Special Analysis from Yossi Alpher- War (October 9, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Are you in shock?

A. Everyone is in shock. As for myself, as a former intelligence professional and as a lifetime news junky, I would define my own astonishment in terms of two images.

First, at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday October 7, when the rocket-alert siren sounded in our neighborhood and my wife and I woke up and rushed to shelter, we turned on the TV to find out what was happening. This was standard practice from years of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. 

But on this holiday Saturday morning, with Iron Dome intercepting rockets over our heads, Israel’s news channels were broadcasting canned programs from the previous night. It took long minutes before someone finally showed up to relate to the Hamas attack. Even then this broadcaster’s sound wasn’t working for another 15 minutes. After that, it took an hour or two before an IDF spokesperson even began to address the attack.

This defines a total intelligence surprise: an Iran-backed Islamist terrorist organization that occupies a sorry strip of land right next door managed to deceive the Shin Bet (responsible for Gaza in the Israeli division of labor) and the IDF during months of preparation for this operation. Hamas picked an auspicious date for launching: 50 years and a day after the Yom Kippur War surprise. Still no one was the wiser. 

Over previous months, Defense Minister Galant and former IDF Chief of Staff Eizenkot had warned loudly that the enemy was drawing inspiration from the Israeli public’s disunity and disarray. Netanyahu and company barely blinked. Netanyahu even tried to fire Galant for his chutzpah, audacity. On the eve of a Knesset vote on the anti-democratic ‘reasonableness’ reform, the prime minister refused to meet with senior intelligence officers attempting to explain the damage to Israel’s deterrent profile. 

Didn’t United States National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan state barely a week ago that “the Middle East is quieter today than it has been in decades”? He must have been briefed by Netanyahu.

Q. And the second image?

A. Saturday noon, a Gazan TV journalist broadcasting live from a Gaza-periphery kibbutz, occupied by Hamas, to his home station in Gaza City. The style was ‘classic war-correspondent’ that we are accustomed to from Israeli broadcasters sheltering from terrorist fire in Jenin or CNN correspondents under Russian fire in Ukraine. Only this was Hamas broadcasting from occupied Israel! I briefly experienced total cognitive dissonance. The clips of kidnapped Israeli civilians that followed were the inevitable sequel.

Where was the IDF? It took troops more than half a day to enter the kibbutzim and the town of Sderot. The army completely failed as a quick reaction force. The kibbutzim have emergency civilian units that went into action straight away, and heroically, but at a huge cost in losses as they were outnumbered by terrorists. For more than a day, the IDF spokesperson and the government were incapable of updating the public. 

Gaza periphery military outposts were overrun by lightly armed but numerous terrorists. For hours, the Gaza-Israel boundary fence was wide open, with terrorists as well as Gazan civilians moving back and forth with hostages. To crown this general breakdown of the Netanyahu establishment, social media--much of it deceptive and fake, took over.

As I write on Monday, October 9, there are still Hamas terrorist bands inside Israel. All told, this represents systemic breakdown.

Q. Why did the surprise succeed?

A. Of course it helps if you attack Israel on a Sabbath morning--indeed, a holiday morning. But that does not begin to explain what happened. Normally (granted, not a good term), everyone in Israel understands that someone in a Gazan bunker can push a button and send rockets flying to the Gaza periphery and even to Tel Aviv at the drop of a hat. Iron Dome virtually nullifies the damage, Israel is briefly surprised, the Israel Air Force bombs in response, Egyptian intelligence intervenes to mediate, and yet another instance of ‘mowing the lawn’ in Gaza is recorded. 

But this time was different: the rockets were cover for a massive, coordinated breach of the Gaza security fence by many hundreds of Hamas terrorists, by land, air (hang-gliders) and sea. 

And therein lies the first explanation for the surprise: Israel had convinced itself that its security fence would work. Yet here, out of the blue on a holiday morning, Hamas was dismantling it in over 20 places with explosives and bulldozers. The comparison to the Bar Lev Line along the Suez Canal in 1973 is inevitable: an earlier much ballyhooed physical barrier that failed. Hamas had even obliged by holding ‘harmless’ maneuvers just across the fence to mass its forces under our noses--again, echoes of Egypt’s and Syria’s deception in 1973.

That was one ungrounded ‘concept’ that exploded in our faces. A second was Israel’s belief in ‘economic peace’: if Gazans have full stomachs and the expectation that life will improve, they will refrain from violence. Hamas recently cultivated this Israeli illusion by silencing fence protesters in return for Israeli concessions regarding increased financial aid to the Strip from Qatar and agreement mediated by Egypt to allow additional thousands of Gazan day laborers to enter Israel. Israel’s liaison officials were lulled into assessing that Hamas was bent on peaceful and prosperous coexistence. Hamas deceived Qatar and Egypt too.

A third concept that had no foundation in reality was political. The ruling Israeli right-religious current covets the territory of the West Bank and rejects the idea of a Palestinian state there, meaning a two-state solution. That rules out negotiating seriously with the Palestinian Authority, dominated by the PLO which has repeatedly been prepared to discuss two states.

But Hamas also rejects a two-state solution because it rejects the legitimacy of the state of Israel and rejects Jewish nationhood. Hamas rules Gaza. Accordingly, Israeli right-wing messianics have contrived to justify seeking ways to coexist peacefully with Hamas in Gaza, without political negotiations, while they scheme to gradually swallow territory on the West Bank and denigrate Palestinians there to, at best, second-class status.

At the most official level, then, both Hamas and Netanyahu’s Israel reject the two-state solution--an ideological position that has encouraged their mutual coordination. Nor did Hamas disabuse these Israelis of their dressed-up apartheid illusions. Note a recent statement by extremist-messianist Finance (and West Bank security) Minister Bezalel Smotrich: “Hamas is an asset, the Palestinian Authority a burden.”

This explains at least a portion of the public’s loss of confidence in Israel’s political leadership. This also explains why the IDF’s deployment as an occupying army in a rebellious West Bank swamped by growing numbers of settlers left it undertrained and unprepared to come quickly to the aid of besieged residents of the Gaza periphery. The latter, under-protected by an IDF busy elsewhere, were literally driven on Hamas motorcycles back into Gaza as trophy prisoners.

Yet a fourth Israeli intelligence misconception concerned the prospect of a multi-front attack by militant Islamists linked to Iran. Thanks to Netanyahu’s anti-democratic ‘judicial reforms’, Israel was perceived lately as weak and in disarray. But Israeli intelligence assumed that the Islamist enemy would exploit this weakness with a coordinated attack from Gaza, the Lebanon border, the West Bank, and inside Israel. So certain was IDF intelligence that the attack must come along several fronts that even after Hamas (and Islamic Jihad) attacked alone on Saturday, all Israeli early-warning eyes were on Lebanon, IDF reserves were sent north as well as south, and civilians were offered evacuation from Lebanon border settlements as well as the Gaza periphery.

Needless to say, a multi-front Islamist offensive may yet transpire, triggered or rationalized by the wages of a bloody Israeli offensive inside the Gaza Strip.

Q. So what in your view are Hamas’s war aims?

A. First and foremost, freeing Hamas terrorists who are incarcerated in Israeli prisons. This explains the Hamas drive to exploit its brief occupation of Israeli border kibbutzim and towns in order to take both military and civilian prisoners as bargaining chips for a major prisoner exchange. Lest we forget, Gazan Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar spent more than 20 years in prison in Israel before being released along with over a thousand additional terrorists in exchange for a single IDF soldier (Gilad Shalit) in 2011. Sinwar feels honor bound to free his fellow prisoners.

The young women, children and Israeli octogenarians now held in Gaza (alongside IDF POWs and numerous non-Israelis) are indeed bargaining chips for Hamas. The Palestinian Islamist movement will exploit every avenue to display them in ways that tear the hearts out of the Israeli public.

Second, in view of the attack’s timing and the strategic approach of Hamas patron Iran, the attack seeks to disrupt the impending Saudi-Israeli-US triangular security and normalization deal—which, incidentally, does little to improve the lot of Palestinians. Riyadh will be hard put to conclude a deal, and Jerusalem to negotiate one, once Hamas posts the inevitable videos of Gazans dying in Israeli air raids and ground attacks. 

Third, defending al-Aqsa. This Netanyahu government, spearheaded by settler messianists Smotrich and Ben Gvir, is intent on demonstrating an ever-growing Jewish presence on the Temple Mount. Jewish extremists have advertised their intention to perform animal sacrifices there. This was particularly evident over the recent weeks of the Jewish high holy days. Shin Bet warnings that this ‘Jewish takeover’ dynamic, coupled with growing settler violence, provoke Islamist anger and incentivize Islamist aggression fell largely on deaf ears. 

Note that in Islamist parlance, al-Aqsa (the designation of a mosque on the Mount) stands for the entire Mount and even all of Jerusalem. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have made this issue a central rallying point.

Fourth, Hamas is laying the groundwork for a concerted attempt to take over the West Bank once Mahmoud Abbas departs the leadership scene. It also seeks to radicalize Arab citizens of Israel. Attacking Israel in a spectacular manner is a means to that end. Already we have seen demonstrations of support in the West Bank and sympathy attempts by Negev Bedouin to barricade Negev roads against IDF traffic. Israel had a taste of this internalization of the conflict back in May 2021 during Operation Guardian of the Walls. It is part and parcel of Israel’s deterioration toward becoming a violent, conflicted binational entity.

Fifth, conceivably Hamas still hopes to drag fellow Islamists--Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran and its proxies in Syria, Iran’s missile arsenal--directly into the fray. Conceivably, staging an Islamist multi-front attack as a chain reaction has been Iran’s intention from the start, planned together with Hamas and Hezbollah in the course of repeated leadership meetings in Beirut in recent months. In this connection, there is ample evidence that Hamas’s model for breaching the fence and overrunning border settlements was learned from Hezbollah.

Finally, timing: Hamas correctly perceived Israel as badly divided against itself and the IDF as suffering from internal dissent--all sparked by Netanyahu’s disastrous nine months of anti-democratic ‘judicial reforms’. Never mind that all pilots reported for duty on Saturday. If Hamas can draw Israeli forces into conflict in Gaza’s crowded urban Islamist environment where the IDF can be bled heavily, it can hope to sow yet more discord among the Israeli Jewish public, thereby furthering all of Hamas’s aforementioned aims. Israel has been there before: in the disastrous aftermath of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Q. If conquest and reoccupation are so dangerous, what are Israel’s war aims?

A. The IDF has reportedly called up some four divisions, presumably with a major ground incursion in mind. This reflects a broad sense that, having failed so badly to coexist with Hamas in Gaza, Israel must destroy it. That was the rhetorical approach of many dazed and shocked Israeli commentators on October 7. It was reflected in brief remarks made by Prime Minister Netanyahu that day. 

As for destroying Hamas, it is undoubtedly possible. But at what price? Aren’t Hamas leaders replaceable? And what does Israel do with a reoccupied Gaza? Find quislings to administer it? Reimplant the PLO there with Israeli bayonets?

By Sunday the official Israeli line was slightly toned down to “destroy Hamas’s military infrastructure in the Strip”. The Israel Air Force was already busy doing exactly that. But haven’t we learned that that infrastructure is replaceable? Aren’t we back to a glorified version of ‘mowing the lawn’?

Here is the challenge confronting Israeli war planners. They must define realistic Israeli war aims that satisfy the public’s demand for revenge, for freeing captive Israelis, and for once and for all finding an acceptable Palestinian or other Arab agent to administer the Strip. Yet the IDF must accomplish all this without incurring huge Israeli casualties that sour the public on the entire operation and enable Hamas, and Iran, to declare the kind of very bloody victory they glory in.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Meanwhile, there are Israeli reserve units to be kitted-up and trained. The Gaza periphery settlements have to be evacuated. This week will witness hundreds of gut-wrenching burials. Hopefully a war cabinet will emerge that integrates the political opposition, removes extremists from positions of authority, abandons divisive ‘judicial reform’, and reestablishes at least a portion of the public’s confidence in its leadership before the IDF invades.

All this, with a prime minister who shies away from hard decisions and security chiefs whose blatant intelligence and early operational failures diminish their authority and who thus far cannot bring themselves to admit strategic failure. All this, with an establishment that is so embarrassed and vulnerable that it sends the public to learn the truth about Hamas atrocities and civilian abductions on less than trustworthy social media platforms rather than (censored) Israel TV. And all this must transpire, despite the bombastic comparisons to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, before Israel (inevitably?!) begins losing US and global support for a very strong Israeli response because of scenes of hundreds of dead Arab civilians in Gaza. 

As for overt support from friendly and ‘normalizing’ Arab and Muslim neighbors, don’t count on it. Handing out candy in Lebanon, a “we warned you” to Israel from Riyadh, and the murder on Saturday of two Israeli tourists by an Egyptian policeman are more likely to characterize the response of the Arab ‘street’. The most Israel can hope for, tentatively, is covert Arab support against this Iran-engineered effort--and that the conflict not spread beyond Gaza. Already there are warning signs on Israel’s northern border.

Still, assuming this does not spread and become a multi-front regional conflagration, there is, in terms of sheer numbers, scale, and the strategic threat posed to Israel, absolutely no comparison between 1973 and now.

Finally, there must be an institutional reckoning for the Israeli security community’s disastrous miscalculations. And there must be a political reckoning for a prime minister and his allies who, through their anti-democratic reforms and destructive anti-Palestinian schemes, brought this on. In a normal country they would all have resigned by Saturday night. They have not. An official inquiry will take time. 

Meanwhile even as, for a change, the entire country pulls together, we will have to watch our prime minister, always the clever political tactician, try to worm his way out of acknowledging utter failure at the highest strategic level. The whitewash has begun. “We’re all to blame”, wrote prominent right-religious broadcaster Amit Segal. 

No! Absolutely not! Our elected leaders and intelligence leaders are to blame. Let’s not forget that as we are dragged into war by Islamist terrorists.