By Sameer Patil
In the most audacious attack ever faced by Israel, on 7 October 2023, terrorist group Hamas used bulldozers, hang gliders, and motorbikes to breach its borders to execute violent attacks targeting the soldiers and citizens at several locations in and around southern Israel.
The spate of gory attacks left over 1,200 people dead and several others injured. Plus, in an unprecedented escalation of the situation, Hamas took more than 200 hostages, complicating the Israeli security establishment’s conundrum. In response, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has bombarded several targets and launched operations to rescue its captive citizens from the Gaza Strip. Further, it is reportedly preparing for a ground invasion of the territory, in a bid to ‘eliminate’ Hamas.
Several strategic analysts have termed Hamas’ surprise assault as a déjà vu of the 1973 Yom Kippur War when a coalition of Arab states headed by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise invasion against Israel on the holy day of Yom Kippur. While the domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet, has acknowledged that it was unable to generate warning about the impending attacks, media reports suggest that sufficient intelligence inputs were available. This has led some analysts to term it as an intelligence and operational failure: The intelligence community’s inability to anticipate the attack and the IDF’s inability to quickly respond to it.
Outsmarting the technology?
Over the last few decades, the IDF has invested billions of dollars in digitalising and technologically upgrading its capabilities. The extensive use of sensors, cameras, drones, and artificial intelligence in its weapons systems ensured that Israel soon became a hi-tech military power in the region. However, that tech advantage revealed its limits on 7 October. In carrying out its assault, the Hamas utilised several tactics to stun the IDF. They did this by over-running the Gazan border posts, breaching air defence, overwhelming the much-vaunted ‘Iron Dome’ air defence system, and leveraging disinformation tactics.
Indeed, the intensity, coordination, complexity, and scale of the Hamas raid suggested that the IDF was simply unprepared to respond in the initial crucial few hours to the attacks on Nahal Oz and Re’im military bases, the Nova music festival and the Kfar Aza kibbutz—a community that is traditionally agrarian. It was clear that while Israel went hi-tech in securing its border, Hamas resorted to low-tech techniques to offset that advantage.
Israel has erected a ‘smart fence’ along the Gazan border, which includes a sensor-equipped underground wall, a six-meter high above-ground fence outfitted with security cameras and drones, and remotely operated machine gun towers. The 60-kilometre border wall was completed in 2021 for US$ 1 billion. In addition, it also erected a sea barrier to detect naval incursions. Aiding these cameras and sensors are the IDF patrols around the border perimeter. This arrangement was touted as the “Iron Wall” that would prevent incursions from militants in the Gaza Strip.
Yet, this ‘smart fence’ was the first target of the Hamas raid when militants breached the fence repeatedly, without much resistance, to make their way into Israel. Some militants even used bulldozers at less guarded points, while in some other cases, they used boats and paragliders to enter Israel. In addition, drones dropped explosives targeting Israeli observation towers and communications infrastructure along the border. This instantly rendered the border defenceless, nullifying the advantage. According to the IDF, the fence was breached at 29 points.
Not just the border, but Hamas also targeted the Iron Dome missile defence system, well-known for defending Israeli airspace from Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s constant rocket fires. This system had worked well in earlier instances when it dealt with fewer rockets. However, Hamas sought to overwhelm the Iron Dome system by firing more than 3,000 rockets in a span of a few minutes (Hamas claims 5,000 rockets), including some towards Jerusalem. This was too vast a number to handle for about 10 Iron Dome batteries in operation, allowing hundreds of rockets to penetrate the airspace. Here again, Hamas offset the hi-tech with low-tech and cheap rockets, revealing the limits of even the best of the air defence systems.
At the same time, the fact that Hamas was able to assemble and build the stockpile of thousands of these rockets in the Gaza Strip over a period of time, without detection, demonstrated the failure of Israeli intelligence agencies, which are thought to have a robust human intelligence network in the Gaza Strip.
Cyberspace and deception
However, even as Hamas went low-tech on Israel in the recent attack, it has strengthened its cyber capabilities in the last decade. Just as every other violent non-state actor in the world, cyberspace has proved useful for Hamas for propaganda, disinformation and attacks against Israel. While Israel possesses formidable offensive cyber capabilities, Hamas has successfully hacked into Israeli cyberspace, sometimes using malware for cyber espionage and information gathering. In 2019, the IDF had even bombed Hamas’ technology division based in the Gaza Strip to pre-empt a cyberattack. During the current hostilities, pro-Hamas hacking groups launched dozens of cyberattacks targeting government and private websites that disrupted their functioning for a short period.
This trend persisted in the information space too, where Hamas overtook Israel by deploying a ruse. In the last few years, the group sought to convince the Israeli establishment that it was more concerned with Gaza residents’ employment and economic well-being than a confrontation with the IDF. In addition, knowing that Israeli agents had infiltrated its ranks, it undertook a campaign of deception by spreading disinformation. In the months leading up to the attack, Hamas consolidated that impression. For instance, the group did not engage the IDF when it clashed with another Palestinian militant organisation, the Islamic Jihad, earlier in May 2023. Hamas even posted false messages about its lack of interest in targeting Israel, on private communication channels, that it knew were under surveillance by Israeli intelligence.
This campaign of subterfuge paid off well as the Israeli establishment appears to have assessed and concluded Hamas’ unwillingness to ratchet up the hostilities. So much was the acceptance of this assessment that even when intelligence of stepped-up Hamas activities in the Gaza Strip was received days before the attack by the security establishment, it decided not to put the IDF on high alert.
The broader context
While hindsight offers the benefit of examining the events after they have happened, it appears that the Israeli security establishment got it wrong on several fronts: Its assessment of Hamas’ capabilities and intentions, over-reliance on technology in warfighting, and responding to the initial bout of terrorist violence.
It shows the failure of intelligence analysis too. In some cases, while the intelligence was available on Hamas’ stepped-up activities, the decision-makers decided to overlook it. For instance, Hamas’ training on paragliders and complex attacks began years ago, but the Israeli security establishment did not act on it as there had been no major escalation with Hamas for the last two years. Moreover, Hamas’ track record of past attacks and violence may have created a false impression that it was incapable of launching large-scale, coordinated attacks on Israel. Other developments like Israel’s domestic crisis arising out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms, a burgeoning threat from Iran, and tensions in West Bank may have added to the decision-makers’ distraction.
All these dynamics produced the worst of the intelligence and security debacles for Israel. The current focus for the Israeli security establishment is on fighting Hamas and the potential ground operations in the Gaza Strip. However, once the hostilities conclude, no doubt, it will also examine what went wrong and whether Israel’s overdependence on technology contributed to its blindside.
Israel’s experience also offers an important lesson for other countries’ intelligence establishments that overconfidence in one’s military and tech superiority can lead to complacency and oversights. It can lead the intelligence agencies to sometimes miss the obvious signals on an adversary’s activity and misconstrue its true intentions, capabilities and the inherent urge to adapt. Therefore, intelligence innovation is crucial to adjust to the dynamic threat environment and adversary tactics.
About the author: Sameer Patil is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation.