Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
The massive assault on Israel by Iran-backed Hamas militants is as bad an intelligence fiasco for the country as 1973’s Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria launched a joint offensive unforeseen by Israel’s vaunted intelligence services.
No doubt Hamas commanders chose to launch their astonishing breakout from Gaza — the 140-square-mile coastal enclave Israel closely monitors with multiple layers of surveillance — on the war’s 50th anniversary for theatrical effect.
But despite such intense digital and satellite monitoring, as well as the use of predictive and facial-recognition technologies, Hamas caught Israel’s security services as off-guard as Egypt and Syria did half a century ago.
Back then, Western intelligence services seem to have been wrong-footed just as they are now — perhaps because they’re so focused on Ukraine and Russia.
But the Yom Kippur War left a legacy of recrimination surrounding Israel’s intelligence services, with the country’s defense forces and government all eager to pass the buck. Israel’s leadership had ignored clear signs of a coming attack, erroneously believing then Egyptian leader Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat wouldn’t elect to strike because he didn’t have control of the skies.
On the eve of the offensive, the head of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate Eli Zeira had even written a memo to then-Prime Minister Golda Meir, stating, “I think they aren’t about to attack; we have no proof. Technically, they are able to act. I assume that if they are about to attack, we will get better indications.”
In the years to come, we will no doubt get a better understanding of what went wrong this weekend, when Hamas militants broke through the border fence demarcating Gaza and southern Israel, allowing Iran-aligned militants to overrun Israeli military positions, abducting and slaughtering civilians as they went.
The images of Israel’s Iron Dome being overwhelmed by thousands of Hamas-fired rockets, as well as the scenes of Hamas assault teams swarming Kibbutzim and wracking passing cars with gunfire, will leave a traumatic legacy likely to shape Israeli politics for decades to come.
“This will shake Israel to its core,” said author Jonathan Schanzer. “The majority of the defenses that Israel has relied upon for the last 20 years appear to have been penetrated. So, this obviously raises significant questions about Israeli military intelligence and Mossad, ” he told POLITICO.
For now, the country’s opposition parties are all on side, calling for unity in the face of attack. “In days like these, there is no opposition and no coalition in Israel,” their leaders said in a joint statement. We “are united in the face of terrorism” and the need to strike with “a strong and determined fist,” they added, calling for retribution.
“The State of Israel is at a difficult moment. I am wishing much strength to the IDF, its commanders and fighters and the entirety of the security and rescue forces,” President Isaac Herzog wrote on social media, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. “Together we will triumph over those who wish to harm us.”
But as Israel fights back, questions are already snowballing.
IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told reporters that over 2,200 rockets were fired into Israel during the first few hours of the assault. Hamas infiltrated from land, sea and air, with clashes between the militant group and Israeli soldiers in over half-a-dozen areas.
So, how was none of the preparation for this assault picked up on? Hamas would have used its vast network of tunnels that link the enclave to Egypt, but how did it smuggle in the materials needed for such a huge attack without Israel catching wind of the traffic? And how did Israeli intelligence fail to notice Hamas was making and assembling thousands of home-grown Qassam rockets?
“The last time Israel was blindsided this badly was the ’73 war,” noted miliary analyst Patrick Fox. “The scope of this infiltration attack indicates a huge level of planning and preparation spanning months or years,” he added.
In some ways, it seems Israel was looking in the wrong direction. According to Jacob Dallal, an Israeli reserve officer and former IDF spokesperson, this kind of attack was expected to be mounted from Lebanon by Iran-backed Hezbollah.
“The military scenario envisioned Hezbollah attacking from the north, not Hamas from Gaza. No one thought Hamas had such capacity, especially with the intelligence coverage by Israel’s Shabak and IDF Intelligence,” he wrote in the Times of Israel newspaper.
However, some now fear an attack by Hezbollah might still come, and that Israel might be facing a wider war.
Historically, most of the wars Israel has had to fight have involved battles on several fronts at once. But if Hezbollah were to launch cross-border raids from southern Lebanon while Hamas presses from Gaza, according to Schanzer and others, this would mark a far more ambitious strategic endeavor by Iranian proxies, likely orchestrated by Tehran.
And if that were to happen, “the potential death and destruction may top anything we’ve seen in decades,” warned former U.S. national intelligence official Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
Along these lines, Hamas military commander Mohammad Deif has since called on the “Islamic resistance in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria” to coordinate and “start marching towards Palestine now.”
So far, Hezbollah hasn’t heeded the call, with the group’s leaders saying they’re monitoring the situation. Yet on Sunday, Hezbollah launched a strike, using artillery and guided missiles on Israeli positions in a disputed area along the border with Syria’s Golan Heights — and Israel’s military responded. Senior Hezbollah official Hashem Safieddine, a cousin of the secretary general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said the artillery attack was a warning. “We tell the Israelis and the U.S. to stop this ‘stupidity’ or the whole region will be involved in the war,” he said.
However, as Israel battles Hamas and keeps a wary eye on Hezbollah, queries about how this came to pass and how Israeli intelligence got it wrong will continue to niggle away. And as in 1973, there’s likely to be a political and intelligence reckoning once the guns fall silent.
The Yom Kippur War shook Israeli’s faith in their leaders, sparking a protest movement accusing Meir’s Labor government of mismanagement. And it ultimately led to her departure from politics when her coalition lost seats and was unable to form a majority.
Will this now be the fate awaiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu too?