously planning it for months. The cross-border incursion across the hi-tech fence separating southern Israel from Gaza began with rocket fire and involved the use of dinghies, bulldozers, motorcycles, paragliders, and drones bearing explosives. Hamas fighters targeted civilian settlements and a military intelligence hub. Israel’s inability to detect signs of the impending assault and take preventive action represents a catastrophic intelligence failure. Like 9/11 in the U.S. and 26/11 in India, October 7, 2023 in Israel signifies the horrors of terrorism.

Failure on multiple fronts

At the level of intelligence collection, Israel does not seem to have had human spies penetrating Hamas in any meaningful manner. This is a familiar shortcoming in intelligence agencies worldwide, which seek to recruit moles in ideologically driven terrorist organisations. Israel’s formidable array of electronic sensors and surveillance systems along the border did not work. This failure is being attributed to the high order of communications security practiced by Hamas, which presumably avoided the use of phones and other forms of digital communication that are susceptible to interception. It has been suggested that any movement of Hamas fighters near the border before the attack may have been discounted by Israeli monitors as nothing more than gamesmanship intended to test Israeli nerves. If so, Hamas seems to have succeeded in lulling Israel into a false sense of normalcy.

Israel-Hamas conflict: Is there a chance of ceasefire?

Second, much like 50 years ago, when an attack by the armies of Egypt and Syria during the Yom Kippur festival caught Israel unawares, the available intelligence may have been misinterpreted. In 1973, Israeli defence intelligence had assessed that Egypt and Syria were not likely to resort to war until they upgraded their air force, although Mossad chief Zvi Zamir, whose agent in the Egyptian leadership had warned him of an imminent attack, had informed Prime Minister Golda Meir of the same. In today’s context, Israeli intelligence may have believed that Hamas’ exercise of political control over Gaza since 2007 had made the group pragmatic and that continued financial aid from Qatar and the grant of permits to Palestinian daily wagers to work in Israel were sufficient incentives for Hamas to refrain from initiating large-scale conflict. Any evidence of attack preparations by Hamas could have been underplayed due to this ‘confirmation bias’.

The most serious charge of failure pertains to the weakening of institutions and the politicisation of intelligence. The gravamen of this charge is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cynically pursued a policy of ‘divide and conquer’ by propping up the Islamist Hamas to undercut its rival and secular-nationalist Palestinian faction Fatah, which exercises a semblance of control over the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority. Unlike Hamas, which stands for the destruction of the Jewish state, the Palestinian Authority favours a negotiated, two-state solution. Mr. Netanyahu is alleged to have employed the tactic of undermining the Palestinian Authority to scuttle the two-state solution by arguing that Israel has no credible ‘partner for peace’ among the Palestinians; in effect, making Palestine a ‘problem with no solution.’ This ploy enabled him to retain the support of the right-wing and religious parties, which his coalition government had been dependent on for its survival. Representatives of these parties in his government also demanded more resources for policing the occupied West Bank where Israeli settlers, mainly right-wing supporters, live among the Palestinians who are in a majority. Israel’s security services could have been blind-sided by these political pressures and taken their eyes off the threat from Hamas.

History of the Israel-Palestine conflict – Part 1 (Origins)

Hamas’ objective

What did Hamas hope to achieve through this attack? Was it to remind the world of the Palestine issue amid the unprecedented thaw in relations between Israel and the Arab states including Saudi Arabia? Was it retribution for the pain inflicted by Israel on Palestinians? Or was it to puncture the myth of Israel’s invincibility? Was the operation green-lighted at recent meetings in Lebanon between representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah, and Iranian Brigadier Esmail Qaani, as some reports suggest? Or was it the exclusive handiwork of Hamas ‘hard-liners’ led by Muhammad Diab Al-Nasri and Yahya Sinwar? Did the ‘judicial reforms’ of the Netanyahu government, which had a corrosive impact on Israel’s military preparedness, embolden Hamas? Can a policy of eliminating Hamas, the central objective of Israel’s anticipated ground offensive in Gaza, succeed? Do the U.S.’s military campaign in Afghanistan, Israel’s experience in southern Lebanon, or the persistence of the ideology of the Islamic State despite the physical eradication of its so-called Caliphate offer any lessons in this regard? Definite answers to these questions may only emerge with time, possibly after a full-fledged inquiry is held in Israel. At a more fundamental level, the latest outbreak of violence reminds us yet again that intractable conflicts steeped in decades of bloodshed can be resolved only through negotiation and dialogue between the parties concerned. The application of force and more force by one side or the other cannot be the answer.

Ramanathan Kumar is former Special Secretary, R&AW. Views are personal

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