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Intelligence and security in Israel: hypotheses and interpretations

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Intelligence and security in Israel: hypotheses and interpretations

Explaining the collapse of Israel’s intelligence and security services as Hamas achieves the unimaginable, evading surveillance and overpowering the Iron Dome.

Hamas’s recent attack against Israel represents a major failure for the Israeli intelligence and security services. The assault of Hamas forces exposed the vulnerabilities of one of the most advanced and sophisticated intelligence systems of the modern world, breaking the sense of invincibility that had come to characterize core Israeli agencies, including the Mossad, Shin Bet, and the military intelligence.

At the same time, the attack revealed the skill and unprecedented degree of adaptation achieved by Hamas, against an indisputably stronger power, as the militant group managed to organize, prepare, and indeed implement, such a large-scale and extremely well-coordinated episode, remaining undetected until the very moment of action.

Hamas’s attack does not come as a surprise in terms of the historical context of Palestinian-Israeli relations, as a long-standing territorial dispute has often escalated into military conflict, with rising tensions over the past decades igniting violent incidents time and again. Indeed, it is precisely the deep-rooted nature of the conflict that places Palestinian activity – and Hamas in particular due to its absolute rejection of Israel’s right to exist – so high on the Israelli intelligence agenda, with a thorough monitoring system supposedly filtering potential threats [1]. Hence the sense of global bewilderment before the intelligence services’ failure to anticipate Hamas’s latest attack. The scale of defeat for Israel’s intelligence is conveyed by the sheer volume of news headlines and statements to the effect that the incident presented ‘the worst breach of Israeli defences in half a century’ [2] and ‘will be remembered as an intelligence failure for the ages’ [3]. More distressingly, the breach of Israeli security resulted in more than 260 deaths at the festival site alone on Saturday 7th October [4], as well as the capture of up to 150 people, now held as hostages in Gaza [5].

Israeli intelligence & security weaknesses

Although further investigation is certainly required to fully understand the failure of Israel’s intelligence services and the breakdown of its security system, several explanations have been proposed to account for this extraordinary incident. These can be categorized in the following four areas: gaps in the sourcing of intelligence; flawed interpretation of available information; external distractions which overstretched the security service; and overconfidence in the efficiency of existing structures.

The simplest explanation to account for Israel’s unpreparedness would be a gap in available intelligence information. In this scenario, structural weaknesses left the security services exposed, unable to even glimpse at the threat to come. This is the view taken by Amir Avivi, a former Israeli general, who points at Israel’s overreliance on technological means to gather security information. Over time Hamas likely adapted to Israel’s technological dominance and indeed exploited their enemy’s reliance on that, avoiding for instance the use of phones and other electronic devices that could expose their plans. Such strategic tactics permitted Hamas to circumvent their enemy’s indisputable technological superiority, revealing the extent of adaptation attained by the militant group [6].

Claims that Israel received warnings from Egypt’s intelligence to the effect that Hamas was planning ‘something big’, point towards a different account of Israel’s security collapse, which involves the interpretation, rather than the availability, of intelligence information. In this view, it was the failure to correctly assess and rightly evaluate information received that proved key in Israel’s incapacity to meet the threat posed by Hamas – an explanation supported primarily by Egyptian officials who blame Israel for ignoring and downplaying their repeated warnings. If these warnings did occur – something which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied as ‘fake news’ – then Israeli intelligence severely underestimated their significance, and the imminence of the threat [7]. For now, this remains unclear and will need to be confirmed by future investigations.

Another possible factor that adds up to the apparent deficiencies of Israel’s security system involves the recent upheavals created by Netanyahu’s domestic policies, and more specifically, his plans to reform the judiciary which had overwhelmed and divided Israel – including its security system. This point is made by Martin Indyk, a key actor in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during Obama’s presidency, who suggests that ‘internal divisions over the legal changes was an aggravating factor that contributed to the Israelis being caught off guard’ [6]. Moreover, Israeli intelligence appears to have been focused more on security issues in the northern borders and the threat posed by Hezbollah: in a briefing session just a week before the attack, Israeli intelligence barely mentioned Hamas, identifying the northern border as the most vulnerable and urgent area of concern [2].

Given the number of security issues Israel faced, both domestic and external, an argument can be made that its intelligence and security services were becoming overstretched, increasing the likelihood of mistakes.

Finally, Israeli intelligence and security – with an impressive track record and widely recognized as one of the best globally – likely grew overconfident of its own strength around Gaza. With a high-tech surveillance system in place, with barriers stretching both overground and underground, and with the Iron Dome achieving an extraordinary rating of efficiency in its latest evaluations (95.6% in May according to the IDF [8]), Israeli security appeared impenetrable. With such strong measures firmly established, physical presence was judged secondary, and so troops began to be relocated to other areas thought more vulnerable, including the West Bank [2].

In retrospect, over-reliance on technology appears to have been a key mistake for security, just as for intelligence gathering.       

Hamas’s successful strategies

Although elements of weakness definitely contributed to the defective performance of Israeli intelligence and security, the strength of Hamas’s strategic choices in exploiting their enemy’s vulnerabilities must also be considered. According to Israeli sources, there were more than 80 breaches of the wall at Gaza and 11 military outposts were attacked – numbers which indicate an extremely well-coordinated and carefully planned operation on the part of Hamas [9]. The attack that took place on Saturday was not the first time Hamas attempted to violate Israeli security. An argument can therefore be made that previous (unsuccessful) attempts provided Hamas with valuable insights regarding the weaker elements of their opponent’s systems, which were subsequently exploited.

Recent analyses suggest that Hamas had long undertaken a careful deception campaign to cloak their plans and mislead Israeli surveillance, presenting an inaccurate image that severely downplayed their real strength and the extent of their capabilities, their intentions and objectives [6].

More specifically, it seems that military leaders at Gaza purposefully stated on private channels, which they knew were being monitored by Israeli surveillance, that they were not preparing an attack, but were keen to avoid conflict given the aftermath of May 2021; Israeli intelligence believed them – a position not altogether irrational given the relative silence of the past two years, during which Hamas refrained from military engagements [2].

Having evaded Israeli surveillance, Hamas also managed to penetrate Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. Constructed to intercept and destroy short-range and medium-range missiles, covering a radius of 4 to 70 kilometres and with an efficiency rate of around 90%, Israel’s missile defense system is regarded as one of its most important security tools [10]. Subsequent analyses of Hamas’s missile firing revealed that by prioritizing the quantity (rather than the quality) of rockets fired, Hamas rapidly exhausted the Dome’s maximum capacity, reaching its so-called saturation level, after which rockets went through intact. The saturation technique had been previously employed in 2021, but the increase in Hamas’s firing capacity since has been extraordinary, rising from a maximum of about 470 rounds in a day to several thousand in the space of only an hour [11]. Both increased military capabilities and strategic choices therefore contributed to Hamas’s ability to breach the technologically superior Israeli defence system.

There is a further hypothesis that, together with its saturation technique to overpower the Iron Dome, Hamas also undertook a simultaneous cyber-attack to incapacitate Israel’s defence system. For the moment, this remains a hypothesis, but if confirmed, it could draw the conflict into new zones, as Hamas could not have possibly undertaken such a cyber-attack without external assistance – with Iran being the primary suspect if such were the case [10]. Iranian involvement in the recent attack is a much-debated subject, but for the moment no evidence has been found to suggest an Iranian orchestration, or prior knowledge even, of the attack. Still, it is a well-known fact that Iran has supported Hamas and other militant groups both with equipment and training for decades, and so external assistance is of relevance, even if indirectly, to Hamas’s success in its latest attack. As US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan asserts, Iran ‘is complicit in this attack, in a broad sense’ in that its leaders ‘have provided capabilities, they have provided support, and they have had engagement in contact with Hamas over years and years’ [12].

Historical precedent and symbolic significance

As many observers were quick to note, Hamas’s recent attack is reminiscent of the Yom Kippur War – and not just because of the timing, with Hamas’s attack taking place on the eve of the war’s 50th anniversary. The legacy of the Yom Kippur War is inextricably tied to a colossal intelligence failure by the Israeli security services to anticipate and prepare for the attack that began on 6 October 1973 by a coalition of Arab states, led by Egypt and Syria [13]. Subsequent research has revealed that the Intelligence Community had received information about escalating tensions and the possibility of war; but analysts had mistakenly concluded that ultimately there would be no attack [13].

More specifically, an Intelligence Community memorandum from the 4th October – just two days before the attack – stated: ‘We continue to believe that an outbreak of major Arab-Israeli hostilities remained unlikely for the immediate future’ adding that ‘neither side appears to be bent on initiating hostilities’ [13]. It went on to assess the relative strategic position of Egypt and Syria, suggesting that for the former initiating an attack made ‘little sense’; and for the latter, ‘a military adventure now would be suicidal’ [13]. Although several intelligence reports clearly indicated that hostilities might break out, the imminency of the threat was missed. It has been argued that ‘Israeli intelligence failed to see war coming in 1973 because it was wedded to a concept […] that the Arabs would not go to war because they would lose, therefore the danger of war was minimal’ [14]. Overconfidence and too fixed an outlook were therefore central in the October 1973 intelligence failure – elements which the October 2023 may prove to echo very closely.

Fifty years after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, the Israelis face the same sense of bewilderment as their intelligence services are caught off-guard, their security systems break down, and hostile forces push through their defenses once again.

Many questions remain unanswered as we look at the collapse of one of the most powerful and technologically advanced intelligence and security services in the world. But, with growing concerns that the conflict will escalate further, potentially bringing in neighbouring powers, or creating further upheavals in the West Bank, the investigation of why and how Israeli defence mechanisms failed must, for now, align with the primary concern of restoring peace and security; more comprehensive analyses can no doubt be expected after these priority issues have been resolved. Complicating things even further, however, the precise meaning of ‘security’ is itself exceedingly abstract and too vague to provide a clear endgame for the current war. Without a well-defined framework for Israel’s response in its pursuit of security, plenty of room is currently filled purely by concern, particularly as we view the growing humanitarian crisis unfold in Gaza.

References:

[1] Fmr. CIA Director: Hamas attack ‘raises questions about Israeli intelligence capabilities’, (Oct. 07, 2023). [Online Video]. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rB4y7fCHyng

[2] R. Bergman and P. Kingsley, ‘How Israel’s Security Services Failed to Stop Hamas’, The New York Times, Oct. 10, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/10/world/middleeast/israel-gaza-security-failure.html

[3] P. Beaumont, ‘Hamas’s murderous attack will be remembered as Israeli intelligence failure for the ages’, The Observer, Oct. 07, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/oct/07/hamas-stealth-attack-will-be-remembered-as-israeli-intelligence-failure-for-the-ages

[4] ‘Israeli music festival: 260 bodies recovered from site where people fled in hail of bullets’, BBC News, Oct. 08, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-67047034

[5] S. Tanno et al., ‘Festivalgoers, children, soldiers: What we know about the people captured by Hamas’, CNN, Oct. 10, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.cnn.com/2023/10/08/europe/israel-hostages-hamas-what-we-know-intl/index.html

[6] ‘Israel’s intelligence failure, internal division blamed for surprise effect of Hamas attack from Gaza’, AW, Oct. 09, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://thearabweekly.com/israels-intelligence-failure-internal-division-blamed-surprise-effect-hamas-attack-gaza

[7] Agencies, ‘Egypt intelligence official says Israel ignored repeated warnings of “something big”’, The Times of Israel, Oct. 09, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://www.timesofisrael.com/egypt-intelligence-official-says-israel-ignored-repeated-warnings-of-something-big/

[8] J. Berlinger, L. Robinson, R. Wilson, and W. Mullery, ‘Iron Dome: Israel’s defense system, explained’, CNN, Oct. 11, 2023. [Online]. Available: https://edition.cnn.com/2023/10/09/world/iron-dome-israel-defense-explained-intl-dg/index.html

[9] How did Hamas manage to breach Israeli security and what will be the consequences?, (Oct. 09, 2023). [Online Video]. Available: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8ooxdt

[10] Saturation, cyber attacks? How did Hamas get past Israel’s Iron Dome, (Oct. 09, 2023). [Online Video]. Available: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8oozi0

[11] P. Sullivan and J. Amble, ‘What Happened to Iron Dome? A Lesson on the Limits of Technology at War’, Modern War Institute, Oct. 2023, [Online]. Available: https://mwi.westpoint.edu/what-happened-to-iron-dome-a-lesson-on-the-limits-of-technology-at-war/

[12] H. Esfandiari, ‘Hamas And Israel: Iran’s Role’, Wilson Center, Oct. 2023, [Online]. Available: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/hamas-and-israel-irans-role

[13] M. T. Penney, ‘Intelligence and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War’, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2012.

[14] B. Riedel, ‘Enigma: The anatomy of Israel’s intelligence failure almost 45 years ago’, Brookings, Sep. 2017, [Online]. Available: https://www.brookings.edu/articles/enigma-the-anatomy-of-israels-intelligence-failure-almost-45-years-ago/

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