After the surprise Hamas terrorist attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip on Oct. 7, 2023, many observers were puzzled about how Israel might have been caught completely off-guard.

We were amongst those puzzled, and proposed three possible reasons:

  1. Israeli leaders could have underestimated Hamas’ capabilities and misunderstood its intentions.
  2. Israeli intelligence could have been tricked by Hamas’ secrecy, missing signs that it was planning and training.
  3. Israeli intelligence leaders could have been so wedded to their prior conclusion that Hamas was not a significant threat that they dismissed mounting evidence that it was preparing for war.

New revelations from recent media coverage have shed additional light on what happened, which mostly confirm the role of faulty threat assessments, Hamas’ improved operational security, and confirmation bias.

An official assessment

On Oct. 29, The New York Times reported that since May 2021, Israel’s military intelligence leaders and National Security Council had officially assessed that “Hamas had no real interest in launching an attack from Gaza that may invite a devastating response from Israel.”

As a result, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and security leaders diverted attention and resources away from Hamas and toward what they saw as more existential threats: Iran and Hezbollah. For instance, in 2021, the Israeli military cut personnel and funding for Unit 8200, a key military surveillance unit watching Gaza. In 2022, the unit stopped listening in on Hamas militants’ radio communications, though it apparently gathered other intelligence.

The U.S. made an analogous shift, specializing in the Islamic State group and other militants, leaving intelligence gathering on Hamas to Israel.

Revealing surveillance

Within days of Oct. 7, Egypt revealed that it had shared with Israel high-level warnings of impending Hamas violence – “something big.”

A Guardian report in early November revealed that Hamas leaders who had planned the attack took special measures to avoid being detected by Israeli intelligence, including passing orders only by word of mouth, relatively than by radio or web communication. But Hamas’ planning didn’t totally escape detection.

The Times of Israel reported in late October that Israeli troops of the Combat Intelligence Corps surveilling the Israel-Gaza border months before Oct. 7 saw Hamas militants digging holes, placing explosives, training steadily and even practicing blowing up a mock fence. Their warnings were ignored. The Financial Times reported in early November that Israeli security leaders had also ignored specific alerts of Hamas training exercises from civilian volunteers in southern Israel who eavesdropped on Hamas communications.

The Financial Times also reported that weeks before the Hamas attack, Israeli border guards sent a classified warning to the highest military intelligence officer within the southern command. They had detected a high-ranking Hamas military commander overseeing rehearsals of hostage-taking and warned that Hamas was training to imminently “blow up border posts at several locations, enter Israeli territory and take over kibbutzim.” The officer who received the message dismissed it as an “imaginary scenario.” Other leaders considered the warning unremarkable.

An in depth plan

On Nov. 30, The New York Times reported that Israeli intelligence obtained an in depth Hamas plan of attack greater than a yr before Oct. 7. The plan ran to 40 pages and included specifics that truly were a part of the attack, including a gap rocket barrage, drones knocking out security cameras and automatic weapons on the border, and gunmen crossing into Israel in paragliders in addition to on foot and by motorcycle.

The newspaper also reported that in July 2023, a Unit 8200 analyst observed Hamas training activities that lined up with the Hamas plan, which was code-named “Jericho Wall” by Israeli officials. The analyst determined that Hamas was preparing an attack designed to impress a war with Israel. Superior officers dismissed her assessment, saying the “Jericho Wall” plan was only aspirational primarily because they thought Hamas lacked the capability to hold it out.

Israel’s defenses include stations like this guard tower within the West Bank, with robotic weapons that may fire tear gas, stun grenades and sponge-tipped bullets, using artificial intelligence to trace targets.
AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean

A mirrored image on the Israeli intelligence community

These recent reports clarify that Israeli officials had enough intelligence to step up security. The undeniable fact that they didn’t suggests they might have dismissed all that evidence in favor of other information that they had, which suggested Hamas was not concerned with or able to going to war with Israel.

But that won’t have been the one problem. Recent studies point to increasing fissures in civil-military relations in Israel. For example, populist right-wing Israeli politicians lately have viewed senior intelligence officials with skepticism as potential leftist rivals, which could have led Netanyahu’s Likud government to be hostile to alternative viewpoints and various intelligence warnings on Hamas.

Although we cannot observe the extent of politicization among the many senior Israeli intelligence ranks, the behavior of intelligence leaders who dismissed warnings prior to Oct. 7 is consistent with groupthink, a phenomenon that experts say may occur when social pressure, a frontrunner’s influential position or self-censorship leads groups to specific homogeneous views and make uniform – and frequently poorer – decisions.

The undeniable fact that superiors ignored warnings from the Unit 8200 analyst and the Border Defense Corps is consistent with the concept that groupthink about Hamas’ capabilities and intentions led to confirmation bias dismissing Hamas as an imminent threat.

Some of the ignored intelligence analysts were young women, who’ve said they consider sexism might have been a reason male superiors ignored their warnings.

Another type of prejudice can also have been at play. Israel has focused intensely on its technological benefits over its enemies, assigning large numbers of personnel to electronic and cyber warfare units. Perhaps technological optimism, faith in what the Financial Times described as “aerial drones that listen in on Gaza and the sensor-equipped fence that surrounds the strip,” won out. Maybe a reliance on technology led to a false sense of security, and even the dismissal of other types of intelligence that, it turned out, had uncovered Hamas’ real plans.

A turn toward the longer term

In the wake of the Hamas attacks, Israel’s security apparatus will need to research these weaknesses further and undertake reforms. So far, it stays unclear how many individuals, and at what levels of the Israeli government, received the assorted warnings prematurely of Oct. 7. Therefore, it’s not yet clear what specific changes in Israel might prevent an analogous failure in the longer term.

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