Northern Israel bordering Lebanon on Oct. 8, 2023

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Israel’s Intelligence Failure

A tragic political misjudgment about Hamas’ intentions

Edward N. Luttwak
October 08, 2023
Northern Israel bordering Lebanon on Oct. 8, 2023

JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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In recent months Hamas refused to join the much smaller Islamic Jihad in launching rockets against Israel, which seems to have convinced Israeli leaders that, at long last, the leading terror group in Gaza had decided to prioritize the welfare of its subjects over more futile rocket attacks.

Israel promptly reciprocated the de facto Hamas ceasefire by allowing thousands of Gazans to work in Israel—first 17,000, then 20,000, with the potential for many more. Their earnings were changing the lives of 100,000 family members with the possibility of even wider benefits. What was happening on the ground seemed to open a path toward tranquility for Israel and a degree of prosperity for Gaza.

Evidently it was all a delusion. Hamas, just like Arafat’s PLO, is willing to do everything for Palestine—and nothing at all for Palestinians.

Israel’s political misjudgments about Hamas’ intentions, especially in the context of recent hopeful movements toward further peace agreements with Arab countries including a deal with Saudi Arabia, may well have played a background role in lowering the country’s vigilance. But it is no excuse for the massive intelligence failure that allowed Hamas to pull off its deadly surprise offensive. Indeed, Israeli wishful thinking is not even relevant to Saturday’s disaster, because the 24/7 scrutiny of enemy doings and undoings to detect “threat indicators” is not supposed to be switched off for any reason, ever.

In theory one may have to wait for years to find out what happened. But in reality there is only one way Hamas could have pulled off Saturday’s massive surprise: by feeding valuable, indeed “actionable” information to individuals who were Israeli intelligence sources, even though that information allowed the Israelis to destroy rockets before they could be launched against them and achieve other such successes.

Because the destroyed rockets belonged to Islamic Jihad, which is the chief competitor for Hamas and Shia-leaning to boot (Iran pays the bills), Hamas itself paid no price to thus fill the “espionage horizon” below which yesterday’s attacks were planned.

There are techniques that with much skill and patience can uncover double agents, but no tricks can detect agents who are reporting as best they can what they actually know—and who report enough good intelligence to keep everybody too busy to look for what they do not know.

Evidently years of war with Israel and its intelligence services have taught Hamas how to fight them effectively.

Caught by surprise, because of errors that allowed Hamas to take the initiative, it is now Israel’s turn to act—and not just by bombing Hamas headquarters. A new approach altogether is needed, with nothing off the table.

Edward N. Luttwak is a contractual strategic consultant for the U.S. government and an author.