Intelligence failure or not, the Israeli military was unprepared to respond to Hamas’ surprise attack

A section of the map of Israel that includes Gaza

by Liam Collins, United States Military Academy West Point, [This article first appeared in The Conversation, republished with permission]

As the Israeli army has stepped up its counteroffensive into the Gaza Strip, questions remain on how the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas was able to use bulldozers, hang gliders and motorbikes to conduct the largest attack in 50 years against the most powerful military in the Middle East.

On Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, around 6:30 a.m. local time, Hamas launched upward of 3,000 rockets and sent 1,000 fighters across the border from Gaza into Israel.

Despite the scale and scope of the attack, ABC News reported that Israeli defense officials claimed to have had no specific warning that Hamas “was preparing a sophisticated attack that required coordinated land, air and sea attacks.”

Many political and military analysts have criticized Israel for its intelligence failure to anticipate the attack, but the success of Hamas’ surprise attack was an operational failure as well.

Over the course of my military career in special operations, I conducted hundreds of tactical, operational and strategic missions based on intelligence. Never once did I expect intelligence to be perfect.

In fact, it rarely was. I based my plan on the best intelligence available, but I also thought of every possible scenario that I could in order to be ready for anything the enemy might throw at me. It seems the Israelis didn’t do that.

The limits of intelligence

If the definition of an intelligence failure is “when something bad happens to you and you didn’t know about it,” as former U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman once described it, then the Hamas surprise attack on Israel was clearly an intelligence failure.

At present, no one knows why the Israelis were unable to detect the Hamas attack, and it may be many months before the Israelis can answer the question.

Historically, Israel has been perhaps the best government in the world at penetrating terrorist organizations, which are arguably the most difficult to infiltrate with informants.

Israel built a defense plan that relies on preventing rocket attacks, border crossings and early warnings.

But intelligence can only do so much. The other key piece of defense is understanding how your enemy thinks and operates. And there the Israelis also appeared to struggle.

Known as the Iron Wall, the 40-mile-long security barrier that separates Gaza from Israel was completed in 2021 at a cost of US$1.1 billion. It includes a sensor-equipped, 20-foot-tall fence, hundreds of cameras and automated machine gun fire when sensors are tripped.

But the wall was not effective against the surprise Hamas attack. Hamas was able to breach the barrier in multiple locations around Gaza and continue its attacks without much initial resistance.

Likewise, Israel built its Iron Dome, an air defense system, to protect its citizens from rocket attacks emanating from Gaza. Completed in 2011, the dome cost the U.S. and Israeli governments $1.5 billion to develop and maintain. Before the surprise Hamas attack, the defense system had a success rate of between 90%-97% of striking down enemy rockets.

The Iron Dome worked well when militants launched relatively few rockets, but it was less effective against the Hamas attack. When Hamas launched as many as 3,000 rockets into Israel in just 20 minutes, the system was overwhelmed and not able to respond. The quantity “was simply too much for Iron Dome to manage,” according to an analysis by the Modern War Institute at West Point.

Beyond intelligence

In my view, the Hamas attack was not particularly sophisticated, nor particularly innovative. At its core, the attack was a textbook military operation involving ground, sea and air attacks launched by one group against another.

It’s my belief that this type of basic attack is something that the Israels could have and should have anticipated – even if not on the scale it was executed. Given that the basic goal of Hamas is “destroy the State of Israel,” Israel could have developed a defense plan that was not reliant on intelligence that is inherently unreliable.

Ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu stressed the importance of “knowing the enemy.”

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles,” he wrote in “The Art of War.”

The problem for the Israelis, and many modern militaries, is that they have become too reliant on intelligence instead of knowing the goals of their enemy and developing a deeper understanding of how they think and operate.

That understanding may not prevent the next surprise attack, but it can help prepare the military defense.

Liam Collins, Founding Director, Modern War Institute, United States Military Academy West Point

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.