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Israel’s intel failure: ‘How did this happen?’
Explanations beginning to emerge after worst terror attack in Israel’s history
They might as well have been sitting ducks.
They are the tatzpitaniyot, mostly female soldiers stationed on the IDF bases near the Gaza Strip, their eyes glued to security cameras and other feeds of the border. Last Saturday morning, the Hamas terrorists who entered some of those bases with hang gliders shot at cameras and jammed some communications systems. They shot at the combat soldiers who were stationed at those bases, as well as at the tatzpitaniyot.
“Yes, they surprised us, and we weren’t ready for it,” said a female soldier at one of the bases who shared her harrowing story on social media. “Half of the force was home for Sukkot…and we had no intelligence about this…I took care of the injured while terrorists walked around my base, my second home, and murdered my friends. I prepared for this moment for two years, but nothing can prepare you for the moment of truth.”
As Israel readies for a possible ground invasion of the Gaza Strip following the massive surprise attack last Saturday that killed some 900 Israelis and left the country reeling, Israelis are grappling with how the soldiers in the south were left so unprotected, and how the intelligence lapse — one that carries an eerie echo of the Yom Kippur War surprise attack almost 50 years ago to the day that Hamas brazenly struck southern Israel — was so glaring.
Some details of the initial cabinet meeting on Saturday night have leaked, and ministers were reportedly blindsided, having not been given any indication that an invasion or war was on the way in their weekly briefings with the prime minister’s military secretary. Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis asked flat-out in the meeting: “What happened to Israel’s intelligence?”
The full picture will likely become clearer when the fog of war dissipates and a commission of inquiry investigates, as has become the custom in Israel after wars in the past 50 years. In the short term, as Israelis ask themselves, “How did this happen?” several possible explanations have already come to light.
After the Yom Kippur War, one of the answers to how Israel was surprised by an attack from Egypt and Syria was the “conceptzia.” The word literally translates to “preconception,” and it refers to groupthink or an idea that captivated the whole cabinet, without consideration of the alternatives.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu combatted reports on Monday that the extent of the conceptzia was such that he did not heed a warning that war was coming. According to AP, Egypt had warned Israel that “something big” was coming from Gaza, but the IDF was too busy with terrorism in the West Bank. The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office said he had not received any warnings and had not spoken with Egyptian Intelligence Minister Abbas Kamel since returning to office this year.
“We were apparently dependent on a conceptzia that Hamas wanted money from Qatar and was deterred,” former IDF Military Intelligence Directorate head Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin told JI. “For every surprise, the surprisers come up with a distraction, and that is what we saw.”
Israel built its defense plans “on the idea that Hamas was not interested in a war. They distracted us and kept us busy with other violations on the [border] fence,” Yadlin said.
“It’s clear that there was a tactical and conceptual surprise that led to a strategic failing — though it can be turned around,” he added.
Hamas “duped” Israel intentionally over the past two years, by pretending that economic incentives such as aid from Doha and increased permits for Gazans to work in Israel were working, Reuters reported. In the meantime, Hamas trained 1,000 terrorists for the invasion, reportedly without telling them exactly what they were preparing to do.
Former National Security Adviser Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, said in a briefing to reporters that Israel’s allies had claimed Hamas had “more responsibility,” and was busier managing the Gaza Strip than preparing to fight Israel.
“We stupidly began to believe that it was true, so we made a mistake,” Amidror said. “We won’t make this mistake again and we will destroy Hamas, slowly but surely.”
A senior defense official who left his post this year spoke on condition of anonymity because he only wanted to support the war effort on the record.
“At some point in recent months, Hamas changed their strategy from supporting stability and quiet, as it did in Operation Shield and Arrow” — in May, when only Palestinian Islamic Jihad attacked Israel — “to an all-out war. They are giving their maximum,” he said.
The ex-official speculated that the “change in policy is connected to trying to destroy Israel’s ability to make peace with Saudi Arabia, which is a clear Iranian goal.”
While he said his former colleagues indicated to him this week that there was an inkling of Hamas’ plans, the official said the intelligence gap “disturbs me, because it goes deep.”
In addition, he argued that the IDF should have been able to defend the towns close to the Gaza border even if they were totally surprised.
“I don’t know why there were not enough soldiers in the towns. It could be that they were in the West Bank, but we should have been prepared regardless of the intelligence,” he said.
After an Egyptian police officer crossed into Israel and shot three IDF soldiers in June, “we should have known that our front positions were not working as they should.”
Another element of Hamas’ attack that delayed Israel’s ability to respond effectively was its targeting of bases in the south where tatzpitaniyot, who watch cameras and other feeds of the border, are stationed.
One tatzpitanit who finished her service earlier this year told JI that she was going back to her old base, because there was no one left who knew how to do the lookouts’ job.
Some of the tatzpitanyiot on bases attacked by Hamas told harrowing stories on social media.
“In my worst dreams, I could not have imagined something like this,” one wrote. “I woke up for a 4 a.m. shift that turned out to be a nightmare. I never thought I’d see something like this from my lookout point in my life. I did the best I can, until a sniper shot my camera.”
She described “crazy noise, blood everywhere,” while she spent “16 hours locked in a small war room with a lot of hope and prayers.”The Hottest Place in Hell, an Israeli independent investigative journalism site, published a message it received from another tatzpitanit, who had only finished her training four days before the war began.
“We received a message that there was an invasion, that terrorists entered Israel…all along the line there were large numbers of terrorists and the forces weren’t making it in time to stop them, it was a psychotic number of terrorists. They started shooting at our cameras, until we weren’t able to look out. They told us the only thing to do is to run to the war room, while we heard rocket sirens and rockets fell by us. I ran like I had never run before,” she said.
All of the tatzpitaniyot were told to leave their positions and hide behind their large computer systems, as combat soldiers came to protect them.
“There was a Golani unit and they were all erased, very quickly, killed one after the other. They started bringing the injured to our war room. I started helping take care of them as much as possible because I was afraid to get out from behind the computer[.] I feared for my life.”
The soldiers, according to the accounts in Hottest Place in Hell, did not eat for 26 hours and did not have enough water, were in a hot room with no air conditioning because of the power outage and had to use cups and trash cans because there was no toilet.
At one point, the terrorists tried to light the building on fire, and the soldiers had to decide whether to stay in a building on fire or run out to where they would be shot or captured, but soldiers managed to put out the fire quickly. Terrorists shot at the doors, and the soldiers saw that they were stealing IDF uniforms.
“There were so many terrorists and so many killed and injured. No one knew what to do, and we were all crying and hysterical. I don’t know how I survived,” she said.
Eventually, they were evacuated under fire: “We saw corpses on the way to the bus,” she recalled.
The retired officer who predicted it all
From the start of the war, an interview with Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick on an Israeli Jewish-interest cable news channel Hidabrut went viral. In the video from July, the former IDF ombudsman seemed to predict exactly what happened on Sunday.
Brick, 76, was an Israeli general who fought in the Six-Day War, Yom Kippur War and the First Lebanon War, officially retiring from the army in 1999. He then became the IDF ombudsman in 2008-2018, after which he began publicly criticizing the IDF for its lack of preparedness.
A series of newspaper op-eds, as well as a lengthy article in the journal Hashiloach that Brick wrote in 2020, drew significant attention in Israel for its warning that the IDF, especially its highest-ranking officers, has lost its fighting spirit.
In the last month, Brick wrote articles warning that Israel is not prepared. In Haaretz, he wrote: “Netanyahu, the next war is near. Declare a national state of emergency.” In Maariv: “Though the political leadership abandoned our security, I will continue to fight without fear.” In Israel Hayom the headline was: “Residents of the north, prepare to defend yourselves ahead of the next war: No one else will do it.”
In the viral video, Brick chillingly describes the nightmare scenario that came true this week.
“A massacre can happen here and the State of Israel doesn’t understand it,” he said.
Hamas is preparing “to enter a number of towns on foot. The likelihood it will happen is very high, whether they come in the thousands or hundreds,” he said.
“If you’re a resident sitting in a shelter, they’ll come to the shelter, throw a grenade and you’re dead. Not just you, everyone, they’ll sit there and be slaughtered,” Brick warned.
He called on Israelis to prepare to defend their towns.
“No one else will be there,” Brick continued in the video. “The army won’t be there. The army is small today, and the things it wants to send won’t arrive because of roadblocks…You have to be able to fight with your own body to defend your town, and in order to be able to do that you have to prepare the town to fight.”
“The army won’t be there for you in a war,” he emphasized. “In the first hours, you will be in the shelters because of the rockets, but the moment that word gets out that [terrorists] are on the ground, get into position and fight for your lives.”
Brick said that towns near the Gaza border should dig trenches and set up positions, have backup water and medical supplies, and more.
He criticized the IDF for taking local security teams’ weapons, a decision the military made two years ago because of theft. Brick said that “everyone under 70, most of whom were in the army and know how to shoot,” should have access to a weapon and should be trained.
“No one is saying this, and we’re in a lawless situation,” Brick lamented. “[The security establishment] is just telling people ‘hide,’ but not what to do if a terrorist arrives. Who will stop the terrorists? The army can’t do it today.”
Brick is a controversial figure. Some of the responses to his video claim that he is attempting to deflect blame from Netanyahu, since Brick said the problems began when National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz and MK Gadi Eisencot, also of National Union, were IDF chiefs of staff.
One former senior defense official who spoke with JI said “Brick says so much nonsense that sometimes some of it ends up being right.”
Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said in a conversation with JI that, while Brick correctly predicted part of what happened, much of it still remains unexplained.
“The security in the towns is really problematic and not developed enough,” he said. “In places with more guns and people who were better trained, they were able to kill terrorists. But the things Brick spoke about are more about the local level of supplies and fighting. It doesn’t explain what happened here.”
“All kinds of details are coming out about all of [Hamas’] preparations, distractions by holding demonstrations by the border fence, shooting at cameras, taking over the Southern Command base and disrupting its ability to command the whole area,” Michael said, “but I still don’t understand how an event like this can happen, how they can shut down the whole border fence and why it took three hours for more forces to arrive. I have no answers. So many senior officers were killed.”
Michael and Yadlin both said that an investigation is likely.
“I think a lot of heads will roll,” Michael said.
Now, the government must set “totally different goals” to the fighting between Israel and Hamas since 2009, Michael said.
“The reaction will be totally different and the result must be totally different. It can be that some good can come out of all of this bad. We can create a reality where we improve the army. Now, we understand the army is too small and we need a bigger IDF for our missions, just like the Ukrainians understood in their war,” he said.
Michaeli warned that Israel is “heading into a long campaign that will exact a price. There are no free lunches. We need a lot of patience and unity and wisdom from our leaders – military and political – and I want to believe that we will find it and in the end, from this whole mess, we can hope for something good.”