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Hamas' attack is a staggering failure for Israel's intelligence and security forces

Israeli soldiers patrol a road close to the border with Gaza on Sunday.
Jack Guez
/
AFP via Getty Images
Israeli soldiers patrol a road close to the border with Gaza on Sunday.

Israel's intelligence and security services have been called into question for failing to anticipate the large-scale attack launched by the Palestinian militant group Hamas on Saturday.

Following some reports, about 1,000 militants gunned down civilians and military targets inside Israel in an attack unprecedented in scale.

According to Israeli media, at least 700 Israelis were killed and more than 2,100 were wounded. Israel responded by launching air strikes on targets in the Gaza Strip. More than 400 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,300 injured.

The death toll is likely to grow as fighting continues.

"No national intelligence agency is omniscient or flawless, but this is just a colossal failure," said Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's just astonishing that this could occur."

Israel had long prided itself on its advanced border fence and underground wall near Gaza. But on Saturday, Hamas fighters were able to breach the border fence in at least one location with explosives and with heavy equipment, according to videos from the scene. Militants also conducted an amphibious operation on the Mediterranean Sea and used paragliders to reach two dozen locations in Israel.

The militant group also launched thousands of rockets, to the surprise of Israel's vaunted intelligence agencies and surveillance system. Israel is believed to be able to listen to most any phone call in Gaza, and has a large number of informants there.

"We were surprised this morning. About failures, I prefer not to talk at this point right now. We're in war. We're fighting," Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces, said Saturday on CNN.

"They've been planning this for a long time," former Israeli National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata told Reuters. "Obviously this is a very coordinated attack, and unfortunately they were able to surprise us tactically and cause devastating damage."

The Israeli intelligence apparatus had its attention elsewhere

In recent months, much of the Israel Defense Forces' focus has been in the West Bank, where battalions of young Palestinian men have launched their own initiative against the Israeli occupation.

"The West Bank was consuming their attention," said Hoffman, who has studied Israeli-Palestinian relations for the past 40 years.

Israeli officials have also been preoccupied with tensions around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the most holy Muslim site in Jerusalem, also sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount, after Israeli police conducted raids on worshipers back in April.

"There were a lot of assets and resources focused on monitoring events in Jerusalem," Hoffman said.

At home, Israel was divided and was celebrating a holiday

The country has become increasingly divided and rife with domestic political problems. In July, Israel's parliament votedto prevent judges from striking down government decisions on the basis that they are "unreasonable."

The controversial changes to the judiciary, pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government, sparked public outrage and mass protests. Some members of Israel's military reserve also refused to report for duty recently, though they've all reported to duty in this crisis. Hoffman said it is not a surprise that Hamas would choose to strike during a polarizing time.

"They strike precisely when they sense an opportunity," Hoffman said. "When they see a gap generally in their enemy's defenses, generally caused by distraction or preoccupation with other threats or challenges."

The assault also took place during the Jewish Sabbath and in the early hours of the Simchat Torah holiday. Israeli soldiers guarding the border wrote on social media that militants overtook their base, killing soldiers — and there were fewer troops on duty because it was a Jewish holiday.

In Gaza, Israeli military did not expect ground assault

Over the past decade, Hamas has largely attacked Israel by launching rockets. As a result, Israeli forces around Gaza were not prepared for a ground assault, Hoffman said.

"They weren't at all battle ready," he said. "I think there was a complacency that all was quiet on the border with Gaza."

That should have been suspicious and concerning, he added. On the other hand, Hoffman said the sheer scale and complexity of the attack was unimaginable and overwhelming.

Hoffman, who described Israel's intelligence as "second-best" to the U.S., said Hamas' combination of air, land and sea attacks was "unprecedented" for terrorist groups in recent history. Israel and the U.S. have labeled Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, as a terrorist group.

"I can't recall any time where a group was able to put them together and stage a simultaneous coordinated assault using all three venues," he said.

Greg Myre and Daniel Estrin contributed reporting.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.