On October 8th, in the wake of the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, Israel was struck by a massive and deadly attack launched by the terrorist group Hamas. 2,200 missiles were launched, and simultaneously armed forces infiltrated Israeli land, sea, and air, resulting in a devastating death toll of 1,400 people and thousands of wounded. This unanticipated and brutal attack by Hamas aimed to unbalance the normalization of Israel’s relations with several Arab states under the Abraham Accords while seeking to put the spotlight back on the Palestinian cause. The onslaught has triggered worldwide anger, sadness, and fear, but also profound shock and incomprehension. How does an attack of this magnitude, requiring months of operation and considerable human resources, elude Israeli surveillance agencies?
The Mirage of Invincible Surveillance
Indeed, the Israeli surveillance system is known for its efficacy and technological leadership. Israel is part of the selective club of states that employ reconnaissance satellites, with the Ofek 13 just launched in March 2023, one of the most advanced of its kind. The state was also one of the pioneers of facial recognition related to surveillance. Furthermore, the myth of the Israeli surveillance system cannot be separated from one of its most well-known branches, the Mossad, who, alongside sister organizations such as Aman (military intelligence) and Shin Bet (Israel’s domestic security service), are considered some of the finest surveillance systems in the world. Despite this worldwide prominence, experts such as Jonathan Conricus, a former international spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, commented in response to the attack that “the entire system failed. It’s not just one component. It’s the entire defense architecture that evidently failed to provide the necessary defense for Israeli civilians,”
A government distracted by external and internal turmoil
While the reasons for this massive ‘intelligence failure’ will surely be further investigated in the following months, part of an explanation might come from Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent policies. Indeed, it could be that the Israeli government has been distracted by the domestic turmoil caused by the latest legal reform presented by the Prime Minister. The bill passed in July 2023 restrained the authority of the Supreme Court (as well as the lower courts) on lawmaking and public policy. The amendment was regarded by many as anti-democratic and resulted in unprecedented riots. Elie Barnavie, a former Israeli diplomat, suggests that Netanyahu’s focus might have been consumed by this internal crisis, thereby inadvertently diminishing the attention devoted to the external threat.
Alternatively, journalist David Ignatius offers an additional perspective, contending that these internal tensions might have projected an image of weakness and vulnerability, inadvertently emboldening Hamas to launch such a massive and perverse attack. Furthermore, both experts emphasize that these domestic feuds might have weakened the cohesion between different government factions, notably within the army. To illustrate, 10,000 reservists, the backbone of the Israeli military, stated that they refused to serve an “illiberal state”; experts confirm this view by analyzing that the internal division between branches of government notably between the Mossad and Netanyahu might have weakened the surveillance and military apparatus.
A lack of military presence near the border
Not only was the attack completely unforeseen, but it also marked the first time in Israeli history that the border fence and other barriers meant to keep the Gaza Strip were breached on such a massive scale. The armed groups were able to break down the border, spreading into more than 20 locations, killing hundred Israelis on the street, and taking 203 hostages. The collapse of borders could be due to a lack of military presence in the region near Gaza.
Indeed, most Israeli troops, 21 divisions, a record in the last two decades, were posted in Cis-Jordan near the West Bank. This repartition followed the military assumption that attacks would have come from Hezbollah by the North and not from the West by Hamas. Netanyahu’s government had believed that Hamas lacked the capacity for such an offensive, with Martin Indyf, the former American ambassador in Israel, stating that the government had been confident that “Hamas was deterred from launching a major attack: they wouldn’t dare, because they would get crushed.”. Moreover, the government also appears to believe that the relative “economic peace” offered to Gaza had pacified the vehemence of Hamas. Indeed, since 2021, the Israeli government has offered 17,000 work permits to Gaza inhabitants.
An uncertain future in the region
The failure of intelligence services to anticipate this attack might be attributed to an overconfidence in the presumed inability of Hamas to execute such an assault and a government ensnared in internal strife. Of course, other factors need exploration, such as Hamas’ adeptness in adapting to Israeli surveillance techniques, utilizing face-to-face communication, and exploiting the extensive network of tunnels beneath Gaza Territory. In the aftermath of this devastating attack, the Israeli government declared war on Hamas, employing extensive and brutal measures to retaliate, resulting in massive human casualties within Gaza. The repercussions of this conflict will undoubtedly reverberate across the already precarious Middle East, freezing the normalization of relationships and intensifying tensions to unprecedented levels.
Edited by Clara Desfosses
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Featured image by Chris Yang.