Israel’s Intelligence Puzzle: How Hamas Outsmarted the Best

Surprise Attack Shakes Israel: Operation Al Aqsa Flood Catches IDF Off Guard.

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Lt Col Manoj K Channan
Lt Col Manoj K Channan
Lt Col Manoj K Channan (Retd) served in the Indian Army, Armoured Corps, 65 Armoured Regiment, 27 August 83- 07 April 2007. Operational experience in the Indian Army includes Sri Lanka – OP PAWAN, Nagaland and Manipur – OP HIFAZAT, and Bhalra - Bhaderwah, District Doda Jammu and Kashmir, including setting up of a counter-insurgency school – OP RAKSHAK. He regularly contributes to Defence and Security issues in the Financial Express online, Defence and Strategy, Fauji Magazine and Salute Magazine. *Views are personal.

The attack by the Palestinians, Operation Al Aqsa Flood, across the Gaza Strip at twenty-two locations had caught the Israel Defence Forces off guard and by surprise. What failed the most intense intelligence agencies of the Israeli Government, which caused this loss of life, equipment and capture of the civilian population, including women and children.

This past Saturday morning, Israel witnessed the most prominent attack from the Gaza enclave and perhaps the worst security crisis in the past fifty years when dozens of Hamas militants, using motorcycles, pickup trucks, boats, paragliders and mid-range rockets, launched a highly coordinated attack, infiltrating Israeli cities, hitting military bases and killing and taking hostage soldiers and civilians. The attacks, reminiscent of the 1973 Yom Kippur holiday attack by Egyptian and Syrian troops, took Israel by surprise.

Israel is known for having some of the world’s most effective intelligence agencies. Israel’s intelligence agencies are among the most effective and innovative globally but have challenges and limitations. They operate in a highly volatile and complex environment requiring constant adaptation and vigilance. 

What is Hamas?

In essence, Hamas is a creation of the Jewish state. As a counterbalance to the secular nationalists of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its dominant faction, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, Israel supported Gaza’s Islamists for years, assisting in the transformation of a group of fringe Palestinian Islamists in the late 1970s into one of the most infamous militant organisations in the world. This organisation has been responsible for more Israeli civilian deaths than any secular Palestinian militant group. 

Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, the Israeli military governor in Gaza in the early 1980s, later told the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief that he was giving money to the Muslim Brotherhood, the precursor of Hamas, on the instruction of the Israeli authorities. 

The funding intended to tilt power away from both Communist and Palestinian nationalist movements in Gaza, especially from Arafat (who referred to Hamas as “a creature of Israel”), which Israel considered more threatening than the fundamentalists. 

The retired brigadier general admitted that the Israeli Government granted him a budget, and the military Government gives to mosques. In 2009, the Wall Street Journal quoted Avner Cohen, a former Israeli religious affairs official who spent over two decades in Gaza, saying that, to his profound regret, Hamas is a creation of Israel. Cohen issued a formal report to his superiors in the mid-1980s, cautioning against adopting a divide-and-rule strategy in the Occupied Territories through support for Palestinian Islamists at the expense of Palestinian secularists. He wrote that he proposed that Israel concentrate its efforts on devising methods to dismantle this monster before this actuality confronts the state. They did not heed him.

Was this an intelligence failure? 

The quote, “Remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always”, by Margaret Thatcher after she escaped a Brighton Bombing assassination attempt by the IRA on October 12, 1984, aptly answers the question.

Israel withdrew its military posts and forcibly removed 9,000 Israeli settlers from the territory.

Assumptions of overall Israeli incompetence based on apparent intelligence failures are flawed. The assumption that an intelligence failure automatically translates to failure across the entire war-fighting capabilities is incorrect. However, what went wrong was the inability of the chain of command to assess the threat from Gaza. The Israeli military command may have war-gamed such an attack; however, due to its low threat level, it may not have accorded it any Priority.

The low threat perception was augmented by the sluggish battle procedure and the inability to contain the attacks across the entire spectrum, thus allowing Hamas a free run of up to 15 miles and a free-for-killing of the Israeli civilians.

The capture of many Israeli Army officers indicates that they must have been under close watch for a long time to ensure that they were captured, as it helped Hamas capture the world media attention and kill the notion that IDF was invincible.

Hamas used the element of surprise and speed by using innovative methods to overcome its conventional military strength.

Has Hamas achieved its objective of Operation Al Aqsa Flood? 

Yes, it has. So far, Hamas’ greatest weapons have been surprise and speed. Both diminish over time. 

Hamas has no overabundance of heavy weapons or traditional artillery/armour. Hamas will capitulate against the IDF’s military retaliation. It will be forced to fight an unconventional street battle in a densely populated built-up area where Hamas has an extensive tunnel network. 

The battle will transition to positional fighting, favouring those with more men/arms/ammunition. Who will be able to bring more onto the battlefield? Who can quickly acquire more from allies? 

The current situation favours Israel at the moment unless other groups of nations join the fighting

Israel Intelligence Agencies

  • Mossad. Israel’s external intelligence agency, similar to the CIA in the U.S.
  • Shin Bet (Shabak): Responsible for internal security, counter-terrorism, and counter-intelligence.
  • Aman. Military intelligence directorate of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Capabilities

Human Intelligence (HUMINT). Israel has a long history of using human agents, or “assets,” to gather intelligence in hostile countries. Mossad, in particular, is known for its extensive HUMINT capabilities.

Signals Intelligence (SIGINT). Aman and Unit 8200, its fundamental SIGINT division, are responsible for electronic eavesdropping and code-breaking. They are often likened to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) in their capabilities.

Cyber Warfare. Israel is a leader in the cyber realm. Both in defence (cybersecurity) and offence (cyber-attacks), Israel’s cyber capabilities are considered among the world’s best.

Counter-terrorism Operations. Mossad and Shin Bet have a strong reputation for counter-terrorism operations, having thwarted numerous attacks and plots.

Assassinations. Over the years, various reports and sources have attributed numerous targeted assassinations of terrorists and key figures opposed to Israeli interests to Mossad.

Cooperation with Allies. Israel has solid intelligence-sharing relationships with several countries, most notably the U.S.

Innovative Techniques and Technologies. Israel invests heavily in developing cutting-edge technologies for intelligence gathering and operations.

Limitations

Size and Resources. Israel’s intelligence agencies have different resources than agencies in larger countries like the U.S. or Russia. However, they compensate with focus and specialisation.

Geopolitical Constraints. Due to its unique geopolitical situation, Israel often has to operate covertly and without direct support from neighbouring countries.

High Expectations. The Israeli public and Government have high expectations for their intelligence agencies to preempt threats, which can create immense pressure.

Operational Exposure. Due to the nature of some of their operations, Israel’s intelligence activities can sometimes be exposed, leading to diplomatic tensions.

Dependency on Technology. Heavy reliance on technology can sometimes be a double-edged sword, as adversaries can find ways to counter or use these technologies to their advantage.

Potential for Overreach. Like all intelligence agencies, there is a risk of infringing on civil liberties, especially in the name of security.

Infiltration Risks. As with any intelligence agency, there is always a risk of infiltration or leaks from within, although Israel has extensive measures to mitigate this risk.

Shortcomings of the Israeli Defence Forces

The Israel Defence Forces did not pick up the battle indicators and misinterpreted the intent of the Palestinian fighters from the Gaza Strip. Israel did not know about the preparations for the attack. Gaza is a narrow piece of land with 365 square meters. Km. It was believed that it was bugged and monitored far and wide by the Israeli army and intelligence services, but during the attack, it turned out that this was not the case. 

Presumably, Hamas developed a system for coordination and communication that excluded electronic contacts, and somehow, the Palestinians managed to hide everything from Israeli intelligence. 

Israel was unable to prevent the attack. Shortly before the attack on checkpoints and major cities on October 7, Hamas organised and deployed MLRS, ground forces, paragliders and other equipment to positions. The preparations and first steps went unnoticed, and the pre-emptive strike was not launched. 

The alarm system at the border did not work. The electronic systems at the border, which Israel had invested billions of dollars in building and equipping, were rendered useless. Numerous cameras and sensors also did not help detect and stop the Palestinian attack, and combat patrols were not nearby for some reason. Palestinian drones could easily hit automatic machine guns and sensor towers, and Hamas assault teams calmly blew up the fence and crossed the border. Nobody is trying to attack them. Due to the failure of the alarm, hundreds of IDF soldiers were killed in the camps, in the barracks, and while sleeping. 

Iron Dome

The system was engineered with the capability to intercept and annihilate artillery shells and short-range missiles launched from a distance of 4 km (2.5 miles) to 70 km (43 miles), with the intention of reaching populated regions. Similar to any military system, the Iron Dome possesses both strengths and weaknesses.

Capabilities

Mobile System. The Iron Dome is a mobile system that allows it to be moved and deployed according to the threat environment.

High Success Rate. Since its deployment, the Iron Dome has had a high interception success rate, often quoted to be around 90%, though this can vary depending on the specifics of each engagement.

Multiple Interceptors. The system can handle multiple threats simultaneously, making it effective against salvo fire.

Advanced Radar System. The Iron Dome utilises the ELTA ELM-2084 multi-mission Radar to detect, assess, and guide interceptors toward incoming threats.

Cost-Efficient Interception. The system is designed only to intercept projectiles headed towards populated areas or critical infrastructures, conserving interceptor missiles and reducing costs.

Short Response Time. The Iron Dome can quickly calculate the trajectory of incoming projectiles and decide on the best interception plan within seconds.

Limitations

Limited Range. The Iron Dome is designed to counter short-range projectiles. It is not designed for long-range missile threats requiring different interception systems, like the Arrow missile system.

Saturation. If too many rockets are fired simultaneously, the system could be overwhelmed. An adversary could try to saturate the Iron Dome by firing large rockets simultaneously.

Cost. While the Iron Dome is cost-effective compared to the potential human and infrastructure loss, interceptors are still expensive. This means that in a prolonged conflict, costs can mount significantly.

Physical Limits. The system relies on interceptors, with a finite number of these missiles. The defence can be compromised if they are expended faster than they can be resupplied.

Evolving Threats: As adversaries develop new types of rockets, drones, or other aerial threats, the Iron Dome may need upgrades or modifications to stay effective.

False Sense of Security: While the system is highly effective, no defence system is flawless. An overreliance on it may create a false sense of security.

Geographical Limitations: The system works best in the open and relatively flat terrain. In hilly or urban environments, the radar’s line of sight might be obstructed, potentially reducing its effectiveness.

The Iron Dome has been a groundbreaking and highly effective system, and there are better solutions to Israel’s defence needs. It operates as part of a layered defence approach alongside other systems, each designed to address different threats.

Hamas Tactics and IDF Response

The Palestinians did not bypass IDF fortifications and bases. They aggressively stormed both checkpoints and bases where armoured vehicles were located. Hamas could not use these captured tanks due to a lack of training and handling of these technology-driven platforms. It is still unclear where the sentries were; the manning of the command centres and security guards on duty and cover forces were located at that time. 

The Readiness of Military Equipment. The Israeli Merkava Mk.4 tank, destroyed by a copter drop, was hit in one of the most unprotected areas – from above. At the same time, the Trophy active protection complex was disabled. The footage of the tank’s destruction and the crew’s capture clearly shows that the tank gun is covered. This suggests that the crew did not prepare the vehicle for battle and was counting only on intimidation, which is a gross violation of the instructions and irresponsible in such an attack. 

Panic in Border Cities. All communities, especially in a region like the Gaza Strip, must have plans in place in the event of an escalation of conflict. However, no organised warning or evacuation was carried out. Local security forces turned out to be lebpoorly learned that the Palestinians quickly eliminated them. 

The difference in coordination between the IDF and Hamas. Until approximately noon on October 7, the Israeli Government did not respond to the fighting. In the country, it is Saturday morning, Shabbat. Only after 14 to 15 hours did the security forces begin to gather reservists and organise retaliatory raids. 

Unconventional Approach

Using unconventional tactics, like employing drones and paragliders by non-state actors and low-key terrorist groups, can present significant challenges to even well-equipped superior forces. These unconventional approaches can be practical for several reasons.

Surprise and Novelty. Well-equipped forces often prepare for anticipated threats based on historical patterns. Surprise can give the attacker a temporary advantage when faced with a novel tactic that has not been previously encountered or widely used.

Low Cost and Easy Accessibility. Drones, especially commercial ones, and paragliders are relatively cheap and easily obtained. This allows groups with limited resources to deploy aerial capabilities without the need for complex and expensive infrastructure.

Low-tech Adaptation. Some groups modify commercial drones to carry explosives or surveillance equipment. The low-tech adaptation of consumer-grade technology can sometimes bypass sophisticated defence mechanisms geared towards countering more advanced threats.

Reduced Risk to Attackers. Using drones or paragliders for attacks or reconnaissance means the attackers do not have to be on-site. This reduces their risk of capture or harm and complicates the defender’s countermeasures.

Complexity of Defensive Response. Shooting down a paraglider or a small drone over an urban area poses risks. The falling debris or misdirected defensive fire can cause unintended casualties or damage, making the response decision complex.

Exploitation of Defense Gaps. Traditional air defences might be oriented toward countering more conventional aerial threats like missiles or aircraft. Drones and paragliders can fly at low altitudes and slower speeds, which might need to be more effectively tracked or engaged by some defence systems.

Psychological Impact. Even if an unconventional attack does not cause substantial physical damage, the mere fact that a sophisticated defence system was bypassed can psychologically impact the population and the defending force, potentially eroding trust in the defensive capabilities.

Terrain and Environmental Factors. Tracking and countering small drones or paragliders can be incredibly challenging in areas with complex terrains, like mountains or urban environments.

Rapid Evolution. The commercial drone market is rapidly evolving, with newer models having increased ranges, better capabilities, and more sophisticated evasion techniques. This pace can make it hard for defence systems to keep up.

The key to an effective defence is adaptability and continuously reassessing potential threats.

Merkava IV Tank

It is the main battle tank employed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), is equipped with the Trophy Active Protection System (APS), also known as the Windbreaker. This system is designed to detect and neutralise incoming projectiles. However, as with all technological systems, the Trophy APS has capabilities and limitations.

Capabilities

Detection & Tracking. The Trophy system uses radar to detect incoming threats. Once a threat is identified, the system can track its trajectory.

Automatic Neutralisation. Upon detecting a threat that will hit the tank, the system automatically fires neutralising countermeasures to intercept and destroy the incoming projectile before it reaches the tank.

360-Degree Protection. The Trophy system protects from threats from any direction around the tank.

Immediate Threat Data. After neutralising a threat, the Trophy system provides the tank crew with data about the location from which the threat was fired. This allows the crew to respond quickly.

Multiple Threat Handling. The system is capable of addressing several threats simultaneously.

Protection from Various Projectiles. The Trophy is designed to counter various threats, including anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

Limitations

Top-Attack Munitions. The design of many active protection systems, including Trophy, primarily focuses on threats approaching laterally. Top-attack munitions, like drones and missiles, are designed to strike from above, which can present challenges to these systems.

Limited Number of Interceptors. The APS has a limited number of countermeasures it can deploy before needing to be reloaded. If overwhelmed by multiple threats in rapid succession, its efficacy could diminish.

Close Infantry. Using the system near infantry can be hazardous due to the countermeasures it deploys.

Radar Limitations. Like all radar systems, there are limitations based on the radar’s frequency, resolution, and ability to distinguish between threats and non-threats, especially in cluttered environments.

Adaptive Threats. Adversaries can develop munitions or techniques to counter or evade the Trophy system, requiring ongoing updates and adaptations.

False Alarms. While the system is advanced, there is always potential for false alarms, which might lead to the unnecessary deployment of countermeasures.

Maintenance and Complexity. Advanced systems like Trophy require specialised maintenance and can add to the platform’s complexity.

Regarding the compromise by drones using top-attack projectiles, as warfare and technology evolve, so do the tactics and tools employed by adversaries. Drones equipped with top-attack munitions are one such adaptation, aiming to exploit the vulnerabilities of advanced systems like Trophy. 

Conclusion

The Israeli Defence Forces, despite their technological advancements and significant investments in border security, experienced critical shortcomings in their ability to detect and prevent an organised attack from the Gaza Strip. Hamas’s ability to clandestinely coordinate and deploy forces, coupled with the surprising ineffectiveness of Israel’s electronic systems and alarms, resulted in considerable losses for the IDF. This incident underscores the importance of having advanced defensive systems and ensuring their continuous efficacy and adaptability against evolving threats.

India has two belligerent neighbours known to use non-state actors for terror attacks. India must plan for such a contingency and reassess the threats and troops to task.

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