Israel may have known about Hamas' plan to attack a year ago. But it's not the first time it has misjudged a threat

Israel may have known about Hamas' plan to attack a year ago. But it's not the first time it has misjudged a threat

Originally posted in the ABC


This week, as the Gaza truce ended, the New York Times published an article about an intelligence failure by the Israel government in the lead-up to the widespread Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023.

The article described how Israeli officials had allegedly acquired Hamas' plan of attack over a year before it occurred. As the New York Times reports, the plan was "point by point, exactly the kind of devastating invasion that led to the deaths of about 1,200 people. Hamas followed the blueprint with shocking precision."

Apparently, Israeli military and intelligence officials dismissed the plan as too aspirational.

This is hardly the first time a military institution has dismissed the capacity of a potential adversary with catastrophic outcomes. It is not the first time for Israel.

In 1973, armies from Syria, Jordan and Egypt conducted a massive surprise attack against Israel. For several days, the future of Israel hung in the balance. But the decisive battles on the Golan Heights, and the successful Israeli counterattack across the Suez Canal and into Egypt, changed the course of the war — and the future of the Middle East.

In the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israeli government investigated why Israel was caught by surprise. The president of the Israeli Supreme Court led the so-called the Agranat Commission of Inquiry, which examined the events leading up to the war and the tactical failures of its initial days.

The Agranat commission published its preliminary findings on April 2, 1974. Multiple people were held particularly responsible for the failings demonstrated before and during the war, including the IDF chief of staff, the commander of Israel's southern front and multiple intelligence personnel.

Ultimately, it led to the fall of the government of Golda Meir in 1974.

Surprise is inevitable

What the Aganat commission found was that it was not just intelligence failure that led to these surprises. All necessary information was available to draw the correct conclusions.

Instead, multiple decision makers in the military and government failed to do so. As a future commission into October 7 will probably show, the Hamas attacks occurred because of a failure of leadership in Israel.

Key government and military leaders, entrusted with the information generated by one of the most effective intelligence agencies on the planet, were unable to draw the correct conclusions from the intelligence they were presented, and therefore unable to act appropriately.

The unfortunate experience of centuries of international relations is that surprise is inevitable. It is perhaps the only thing about warfare that is certain. History is full of examples from ancient times through to present, including Gaza and the war in Ukraine.

What is not inevitable however is how human institutions — governments, militaries and intelligence agencies — will react to surprise. Those who are surprised have a choice in how they react.

Used wisely, failure can be a start point for learning, and for thinking anew about strategy, tactics, information operations and all the components of a modern national approach to fighting a war.

Thus far, the failures of October 7 have driven tactical adaptations in the Israeli military's approach to Gaza.

These changes have included the deployment of a larger force of heavy armour into Gaza than in previous Israeli operations and driving much deeper into the heart of Gaza city. Israel has adapted its information warfare by cutting internet access to Gaza, thus aiming to limit Hamas' capacity to undertake information operations against Israel and generate support.

Failure demands evolved strategic behaviour

The Israelis have also adapted their tactical risk management by using huge amounts of air power to shape the conduct of ground operations. This reduces the scope for Hamas attacks against Israeli ground forces, thus reducing the number of Israeli casualties.

To further reduce their casualties, the Israelis have adapted their casualty evacuation processes by shifting medical support further forward. The tragic corollary of lowering the risk to Israeli ground forces by using air power is the much higher risk (and casualty numbers) assumed by civilians in Gaza.

But strategic failure also demands evolved strategic behaviour, even before the inevitable commissions of inquiry can take place.

While the Israeli strategy is to destroy Hamas, it is unclear if this is possible. IDF operations will deal a significant blow to Hamas in northern Gaza, and probably southern Gaza as well.

However, wars are more than the aggregation of military operations. Israel's military operations may severely damage Hamas, but military victory can only be enduring if it is supported by effective diplomacy, information and economic initiatives, and conducted to achieve realistic political objectives.

Destroying Hamas requires removing the support it gets from Hezbollah and Iran. It also demands long-term political and social remedies that build a two-state solution and eliminate the reasons why young people in Gaza join organisations like Hamas. As I have previously written, "Hamas' purpose and ideas need to be made irrelevant to the people of Gaza".

Destroying Hamas is a laudable goal. But Israel's current strategy to do so looks much like pre-October 7 behaviour — with higher civilian casualties.

At the end of the Gaza campaign, there must be a plan for a stable, enduring and just solution for Israelis and Palestinians (less Hamas) to co-exist peacefully. Out of the strategic failures of October 7 must arise a new political and strategic approach to achieve this.

To not do so would be a strategic failure an order of magnitude greater than that of October 7.


Areas of expertise: Russia-Ukraine war; military history and strategy; advanced technologies