Oversight Versus Insight
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On Sept. 11, Gen. Herzi Halevi, the Israeli military’s chief of staff, told members of the military at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, that Israel must be on its guard, now more than ever.
“We must consider every statement of our enemies, in words or actions … not to underestimate them, and not to glorify ourselves … We must be more prepared than ever for a multi-pronged and extensive military confrontation,” he said, as reported by Maariv, an Israeli news outlet.
He believed the political turmoil in Israel over a planned judicial reform was emboldening Israel’s enemies and heightening the possibility of a serious attack. He and other senior members of the Israeli military and intelligence community had already tried to warn the country’s leadership, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but were ignored. Instead, after the general’s speech, Netanyahu’s allies went on television and condemned Halevi for causing panic, the New York Times reported Sunday.
Almost two months later, as Israel begins its ground war in Gaza, this retelling of this episode and others underscores another fight brewing in the country: This fight, an internal one, is over the political, military and intelligence failures that led to the devastating attacks by Hamas and its allies on Israel on Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,400 people.
Bibi, as the prime minister is often called, in a scathing post on Twitter (now known as X) that has since been deleted, denied over the past weekend that he was warned about any looming threats by the intelligence community, reported Reuters. But he was forced to apologize 10 hours later after his initial post caused an uproar and a public spat with members of his war cabinet.
Meanwhile, the ongoing post-mortem of how Israel was caught off guard has yielded some sobering conclusions, analysts say.
As the Economist wrote, Israel fumbled in intelligence collecting and then assessing that intelligence as Hamas planned its attacks, out of hubris and an overreliance on technology. Israel’s fancy technology failed to detect the importation, assembly, and deployment of thousands of missiles, for example.
That is though Palestinians in Gaza are subject to some of the most sophisticated surveillance anywhere in the world, the Middle East Institute explained, including drones, CCTV cameras, digital eavesdropping of Internet traffic and telephone calls and locations, and other snooping.
But Hamas and its allies kept their plans off of normal channels, using radios instead, a technology that Israel stopped monitoring last year because it deemed it a waste of time.
Also, Hamas managed to organize “dinghies, bulldozers, motorcycles, paragliders, and drones bearing explosives,” too, according to the Hindu. It must have taken months, and it was happening right under Israel’s nose.
And while Jordan warned Israel that its raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque over the past months were heightening tensions with Palestinians to a dangerous level, Egypt was more specific, telling Israeli intelligence officials that “something big” was in the offing. However, the Israelis were focused on the West Bank, the Times of Israel reported, because they thought that Hamas was not a viable threat anymore.
In a Messenger column entitled “The Humility of Israel’s Intel Failure: Not One Source Penetrated Hamas,” former CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos argued that Israel likely failed to maintain or leverage its network of spies and Palestinian assets within Gaza. A single human source who mentioned a weapons shipment or some other clue might have triggered a deeper look.
“Sources are the tip of the spear, burrowing into places we cannot enter and obtaining the nuggets that cannot be found in other ways,” wrote Polymeropoulos.
As the post-mortem goes on, and probably will for some time, already it echoes another failure in Israel’s past.
On Oct. 6, 1973, Israel was caught off guard by surprise attacks on two fronts by Egyptian and Syrian forces, even though they were warned.
“Israeli intelligence failed to see war coming … because it was wedded to a concept that the Arabs would not go to war because they would lose,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote about the start of the Yom Kipper War. “(It was) a classic example of how intelligence fails when the policy and intelligence communities build a feedback loop that reinforces their prejudices and blinds them to changes in the threat environment.”
He could have just as well been writing about the attacks 50 years later.