Israel’s Defense Forces, one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world, suffered a massive setback on October 7, 2023 at the hands of Hamas. Even though it is not a coincidence, 50 years ago, Israel suffered an initial major setback on October 6, 1973 in the Arab-Israeli war.
In 1973, the armies of Egypt and Syria launched a surprise two-pronged attack on Israel from the north and south during the Yom Kippur religious holiday using advanced Soviet weapons. Egyptian and Syrian armies maintained the status quo in the newly captured areas in Israel’s territory. However, on October 16, 1973, Israeli forces under the command of Ariel Sharon managed to penetrate Egyptian and Syrian defense lines. This counterattack turned the tide of the war in favor of Israel. On the diplomatic front, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war was a watershed moment for the United States’ foreign policy.
Even though the Egyptian and Syrian military managed to maintain the secrecy to a greater extent during the planning and preparation stages, there were some intelligence indicators that the Israeli Defense Forces failed to recognize and respond accordingly. Because of this fatal intelligence miscalculation, Israel failed to identify the intent of the Egyptian and Syrian impending war against them, creating a massive vacuum in battle readiness. This surprise military offensive operation caused a considerable setback for Israelis in every aspect of their lives and still lingers in their minds. In the 1973 war, it was evident that Israel’s intelligence mechanism failed to fulfill national security responsibility. The military was underprepared and displayed weak performances during the initial stage of the war and heavily depended on replenishment from the United States.
On the other hand, political leadership failed to take timely actions to maintain the readiness of its military, causing reactive rapid mobilization of troops to counter the threat. After the war, there was a vast public outcry due to a lack of political leadership in handling national security responsibilities. As such, in 1974, Israel’s first and only female head of state, Prime Minister Golda Meir, and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, were compelled to resign due to leadership failures in the Yom Kippur War.
Even after 50 years, the circumstances remain the same. The only difference in this time is that Hamas, not a conventional army, brought a similar fate upon Israel Defense Forces. On October 7, 2023, Hamas used motorboats, commercial drones, hang gliders, paragliders, motorbikes, and bulldozers to conduct a devastating attack in a heavily fortified area guarded by the most powerful military in the Middle East.
The magnitude of the attack and the success achieved by Hamas proved that Israel’s defense mechanism led by Netanyahu’s government failed to protect the nation in every aspect of national security. Hamas’s attack on Israeli territory reminded the similarity and validity of the lessons learned in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Nevertheless, again, Israel displayed a breakdown in threat analysis and intelligence preparation, underprepared military forces to counter threats, lack of contingencies to contain threats, causing reactionary mobilization of troops, dependence on foreign replenishment for a major war, and immediate foreign policy/ political changes to stabilize the situation. Unlike in 1973, this time, the world is watching an impending Israel offensive against Hamas in the densely populated Gaza Strip, and humanitarian concerns cannot be underestimated.
Israel Intelligence Failure
It is now learned that there had been sufficient intelligence indicators of Hamas training and preparation for a massive attack. One of the videos released by Hamas in September shows live fire training exercises and mock attacks on Israel’s high-tech Iron Wall to penetrate Israel’s territory.
In addition, Hamas had conducted training near the Iron Wall right under the nose of Israel’s frontline troops. It is hard to understand why the intelligence community, or any other sensible member of the Israel Defense Forces, could not recognize the apparent battle indicators. Perhaps they deliberately ignored the intelligence indicators, believing that an inferior group like Hamas could not launch a massive attack by breaching the Iron Wall. This misconception is likely why they ignored such battle indicators as they did in the 1973 war.
It is no secret that Israel has one of the most advanced technologies to monitor regional communication for national security matters. It is likely that as a formidable enemy with extensive experience in terror tactics, Hamas avoided using communication equipment that could be an easy target for Israel. Hamas has likely used trusted messengers for communication to avoid leaving digital fingerprints to achieve the desired effect and keep Israel’s Intelligence in the dark of impending attack. For the most part, Hamas used conventional wisdom to build a misconception of its future political strategy by creating a false narrative to divert Israel’s attention.
In an asymmetric war, one needs to understand the opponent’s characteristics. Technology is just another force multiplier only. Time and again, this exemplifies that determined, unsophisticated enemies use inexpensive methods to circumvent their opponent’s technological superiority. As such, the importance of human intelligence cannot be underscored and is still valuable and could be a decisive factor for future military operations. It is challenging to infiltrate Hamas’s inner circle to gather the required intelligence. However, it is required to have an alternative measure, such as collecting human intelligence through other means. It is also imperative to deploy selected, trained frontline troops to assist in intelligence gathering as they are the eyes and ears of the Israel Defense Forces.
Military Strategy Failure
The Israel Defense Forces designed and built a perimeter fence known as the “Iron Wall” along the boundary between Israel and the Gaza Strip at $1.1 billion. After its completion, it was hailed as the “only one of its kind in the world.” The primary purpose of this project was to strengthen security along the border and provide Israeli citizens a sense of security while depriving Hamas of one of the capabilities it tried to develop to stage attacks on Israel. The Smart Fence has hundreds of cameras, radars, and sensors. In addition, there are observation towers at every 500 meters, communication infrastructure, state-of-the-art weapons systems along the Iron Wall, and a fully-fledged command center.
The Iron Wall, a.k.a Smart Fence, is the ideal strategy to protect one’s border against a relatively unsophisticated enemy. This concept can be practical only when integrated with trained human components who can understand the outputs provided by the systems. Without integrating the human element, such an expensive system becomes ineffective. Unfortunately, this is the case with Israel; a sense of security turned into a false sense of security at the need of the hour.
On the other hand, having spent $1.1 billion, the designers engineered to counter underground threats from Hamas while failing to understand the above-the-surface threat. On October 7, 2023, a series of surprise attacks by Hamas with relatively inexpensive breaching methods highlighted the design failures of the Smart Fence. It also exposed the security readiness of the Israeli Defense Forces.
According to Israel Defense Forces, Hamas breached the fence in 29 places with explosions and bulldozers to create passages to drive deep into Israel’s territory. Observation points were neutralized, and some were destroyed with commercially available drones laden with explosives.
It is difficult to understand why the Israel Defense Forces failed to envisage anything similar to the Hamas attack on October 7. According to the timelines of the episode, it is clear that Israeli Defense Forces failed to activate contingency plans, thereby allowing Hamas to carry out attacks on civilian and military establishments and withdraw back to Gaza with hostages.
Understanding the concept of operations for Smart Fence and deployment in this environment is essential. It is understood that any given system alone cannot protect a border such as the Israel-Gaza Strip defense line even with total control by the Israeli Defense Forces. However, there has to be a mechanism to augment security posture based on emerging threats. In this context, it is essential to shed light on the following scenarios:
The effectiveness of the Smart Fence
According to available information, the Israeli military successfully prevented Hamas from using tunnels to infiltrate and stage attacks on Israel. The wall’s construction psychologically affected Hamas and the population in the Gaza Strip. The state-of-the-art technology provided much-needed visibility into the entire border, thus augmenting Israel’s security posture.
Like any other enemy, Hamas sought means to circumvent the biggest obstacle to them — the Smart Wall. It seems that Hamas identified the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of Israel’s defense systems as a determined enemy with due diligence. The Smart Fence design shows how vulnerable the fence above the surface is. There are no obstacles to immobilizing equipment like bulldozers dashing into the wall. The troop deployment along the border is below the minimum-security standards and not designed to counter a large-scale concentrated attack. On air defense, like any other system, the Iron Dome system, has its inherent characteristics and limitations in detecting, deciding, and disabling enemy missiles. It is no secret that the system becomes overwhelmed when firing thousands of missiles and rockets.
What is most startling is why Israelis did not envisage the limitations of its defense posture during war gaming. Having the most sophisticated systems alone does not guarantee success. There must be trained personnel behind them as the systems can only identify objects but cannot identify the intent. The entire scenario creates serious doubt on Israel’s battle readiness.
In the end, Israel failed to anticipate an attack of this magnitude, with bulldozers breaching and creating passages for Hamas attackers. Regardless of the circumstances, had there been the sensible deployment of troops in the frontline, one could have easily identified the Hamas movement with massive earth-moving equipment like bulldozers and alerted respective command centers.
Considering the size and rate of speed of the bulldozers, paragliders’ movement towards Israel, followed by attackers on large vehicles and motorcycles, provided ample time to alert the reserves to activate contingencies. In addition to frontline deployment, the Smart Fence is equipped with cameras, a surveillance system with remote access, and dedicated personnel to monitor the situation. However, how the attack unfolded creates doubt about frontline troop deployment along the border, readiness, and will. Moreover, it is essential to understand the role played by the personnel entrusted with monitoring cameras and surveillance systems in a secure place such as a command center.
The Hamas attack exposed the weakness of Israel’s military strategy. Hamas penetrated Israel’s territory deeply and carried out one of the most daring attacks in modern history. On the other hand, this was a missed opportunity for Israel to destroy thousands of Hamas fighters in Israeli territory had there been a contingency plan to seal the frontline after the breach. Such decisive action could have prevented Hamas’s withdrawal back to Gaza after the attack. The attack on October 7 was an eye-opener for Israel. As history lessons show, past victories or failures do not necessarily guarantee future success or failure but could be a valuable tool to strategize against emerging trends. Lastly, the Smart Fence needs to be modified to counter future threats not only from above the surface of the Gaza Strip but also from the inside. Then, only it can provide a sense of security.