Saturday’s unexpected attack on Israel by the Palestinian group Hamas has left the nation grappling with one of the most significant intelligence failures since the Yom Kippur war of 1973. The attack, characterized by dozens of infiltrations by land and sea, coupled with rocket strikes, demonstrated a level of planning and coordination that intelligence agencies are designed to detect. The timing and scale of the attack appear to have caught Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the U.S. off guard, raising questions about who is responsible and how it happened.
Israel and the U.S., a staunch ally of the nation and a contributor of $3.3 billion in defense spending in 2022, are already investigating the intelligence lapses that allowed this attack to occur. It has led to shock and dismay, with experts and former diplomats expressing astonishment at how such a well-coordinated assault could occur without prior detection.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, commented on the situation, stating, “Failure to prepare. Failure to have troops along the border, failure of the fence along the border that they paid millions of shekels for.”
This attack is all the more striking as it marks the 50th anniversary of Israel’s failure to anticipate the surprise attack launched by Egypt and Syria on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur in 1973. That intelligence failure prompted extensive investigations and discussions.
Israeli officials have been cautious about drawing comparisons to 1973, emphasizing that it is too early to ascertain what went wrong. Israeli Defense Forces spokesman Richard Hecht urged people not to attribute the sophistication of the Yom Kippur War to Hamas, stating that discussions about intelligence failures would come later.
Intelligence professionals typically categorize failures as collection failures, analysis failures, or failures by policymakers to heed warnings from intelligence agencies. In this case, several factors may have contributed to the intelligence lapse.
First, the attack took place during a holiday in Israel, which could have impacted the readiness and alertness of military and intelligence personnel. Additionally, domestic issues, including protests against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s efforts to limit the judiciary’s power, and ongoing negotiations with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on a complex three-way security deal, may have diverted attention and resources away from monitoring potential threats.
Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East negotiator, noted, “The real problem here is likely that the Israelis simply did not believe that Hamas would risk a cross-border infiltration.”
The failure raises questions for the U.S. Congress, given that Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies should have been expected to detect an attack of this magnitude. Israel’s extensive intelligence networks and surveillance technology further underscore the surprising nature of the lapse.
Surprise attacks historically have led to significant responses by targeted nations, and in this case, Israel quickly launched Operation Swords of Iron, carrying out air strikes against Gaza Strip targets, effectively declaring itself to be “at war.”
Emily Harding, a former CIA Middle East analyst, commented on the attack, stating, “It’s highly surprising the Israelis missed that planning,” and highlighted that thorough investigations will be required to piece together the timeline of what the IDF and Mossad knew and when they knew it.
The intelligence failure has significant implications for the security and stability of the region, prompting both Israel and its allies to reassess their intelligence capabilities and preparedness in the face of emerging threats.