Gaza and Israeli Strategic Intelligence: the Failure that Just Keeps Failing (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- February 19, 2024)


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. Israel’s Feb. 12 rescue of two hostages held by Hamas in Rafah appears to have drawn on superb intelligence. So why talk now about intelligence failure regarding Gaza?

A. The Feb. 12 rescue required tactical intelligence. It is strategic intelligence that failed on October 7. 

As we shall see, Israeli intelligence failures related to the Gaza War continue to this day. Due to the bankruptcy of Israel’s political leadership, there is reason to be concerned about the health of the Israeli intelligence establishment on a wider scale than even the catastrophic scandal of October 7.

Q. Better begin by recapping the failures of October 7 and the period that preceded it . . .

A. The mother of all the intelligence failures was Prime Minister Netanyahu’s concept of ‘economic peace’. This strategy claimed that a Hamas that has a constant flow of funds at its disposal to improve the lives of Gazans will not be interested in attacking Israel. Hamas cleverly cultivated this fiction. Qatar financed it. No one seemed to notice that development funds were diverted to Hamas’s military buildup. The Israeli leadership allowed itself to be duped.

Permitting thousands of Gazan day laborers to enter Israel gave the concept flesh-and-blood expression. Mssrs. Bennet and Lapid, both short-term prime ministers, inherited and endorsed the concept. Both Netanyahu and Bennet, who oppose the two-state solution and covet the territory of the West Bank, also saw this as a way to divide the Palestinian leadership and polity (between Hamas-Gaza and the PLO-West Bank), thereby delegitimizing the notion of a negotiated two-state solution with a single Palestinian entity.

For some 15 years, then, Israel’s elected leadership appeared to subscribe to the fiction that this was an economic conflict--not religious, ideological, territorial or historic. It even knew as long as a decade ago of the Hamas attack plan, yet chose to ignore both Hamas’s intentions and its capabilities. 

This was a strategic failure that makes the October 1973 Yom Kippur surprise look almost like child’s play. It was born for political and ideological reasons, filtered down through Israel’s strategic and intelligence ranks, and dictated a host of radically mistaken measures and attitudes.

Q. Such as . . .

A. First and foremost, once it was assumed that Hamas was not planning to attack, the Gaza boundary fence with its sophisticated sensors could be neglected. The soldiers whose patrols ensured fence security could be transferred to the West Bank to protect the growing, and increasingly violent, settler and settlement population that operated there under the approving eyes of a right-messianist government. 

The repeated warnings by the IDF’s female soldier lookouts to the effect that Hamas was preparing to invade Israel could be disdained. The soldier-lookouts were abandoned to their fate at the hands of Hamas invaders: death, abduction, rape. Now the IDF is hard put to recruit new candidates for what used to be considered a prestigious job that only intelligent young women were cut out for in terms of their capacity (compared to men) to observe and concentrate over time.

Then there were the Gaza tunnels. The IDF completely failed to grasp that Hamas had created a new concept of warfare: an entire added underground dimension, about three times as extensive as anything imagined on the Israeli side. Efforts to prepare to fight against and inside the tunnels were minimal.

Indeed, generally speaking, due to the absence of relevant intelligence the IDF was not prepared at all for a war with Hamas in Gaza. This explains why Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza was delayed for weeks following the October 7 surprise. While the Israel Air Force bombed, ground forces were quickly retrained as last-minute planning for an invasion took place.

Hostage-taking? Barbarism toward women and children? Despite Hamas’s reputation and known reliance on horrific practices, no one in Israel appears to have anticipated this. The all-night “Nova” trance festival, staged a short distance from the Gaza fence with thousands participating, was officially licensed and permitted the night before October 7.

For 50 years since the October 6, 1973 Yom Kippur War early-warning surprise, IDF Intelligence has maintained a unit dedicated solely to challenging accepted intelligence assessment concepts. “Ipcha Mistabra” (Aramaic: the reverse is true) it is called. The unit either failed to challenge all these concepts and mistaken assessments or, like the soldier lookouts, its warnings were ignored in disdain.

Q. All these are mistakes, however disastrous, that took place on or before October 7 and can be charged to the Shin Bet and IDF Intelligence, which are responsible for Gaza. And since?

A. Since October 7, the strategic intelligence fiasco continues. Additional Israeli agencies--the Mossad, the Foreign Ministry, and again the prime minister himself--share responsibility.

Look, for example, at the reactions of Russia and China to the Hamas attack and its aftermath. Neither superpower is sympathetic toward militant Islam; indeed, they have their own local Islamist concerns. Both have been friendly with Israel, which for its part has been careful not to antagonize them by showing excess sympathy for Ukraine and Taiwan. Yet both Moscow and Beijing immediately took the side of Hamas after October 7 and condemned Israel. 

Why was Israel surprised? At a minimum, growing Russian-Chinese-Iranian military ties should have tipped Jerusalem off.

Now turn to the International Court of Justice at The Hague where Israel has fought charges of genocide. Genocidal comments by Netanyahu (“Amalek”) and Defense Minister Galant (“animals”) upon the outbreak of hostilities with Hamas failed to trigger concern in Israel’s intelligence institutions regarding international judicial consequences. Nor did the incitement of a host of additional and lesser ministers and officials (nuclear threats, transfer threats, mass murder threats, settlement and ‘transfer’ plans for the Strip as late as January 28) prompt calls for the prime minister to constrain his extremist supporters. 

Now Israel has been branded for the foreseeable future as suspect of genocidal intentions. Where was Israeli intelligence?

Indeed, where IS Israeli intelligence? Neither Hamas leader Yihya Sinwar’s location nor his intentions are known. Constant IDF assessments that only military pressure will soften Sinwar regarding hostage release have no obvious foundation in facts on the ground. Rocket salvoes have still been launched toward Israel from Gazan silos under the IDF’s nose. With a handful of exceptions, the hostages still cannot be found. 

It emerges that Israel went into this war without a viable intelligence collection infrastructure in the Strip. Tactical intelligence has recovered. Yet strategically, Israel appears to have far more comprehensive coverage of Iran and the West Bank than it does of Gaza.

Q. Was IDF Intelligence right about anything?

A. IDF Intelligence warned before October 7 that Israel should be prepared for aggression by a coalition of Islamist actors guided by Iran and acting in concert: Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis and a variety of pro-Iran militias. But this threat was considered unlikely because both Hamas and Hezbollah were deterred by Israel. 

Intelligence was right about Hezbollah, which has thus far responded to the Israel-Hamas war with low-level warfare only. Indeed, the anticipated Iran-led multi-front Islamist attack has barely materialized. Moreover, in the day-to-day fighting in Gaza and Lebanon and in locating tactical targets like Salah Arouri in Beirut and Hamas terrorists in a Jenin hospital in the West Bank, the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet have been superb.

Q. Bottom line?

A. The IDF has fought well in the Gaza Strip. Sound Israeli security institutions have compensated for intelligence failings. As we just witnessed with the Rafah hostage rescue, tactical intelligence has recovered. The heads of IDF Intelligence and the Shin Bet have accepted responsibility for the mistakes leading up to October 7 and have effectively committed to resign once the fighting ends, thereby reinforcing their current credibility.  In sharp contrast, Prime Minister Netanyahu has evaded all calls for his resignation or even for some indication that he recognizes his responsibility for setting the tone for all the intelligence failures.

After the fiasco of October 1973 and the ensuing Yom Kippur War, Israel’s intelligence establishment underwent significant reform, including the early-warning echelon. Yet on October 7 it failed again. Now we shall witness yet more reforms--undoubtedly well thought out and useful. Yet the danger of intelligence surprise will never go away. 

Still, intelligence aside, it is the sickness that has saturated the entire Israeli political establishment that is far more worrisome: the sickness that created ‘economic peace’ in the face of Israel’s most fundamental existential realities. The Gaza War offers an object lesson in the link between bad political leadership and bad strategic intelligence.