How Israel misread Hamas

An examination of the failures at the top and bottom of the Israeli security and political echelons

Brian Stauffer

How Israel misread Hamas

In 1974, in the wake of one of Israel’s most devastating intelligence failures, the Israeli military intelligence (AMAN) created a new unit dedicated to ensuring the same mistake would not be repeated.

Just a year before, Israel had misread the intentions of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to declare a surprise war on Israel during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Egyptian forces had caught Israel unaware and unprepared.

Based upon the recommendations of an investigation committee, AMAN created a whole unit: Makhleket HaBakara or the Department of Control. This department is often nicknamed the “devil’s advocate” or “Ifha Mistabra” — an Aramaic saying that means “the opposite turned out to be true".

Its role is to actively check and contradict assessments produced by other branches of the Israeli intelligence community. If the general opinion were one thing, “Ifha Mistabra” would say the opposite. It would actively argue against it.

At the time, it was seen as a way to avoid “groupthink”. The practice has now become a common intelligence practice (“red teaming”) aimed at preventing major intelligence failures.

This unit produced some of the great minds of Israel’s security apparatus, such as Yaakov Amidror and Amos Gilad. The department has access to the same pool of intelligence and data points as its main “contradictor”, AMAN’s Research Branch.

But over the last decades, its value has declined, and high-ranking intelligence officials have effectively stopped listening to its assessment.

The assessment it produced rarely proved correct.

The branch could only point to very few successes in providing valuable assessments. This perceived failure is not surprising: Constantly contradicting one of the best intelligence services in the world isn’t a great career path.

The “devil’s advocate” unit was, by definition, bound to be wrong most of the time. And so people stopped listening. One of the tools meant to prevent a repeat of the 1973 War failed.

Fifty years later — almost to the day — Israel repeated this exact failure.

Read more: Two past 'shocks' to Israel brought political change. What will this third shock bring?

Of course, this is only a small element within the much bigger systemic failure that allowed the 7 October Hamas massacre to happen. This failure adds to the list of unsinkable ships that eventually sank, unattackable countries attacked, and unbreakable dams that ultimately broke.

The truth is no system is immune to failure. Systems deemed unbreakable tend to be the ones that fail most dramatically.

A man walks past a giant billboard in Jerusalem featuring portraits of Israelis taken hostage after the October 7 attacks by Hamas.

And so, on a quiet morning of 7 October, more than a thousand Hamas commandos from the al-Nukhba unit managed to cross into Israel, attacking border communities and military bases and taking Israelis back to Gaza as hostages.

The truth is no system is immune to failure. Systems deemed unbreakable tend to be the ones that fail most dramatically.

The night before, Israeli officials had discussed signs that something "strange" was happening in Gaza. They thought sending a tactical special forces team to the border area would be enough.

But they did not grasp what was about to happen. They planned to discuss the matter further the following day, but it was too late by then.

A flawed concept

Israeli officials operated on a "concept" — a broader assessment according to which Hamas was deterred and not looking to instigate another round of conflict in Gaza, much less a war.

According to the mainstream intelligence assessment, the 2021 Gaza war, which Hamas started by firing rockets at Jerusalem, had damaged the group's capabilities in Gaza. Hamas was focused on the West Bank more than anything.

Here again, the similarities with the Yom Kippur War are stunning: In 1973, on the day Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, the Israeli intelligence community was also operating on a broader assessment or "concept" that Egypt's relatively new president was much more of a moderate than his predecessor, and that Egypt was not looking to engage in a conflict.

These similarities aren't coincidental. I'd argue that at its core, the intelligence failure that led Israel to misread Egypt is, in fact, the same as that which led it to believe Hamas was not looking for war.

While many will look at the nitty-gritty of intelligence tactics and collection protocols to explain the failure, I would look in a different direction.

In my experience, systemic failures are the system's product, not just one of its elements. No mismanaged unit, one malfunctioning tool, or one poorly-made decision can really explain a systemic failure.

The intelligence cycle

To explain what I mean, we need to go back to the basics of intelligence — something people learn in classrooms or when they first step into this world.

The process of creating "intelligence" goes through an "intelligence cycle". The first step is direction: An intelligence service is guided by decision-makers to monitor a threat or respond to a question.

The second is collection — namely the gathering of information or data — be it through human intelligence, radio or electronic interception, satellite images, open source collection, etc.

This raw information goes through a processing and then an analytical phase. The analysis department puts information together to start forming a picture and answering questions.

This new assessment is passed upstairs through a process of "dissemination" up to the highest echelon of the intelligence community and political decision-makers. These decision-makers then direct the service again, and we're back in the loop I just described.

This process is important, but so is the direction of the cycle, from information to assessment and then from assessment to decision.

Going the wrong "way" is when systemic intelligence failures tend to happen.

When, instead of looking at clues to form an analysis, you look at how clues validate your assessment, your assessment turns into dogma. Your interpretation of information and data becomes skewed, and you tend to ignore the points that contradict your assessment or would make you see things in a different light.

Read more: Hamas might have miscalculated in Gaza

This is likely what happened before 7 October. It's not that Israel did not see signs that Hamas was preparing for the 7 October attacks: It did, but it misinterpreted them.

Those were visible to all. In fact, Egypt warned days before that "something big" was going to happen. This assessment was not based on anything new. They picked up on the exact same signs that Israel saw. But Israel interpreted them differently.

Hamas held exercises simulating the take-over of the Kibbutz and even exercises simulating breaching the border. In September, just a month before, the group even filmed and distributed footage of its militants storming containers, simulating buildings.

In 2022, multiple groups in Gaza, including Hamas, held an exercise that they filmed and made public, in which they took over an Israeli military base and trained to capture hostages.

A year before, after another exercise, Ayman Nawfal, a senior Hamas commander, commented that Israel's high-tech fence along the Gaza border would not protect it.

Israel has since killed Nawfal in the aftermath of the 7 October attacks. Hamas paragliders trained and were filmed doing so. Ahead of the attack, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad intensified their test launches of rockets.

The signs were there.

The intelligence failure that led Israel to misread Egypt in 1973 is, in fact, the same as that which led it to believe Hamas was not looking for war.

Israel saw this but interpreted it differently.

Israeli intelligence felt that Hamas was deterred and that, subsequently, these were just "bravado" to get Israel to pay attention to Gaza and to force it into making more concessions to Hamas. After all, this is what Hamas had done so far in Gaza.

Yet, this sentence I just wrote contains the same mistake I mentioned above: I used an assessment (Hamas was deterred) to negate factual information (Hamas is preparing for war). This is a classic intelligence mistake, yet one that is far more difficult to notice and correct in real-life situations.

Gross failures 

This is what I would call the failure in the "middle" of Israel's security and political echelon. Piling on that were failures at the top of the echelon and at the bottom.

At the bottom of the security ladder are the defensive measures, i.e. what generally comes when forewarning and pre-emptive actions fail.

Israel had a very concrete failsafe: The Gaza border fence. The $1bn obstacle was a technological marvel. Its central element is an indicative fence that sends an electronic signal to the IDF Gaza HQ when touched, prompting an immediate and swift response.

Remotely operated machine guns and towers protect the fence. A network of cameras constantly monitors it. An entire unit, the "tatspitaniot" or observers, is dedicated to watching those cameras.

Those female soldiers have tiring shifts in which they never look away from the camera. They are assigned one small area that they learn to know by heart.

An Israeli tank manoeuvres near the Israel-Gaza border

How could such a system fail?

And yet it did. Again, the assumption that the failsafe was unbreachable led to a deadly assessment: Hamas couldn't pass it; hence, it wouldn't try. The assumption was fatal and blinded the Israeli army to possible signs that Hamas was trying to find ways to circumvent it.

A sound intelligence process would not have ruled out that Hamas could try to pass the barrier and would look for signs that it is actively trying to do so. It would seek to imagine how an enemy like Hamas would try to bypass this obstacle.

Read more: Israel's conflict management: What could possibly go wrong?

Israel believed the wall was unbreachable and Hamas couldn't pass it; hence, it wouldn't try. This assumption proved to be fatal.

How Hamas executed its plan

As of now, the picture is not clear enough to be definitive, but a month on we have more clues as to what happened.

I was asked several times what kind of new sophisticated weapons Hamas used that allowed it to breach the border. The answer is none.

None of the tools Hamas used were truly new. None of them truly surprised Israel. Hamas used the Nukhba force, its elite commando force, to cross the border and push inside Israel. The Nukhba is not new; Israel has known about it for around a decade.

Hamas also appears to have used drones to target electrical pylons along the border, thus deactivating at once part of Israel's remotely-operated defence systems. Those drones are also nothing new.

As it did so, Hamas fired thousands of rockets, pinning down the forces that were designated to be sent to the border. Those who did come to the border found themselves faced with hundreds of Nukhba militants.

Hamas gathered precise intelligence on the size and nature of the reaction force that would come to any breaches (and there were dozens of coordinated breaches). Hamas later attacked the response force themselves, including the headquarters of the Gaza division and several smaller military units.

By the time Israel's air force could react, it was too late, as Hamas had penetrated civilian border communities, holding Israelis hostages and bringing some back to Gaza. Air strikes that could have eliminated Hamas's commando were now impossible. 

Relatives and supporters of hostages kidnapped on the October 7 attack by Palestinian Hamas rally in Tel Aviv for their release.

This is the failure at the bottom — one tied to the perception that the failsafe cannot be breached. It gave Israel further confidence in its assessment that "Hamas was deterred."

None of the tools Hamas used were truly new. Hamas used the Nukhba force, its elite commando force, to cross the border and push inside Israel. The Nukhba is not new; Israel has known about it for around a decade.

Failure at the top

Then comes perhaps the biggest of all failures: The failure at the top.

The very top of the intelligence cycle is the political echelon. The political echelon gives "direction": It orients intelligence and guides it towards questions or areas of interest. This is critical and has a trickle-down effect.

Unless you are the US and have almost infinite intelligence assets, you must prioritise  — in fact, even the US has to do so. Collection tools and resources are finite. So is the time of analysts and the number of soldiers and military assets that can be deployed. Israel faces several threats that are more or less pressing. Choosing is renouncing.

Netanyahu visits Israeli troops in Gaza.

Looking at Netanyahu's statements and discourse, one can see a clear pattern. The Israeli Prime Minister has made a career out of marginalising and diminishing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has always seen other threats, particularly Iran and its proxies, as the main issue.

There may be a political element to it, as talking about Iran pushed him into the sphere of global geopolitics, going head to head with the likes of Biden or Putin, showing funny diagrams of a nuclear bomb at the UN.

It allowed him to portray himself as the sole Israeli leader capable of navigating the troubled regional and global waters. Never mind that Israeli-Palestinian conflict; this was a side note. And even when it flared up, guess what? According to Netanyahu, if you looked closely enough, you would see that Iran is really behind it.

This discourse isn't innocuous; it is deadly.

Not that Iran is not a threat to Israel, of course. But it is one threat that should not overshadow a much more intimate one. This deliberate blindness directly impacts the intelligence community, as it encourages the redeployment of intelligence collection tools away from the threat and the redeployment of troops away from one border.

It encourages confirmation bias, and a faulty feedback loop: If you assumed there is nothing to hear, proceeded to poke your ears and focus on your sight, you'd be badly mistaken to conclude that you were right, just because you're not hearing anything.

Or perhaps more succinctly, as the saying goes: There is none more blind than he who does not wish to see.

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