If there is one thing on which experts agree, amid the horrendous bloodshed unleashed October 7 by the Hamas assault from Gaza on Israel, it is that the latter has suffered a devastating intelligence failure, unparalleled since the near-defeat of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Ronen Bar, the head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, said in a memo to members of his organization that “despite a series of actions we carried out, unfortunately, we were unable to generate a sufficient warning that would allow the attack to be thwarted. As the one who heads the organization,” Bar said, “the responsibility for this is mine. There will be time for investigations. Now we are fighting.”
This verdict is supported by more than just events on the ground — the ability of Hamas to penetrate Israeli defences on the Gaza border and the slow reaction of the Israel Defense Forces. It is also underpinned by two considerations about the role played by intelligence in the national security of Israel.
One is that the Israeli state has invested heavily in an intelligence capacity since its declaration of independence in 1948, to ensure it always has an ability to avoid surprise attacks.
The second is that the combined capabilities of Israeli intelligence across the whole spectrum of intelligence gathering — including human sources, border sensors, aerial surveillance, spy satellites and signals intelligence — were meant to ensure Israel would always have a commanding view and insight into its adversaries’ intentions and capabilities. Intelligence was always meant to be a key to Israel’s strength and survival.
With the mass Hamas attack, Israel suffered both a surprise attack and an intelligence failure of stunning proportions. How this could have happened will be the subject of intense Israeli and allied introspection for years to come. An Israeli commission of inquiry will be an inevitability.
The Agranat Commission, summoned to find the root causes of the country’s intelligence failure in 1973, found that the Israeli political, military and intelligence structures all suffered from a prevailing concept that blinded them to the prospects of a combined Syrian and Egyptian military assault.
Hubris had reinforced a sense of Israeli military superiority against all comers. A narrow strategic outlook focused on a question of when Israel’s foes might evolve a military capacity sufficient to defeat it in war.
The Israelis, despite a variety of excellent human sources of intelligence — ranging from the King of Jordan to a high-level source in the Egyptian government, in addition to highly detailed knowledge of Egyptian and Syrian military order of battle — held fast to a conclusion that war in October 1973 was highly unlikely, because Israel’s enemies could not win it.
They missed the point that the Egyptian and Syrian regimes believed they could profoundly change the political equation in the Middle East through a war, even if they did not win it.
The Agranat Commission’s findings of 50 years ago resonate with terrible force today, on another anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.
We may not know at this stage the whole story of Israeli intelligence sources, of warnings and of their reception, but there will be questions asked about hubris and about Israel’s strategic concept regarding Hamas. There will be questions about whether the Israeli leadership suffered from groupthink, stifled by conventional wisdom about Hamas and its intentions and capabilities.
It is not difficult to imagine that somewhere, at the highest levels of Israeli national security decision making, the Hamas threat was underestimated due to an assumption that it would not launch an all-out attack because it could not emerge a victor on the battlefield. The Israeli national security establishment may well have believed that its air and ground assault in 2014 and its air attacks in 2021 had permanently deterred Hamas from major military operations. This is the 1973 concept remade.
With the passage of time, we have good historical insights into why Arab states attacked Israel in 1973. We lack those insights with regard to the Hamas leadership and its assault on Israel.
But it seems that in the mix of Hamas calculation — brewed of intense frustration about the Gaza “cage” imposed by Israeli restrictions, the decline of international attention to the problems in Palestine and their solution, fears of an impending Israeli-Saudi diplomatic pact, Iranian support and perhaps encouragement for Hamas action — a determination was made to strike.
Hamas’s objective may not have been a military victory but to change the political dynamics in the Middle East, rally supporters to its cause and widen the fighting, undermine the status of the Palestinian Authority and damage the stability of the Netanyahu regime.
Yes, Hamas launched a war it cannot win. In doing so, it may lead to its own destruction. Its goal was not victory but war as politics by other means, a phrase famously coined by the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz. How the politics will change remains a great unknown hanging over the current conflict.
Israeli intelligence should never have ruled out the possibility that Hamas might choose to fight an unwinnable war with utmost brutality, in an effort to change the politics of the Middle East.
A version of this article first appeared in the Toronto Star.