How Israel’s Spies Failed—and Why Escalation Could Be Catastrophic

Foreign Policy, 19.10.2023
Uri Bar-Joseph (profesor de RRII-U. de Haifa) y Avner Cohen (profesor en el Middlebury 
Institute of International Studies)

The trauma that Israel suffered on Oct. 7 is both unprecedented and unthinkable by any Israeli historical measure. Never before has Israel experienced such a calamity in its 75-year history. Even Hamas never expected such operational success. Indeed, actors across the region, notably Hezbollah and Iran, were stunned by the success of the Hamas offensive.

One striking finding that only became known in recent days highlights the enormity of the Israeli intelligence blunder: Israeli military planners never considered such an attack, even in their worst-case scenarios. Indeed, the worst-case scenario conceived was a simultaneous attack on five to seven civilian settlements. Hamas’s offensive targeted nearly five times as many—and a music festival.

Surprises of this magnitude nurture the environment in which major strategic miscalculations could—and, indeed, are likely—to happen. Given the ongoing hostilities, it is important to understand the internal dynamics within Israel’s security establishment that led to the intelligence failure and the risks of unintended escalation, keeping in mind that Israel is an undeclared nuclear weapons state.

Israel’s two prime intelligence organizations tasked with providing a strategic warning alert as well as forestalling specific terrorist acts from Gaza are the General Security Service (known as Shabak or Shin Bet in Hebrew), which is in charge of human intelligence (HUMINT) but uses technological means, mainly signal intelligence (SIGINT) as well, and the Military Intelligence Directorate (known as Aman in Hebrew) of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), which uses mainly technical means of collection.

Israel’s warning system against either small- or large-scale terrorist attacks from Gaza relied on three main defense layers. The first, consisting mainly of the Shin Bet’s HUMINT sources, aimed to provide a warning that Hamas leadership had decided to plan, prepare, and execute a major offensive. The second layer, based on Aman’s SIGINT collection capabilities (units 8200 and 81) and imagery intelligence (Unit 9900), involved collecting evidence about Hamas’s actual preparations for the attack.

The third layer was the big ground barrier along the border with Gaza, which integrated physical obstacles, electronic sensors, and other visual means aimed at providing a last line of defense against any attempt to break into Israel. All three layers collapsed on the morning of Oct. 7. They did not provide any strategic warning on the nature and magnitude of the impending offensive.

At the root of this blunder appear to be two fundamental failures. The first is conceptual, as was famously the case in 1973: A false but steady and solid joint estimate from the Shin Bet and Aman that consisted of two elements: First, Israeli military and intelligence superiority would deter Hamas from initiating any major military act; and second, if Hamas launched such an attack, the Shin Bet and Aman would provide a timely warning.

Hamas’s relative restraint in recent years and its apparent interest in continuing the flow of cash from Qatar and increasing the number of Gaza residents allowed to work in Israel enhanced this concept in the collective psyche of Israel’s political, military, and intelligence leaders.

The adherence to the calming concept led senior officers to ignore warning indicators prior to the attack. Over the past several years, civilian amateurs near the border have monitored Hamas’s wireless communications in which troops organized and conducted endless training exercises in occupying Israeli settlements. In recent weeks, these officers received reports on irregular activities such as disguised farmers taking photos of the border fence and Hamas troops with maps observing military strongholds and settlements on the Israeli side, but disregarded them.

There was even an eleventh-hour chance to deter or minimize the attack: During the night of Oct. 6, Israeli intelligence detected some warning indicators that generated a series of late-night high-ranking consultations, but the flawed concept prevailed and no significant increase in the state of alert along the border was taken; the Shin Bet sent a few additional agents to the south, but Aman’s director, Maj. Gen. Aharon Halive, continued his vacation in Eilat and no major deployments were made.

The second and even more astonishing failure is that of collection. It appears that the Shin Bet failed in its fundamental mission and provided no significant warning regarding Hamas’s intention to launch a major attack. Its director, Ronen Bar, on Oct. 16 took responsibility for this failure, and his colleague in Aman followed suit shortly after.

The excellent record of the Shin Bet, as well as the fact that the number of Hamas operatives aware of the secret operation must have been rather large, compounds the failure. Despite the well-known difficulties of recruiting human sources in Islamist fundamentalist groups, the lack of any advance information from intelligence assets in Gaza is damning.

Other explanations have more to do with specific traits of the Shin Bet. Most important among them is its organizational culture, which emphasizes operations and the need to ward off concrete and isolated threats rather than provide abstract warnings against an all-out attack.

One of the outcomes of this culture, according to several retired Shin Bet operatives we spoke with, was to assign a large-scale attempt by Hamas to occupy Israeli settlements near the border a low rank in the service’s order of priorities. Another was the degeneration of the Shin Bet’s research capabilities.

A large research department was established in the late 1980s in order to provide strategic assessments. Due to organizational preferences, it lost its effectiveness in recent years. In addition, in contrast to its longtime tradition, the Shin Bet has tended in recent years to provide intelligence to please. Its estimates supported Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy aimed at nurturing Hamas rule in Gaza and diminishing the power and influence of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Less is known about Aman’s contribution to the failure, but it seems that it suffered from the well-known weakness of not connecting the dots, primarily by having too many analysts and insufficient integration. It is obvious that the Hamas trainings to occupy Israeli settlements—as shown, for example, by CNN—were well observed by Israeli drones and other means of collection.

Nevertheless, Aman’s analysts failed to recognize their true meaning, regarding them instead as show-off exercises. According to some reports, Hamas misled and deceived Israel’s SIGINT means of collection by talking in calls monitored by Unit 8200—and possibly Unit 81 and Shin Bet SIGINT—about avoiding a new war, thus revealing a far higher level of sophistication than previously realized.

The last line of defense, the 40-mile barrier along the border, provided the Israelis with a false sense of confidence. When the IDF unveiled this $1.1 billion project upon its completion in December 2021, it gave the impression that no terrorist would be able to cross it. Its main element was a huge subterranean anti-tunnel barrier, with enough cement to “build a road from Gaza to Bulgaria,” as the IDF put it. This barrier proved to be effective on Oct. 7.

In addition to the cement underground, the project planners invested effort in providing effective cyberprotection to the electronic collection system on the fence. But they did not consider a scenario in which Hamas would use explosives to break it and drones to drop explosives on the sophisticated observation posts that transmitted visual intelligence to the screens of trained soldiers who serve in underground shelters (some of these off-duty soldiers, many of them women, were killed while they slept after Hamas breached the border and attacked the base).

The drones knocked out an estimated 100 remotely-operated machine gun towers as well. One can hardly understand this oversight considering the many war clips from Ukraine that show how Ukrainians have used drones to drop grenades on Russian tanks and soldiers.

The IDF also used three large observation balloons as a second-line platform to surveil Gaza in its southern, central, and northern sectors. In the weeks before the attack, the three balloons were taken out of service due to their activation under unsuitable weather conditions, but the army neglected to return them to service.

Though insufficient high-quality warning intelligence was the main cause of Israeli complacency, one should not ignore the role of lack of imagination, which was highlighted in the United States context by the 9/11 Commission Report.

Obviously, given Hamas’s capabilities and the close proximity of the Israeli settlements to the border, this was not such an unimaginable scenario as was the case with the 9/11 al Qaeda attack using hijacked planes. In this respect, lack of imagination contributed to the collection failure, and insufficient collection strengthened the belief that an all-out Hamas offensive was highly unlikely, thus creating a classic case of systemic failure.

Given the enormity of Hamas’s massacre, the Israeli government and the public are determined to achieve nothing less than the full eradication of Hamas’s military and civic power. It is also recognized, inside and outside the Israeli government, that a commitment to the full annihilation of Hamas as an organization is unprecedented, and as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and others pointed out, it is probably unachievable.

Such a commitment creates extraordinary risks. As of this writing, Israel is waging war only along the 40-mile frontier that separates Gaza from Israel. But Israel also faces a two-pronged frontier in the north—about 80 miles with Hezbollah along the Lebanese border, and more than 40 miles along the Golan Heights with Syria. For now, the northern frontier only simmers, but it could escalate very quickly into a full-scale war.

Hezbollah, as Israel’s Minister of Defense stated on Oct. 18, is 10 times stronger than Hamas. It claims to command 100,000 fighters, and it possesses tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, some highly precise, that could target Israel’s entire territory and do severe damage to major cities and military facilities. There is also the looming specter of Iran, Hezbollah’s patron. On Oct. 14, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned Israel while visiting Beirut to stop its Gaza bombardment or face a “huge earthquake.”

Nobody knows whether Hezbollah—and possibly Iran—would stay on the sidelines during a prolonged, devastating Israeli attack on Gaza to eradicate Hamas. At the same time, shocked by their failure to detect the incoming Hamas attack, Israel’s intelligence organizations are now hypersensitive to any signal of a similar threat, leading to a series of false alarms in recent days.

This was the case after their 1973 blunder, when they issued a number of alarms of a coming Egyptian or Syrian offensive, as was described in the Hebrew memoirs of Maj. Gen. Motta Gur, the head of the Northern Command after the war. One thing is clear, though: All-out intentional or unintentional escalation between Israel and Hezbollah, with or without Iran, could generate war scenarios of a kind of ferocity and savagery that the region has never seen before.

It is this significant and uncertain risk that highlights the prominence of the American factor in the current equation. Here is a reminder: Fifty years ago, on Oct. 7, the second and worst day of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan asked Prime Minister Golda Meir to mobilize the readiness of Israeli nuclear weapons (presumably to assemble the weapons) for a demonstration. It is also alleged by some (including Seymour Hersh in his book The Samson Option) that U.S. President Richard Nixon’s decision on Oct. 12, 1973, to start an immediate airlift to Israel was taken due to an Israeli nuclear alert.

U.S. President Joe Biden recognized the unprecedented nature of the situation and immediately ordered the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group to sail toward Israeli shores, while also initiating an airlift of military supplies to Israel. By now, more than a week later, a second carrier strike group, the USS Eisenhower, is on its way to the eastern Mediterranean.

Never in any past Israeli wars has the U.S. government acted so decisively and swiftly as it has acted this week. Biden’s support of Israel is without doubt unprecedented, and it is a unique combination of both values and interest, sentiments and strategic requirements. On the strategic side, the purpose is quite evident—deterrence—telling Hezbollah and Iran, as Biden himself put it: “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t.”

But there may be another strategic concern in play. Although Washington rarely mentions it, Israel is a nuclear weapons state, but of a special kind, never having formally declared or overtly tested its arsenal. For more than half a century, Israel has built and maintained a unique, opaque nuclear posture, effectively creating a regional nuclear monopoly aimed at deterring existential threats. All past Israeli leaders treated this strategic asset as sacred, while the United States, since Nixon, tacitly accepted Israel’s unique nuclear status as long as it was nurtured in a responsible manner.

Over the last 10 months, however, Netanyahu has treated this legacy with disregard, even irresponsibility. He appointed the politician David Amsalem, an unqualified loyalist, as the day-to-day minister in charge of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.

Recently, against the advice of his nuclear experts, Netanyahu considered a Saudi independent enrichment capability—which, as in any country, carries the risk of weaponization—in exchange for normalization with Israel. This comes against the backdrop of past incidents, including in the late 1990s, in which Netanyahu left his nuclear guardians with the impression that he lacks the qualities to control Israel’s nuclear keys.

At a time when Israel is at war in Gaza, there is a real risk that Hezbollah might unleash tens of thousands of missiles on Israeli cities. That, in turn, could generate situations in which reckless and inexperienced ministers go astray in their reactions. Indeed, just days ago, one Israeli far-right Likud lawmaker, Tally Gotliv, publicly urged the government to use “everything in its arsenal,” including “doomsday” weapons, against Hamas.

In such a moment, one cannot forget Israel’s unique nuclear status. Perhaps more than past American leaders, Biden (due to the Ukraine war) recognizes the solemnity and fragility of the global nuclear taboo. One wonders whether another tacit reason for Biden’s unprecedented involvement—including his naval deployments and high-profile visit to Israel on Oct. 18—is to make sure that taboo is not shattered.

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