The Oct. 7 Debacle: A First Deep Dive Into Israel's Intelligence Failures
The blind spots began appearing in the first hours and days after more than 1,200 civilians were slaughtered by Hamas terrorists, who breached the border from Gaza. A former Israeli military intelligence operative guides us through the mistakes that allowed it to happen.
Israel has been plunged into a conflict of unprecedented scale and intensity, mourning more than 1,200 civilian deaths and trying to save 150 or more hostages held in Gaza. At the conclusion of the ongoing conflict, which remains highly uncertain how it may unfold, Israel will need to conduct a thorough analysis to understand what went wrong in the national defense and intelligence sectors to allow the deadly attack to happen — and develop strategies for preventing anything similar in the future.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had a long-established defensive perimeter around Gaza, equipped with various means and technologies designed to prevent terrorist attacks or, at the very least, to provide early warning and primary protection prior to the arrival of air forces or mechanized infantry.
This defense system includes both upper and lower fences, a touch-sensitive indicative upper fence, observation posts, fire-control positions, infantry bases housing tanks, armored personnel carriers, and infantry units. Additionally, self-defense units operate in populated areas, acting as the final line of defense between the civilian population and potential terrorist threats.
Despite these robust security measures, in the early hours of Saturday, October 7, hundreds of Hamas terrorists managed to breach the fence at multiple points, infiltrating IDF outposts with relative ease. They killed or captured all personnel present at these outposts.
Concurrently, another group of attackers dispersed and infiltrated dozens of communities. These individuals were well-trained, proficient in countermeasures, and clearly driven by the singular intent of capturing or killing Jewish residents.
The IDF was unprepared for such a concentrated and widespread incursion of hundreds of terrorists who simultaneously breached the perimeter at multiple locations. Some settlements were located mere hundreds of meters from the border, while others were several kilometers away.
This breach resulted in a chaotic and tragic situation, with the occupation of settlements within Israel, leading to extremely high casualty numbers. Astonishingly, Hamas achieved this despite the seemingly comprehensive defense system by relying on relatively simple means.
Nerve center neutralized
Within the outpost, a turret equipped with a remotely operated machine gun was part of the defense system. Yet Hamas utilized a drone to trigger the machine gun on the outpost's rooftop, effectively disabling the entire system.
A command post staffed by female observers serves as the nerve center at a military base near the border. These observers monitor screens connected to cameras positioned along the border fence, providing constant surveillance. They are responsible for detecting any movements along the border, calling in troops, or activating defensive measures. Hamas neutralized these surveillance cameras using anti-tank missiles.
Hamas successfully incapacitated the frontline.
Drones were repeatedly employed by the attackers, targeting tanks, observation posts, and soldiers at outposts. Despite the Israeli Defense Forces' awareness of the drone threat dating back to at least 2010, no significant preventive measures had been taken by the Ministry of Defense.
The fence that separates Gaza from Israel is designed to provide an early warning of any breach. Nevertheless, on Saturday morning, militants managed to breach it at multiple points, triggering explosions.
It is also notable that no additional forces were dispatched to these compromised sectors. It's unclear whether any warning signals were relayed to operational headquarters located outside the Gaza division, or who might have been aware of the breach in the fence.
Hamas, in other words, successfully incapacitated the frontline in Gaza. It took approximately 3.5 hours for Israeli forces to reach the occupied area and significantly longer to reach settlements situated further south.
Aftermath of a deadly attack in Sderot on Oct. 8
Wrong assumptions, Hamas ambitions
Numerous questions persist, and it appears that multiple systems failed simultaneously. Nevertheless, it is possible to begin assessing the reasons behind these failures.
The State of Israel, both in terms of its political and military leadership, held a belief that the existing defense systems around Gaza could effectively respond to a potential incursion by Hamas into the nearby communities. The flaw in this approach was in assuming that Hamas had no intention of launching such a bold operation.
For years, the political leadership prioritized Hamas as a lesser threat when compared to the challenges in the West Bank. Consequently, significant intelligence resources were redirected to that region at the insistence of politicians, which in turn affected intelligence capabilities in other areas. Despite the broader context, this selective focus led to a critical blind spot in understanding and anticipating potential Hamas actions.
The timing of the attack, viewed from the Iranian and Hamas perspective, was impeccably chosen. It occurred during Jewish holidays and the Sabbath, periods when IDF combat units are typically reduced in number as many soldiers return home to celebrate with their families. These times offered ideal conditions for an attack.
There were shortcomings in recruiting sources within critical Hamas strategic centers
Ultimately, the most significant failure lay in the intelligence domain. The Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, failed to account for meetings between representatives of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas in Qatar and Turkey. This lack of awareness extended to the Israeli internal security service, Shabak, which was incapable of detecting the preparatory measures for the terrorist attack. This failure was compounded by the extended duration of the preparations, which allowed numerous individuals involved to remain undercover and undetected.
The intelligence failure also reflected deficiencies in the country's intelligence collection system. There were shortcomings in recruiting sources within critical Hamas strategic centers, an inability to decipher critical intelligence, and a lack of resource allocation in countering Hamas.
Israel's intelligence services were primarily occupied with tasks such as countering the Iranian nuclear project, preventing terrorist attacks abroad, and gathering information about potential targets for emergency operations, particularly in relation to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
A cunning strategy
Preliminary data indicates that Hamas, in collaboration with the Iranians, developed a highly secretive communication system that was entirely unknown to Israel and used for planning the operation. It is believed that the preparations for this attack did not occur within Gaza, but rather abroad. This raises questions about the role and effectiveness of Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, which ranked Hamas as a lower priority.
In the period leading up to the Hamas attack, there were several signs that should have raised concerns. On September 12, there was an annual training exercise by terrorist groups in Gaza, involving land and sea maneuvers, including missile launches into the sea.
On September 22, incendiary devices were launched from Gaza for the first time in two years, causing fires in the vicinity. These incidents continued in the following days. On September 24, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine decided to enhance security measures and coordination among Palestinian terrorist organizations.
On October 3, the military-terrorist wing of Islamic Jihad conducted military exercises, simulating an attack on IDF tanks and launching rockets into the sea. However, these signs were interpreted as routine training activities rather than potential indicators of a serious security threat, leading to a critical misjudgment.
An additional warning sign was also found in relation to the upcoming leadership elections within Hamas' political committee. Historically, such elections have triggered internal power struggles among candidates, each vying to present a more assertive and aggressive military strategy after taking office. In late October, Hamas is set to conclude a lengthy election process for its various institutions, particularly its highest governing body.
Right now, Yahya Sinwar and Saleh al-Aruri are two strong contenders for the position of the head of the political executive committee. Sinwar currently leads the Hamas movement in Gaza and is generally seen as a more pragmatic figure within the organization. On the other hand, al-Aruri is the second-in-command on the political committee under Ismail Haniyeh, whose term as committee chairman is soon expiring. Al-Aruri is considered the more radical element in Hamas, advocating for closer ties with Iran and an increase in terrorist attacks. Recent developments suggested that Salah al-Aruri had become the more influential figure in Hamas, potentially leading to a more aggressive stance.
Police forces in Jerusalem on Oct. 10, with the Israeli flag projected on the walls of Jerusalem's Old City.
Lessons for other countries
However, apart from the intelligence and security failures, Israel has experienced a series of significant upheavals over the past year that have had a profound impact on its security forces. An attempted transformation of the judicial system by the Israeli government caused a deep societal and military division within the country.
While technology can be an asset, it should not be seen as a complete replacement for human judgment.
Over the past year, the Israeli military has been preoccupied with maintaining the cohesion of the state rather than preparing for war. Furthermore, the political leadership has irresponsibly attacked the military command, undermining and personally harming senior military officers. Politicians have consistently disregarded the warnings from the heads of the defense department, who argued that the government's policies were causing severe damage to Israel and tempting its enemies into believing they could destroy the nation.
The events of October 7, 2023, hold significant lessons for countries around the world. It underscores the importance of political leadership to safeguard the integrity of its armed forces and security systems, the value of considering intelligence from various angles, and the need for a healthy dose of skepticism in assessing the situation.
While technology can be an asset, it should not be seen as a complete replacement for human judgment. Above all, remaining modest and cautious, even when facing perceived weaker adversaries, is essential — for those who seem weak can sometimes be the most dangerous.
*Ehud Levy served as Intelligence officer in the IDF and other agencies for more than 30 years.
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