‘Arrogance’ of Israeli intelligence led to failings on day of Hamas attack

Junior analysts reported suspicious activity at Gaza border but commanders were blinded by belief in their superiority, officials tell The National

The aftermath of the attack on the Supernova music festival by Hamas in which 360 people were killed on October 7. AFP
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It was Israel’s “belief in our own superiority” that led to the spectacular intelligence failing that resulted in the devastating October 7 attacks, leading officials have told The National.

Junior intelligence officers reported that Hamas was planning a major attack but due to a “lack of imagination” and “arrogance”, they were dismissed by senior commanders.

Officials interviewed by The National on why their highly sophisticated intelligence operation failed have also suggested sexism might have played a role, with junior female operators ignored.

The lapses have had a major impact on the Middle East, with a worrying regional conflict escalation as well as the loss of more than 1,200 lives on October 7 followed by more than 29,700 Palestinians killed in the subsequent Gaza campaign.

An internal investigation into the intelligence disaster will begin next month.

Superiority fixation

That failure was made most apparent to The National on a visit to the Kfar Aza kibbutz, where 63 of 900 inhabitants were killed on the morning of October 7.

Looking from the perimeter fence to the barbed wire surrounding Gaza, visible less than 2km away, the nearby boom of artillery fire added to the grim picture that Palestinians were suffering.

The bullet-riddled rooms and torn mattresses where couples were shot in their beds were a visceral reminder of the depth of the intelligence failure that has now cost so many lives.

The tragedy is that Israel’s lower-tier intelligence operators were aware an attack was brewing but their fears were not heeded.

“We had intelligence that this is what Hamas are planning,” said Sarit Zehavi, a former lieutenant colonel in Israeli intelligence. “But we couldn't imagine that this is what they're planning and that's why we looked for different explanations, rather than what we saw in front of our eyes.”

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert agreed conceit had played a significant part in the thinking that Hamas was incapable of such an attack.

“We were obsessed with our own belief of our own superiority, then we failed to see what was boiling up in front of us,” he told The National. “This was a devastating failure in Israeli intelligence, total chaos and loss of control.”

Dangerous arrogance

Israel’s belief in its technological superiority was a major contributing factor, said Mr Olmert, who was prime minister from 2006 to 2009.

“We were arrogant to a very dramatic extent, to the degree that we completely dismissed all the intelligence,” he said. “We said to ourselves, ‘these bunch of nobodies, these primitives, are incapable of doing this to the most sophisticated nation.”

Israel considered it had better cyber and intelligence than any other country, “even better than America”.

“That is the shock and it will take more time to comprehend the proportions of our failure,” he added.

Imagination failed

The biggest failure was that of imagination, Lt Col Zehavi said, along with an inability to join the dots on the warning reports.

“As an intelligence officer, you sometimes have a psychological barrier, that you cannot imagine the worst-case scenario, but being an analyst is all about imagination,” she said. “When you cannot imagine, then you look for different explanations to what is in front of your eyes. We had this barrier because it was a worst-case scenario and you don't want to imagine it, as it is beyond the imagination.”

Israel’s internal review is likely to highlight several breakdowns, the most compelling of which will be that its agencies knew the attack was coming.

One major concern will be the allegation that a Shin Bet source inside Hamas informed the internal security agency that an attack was coming on October 7 but the report was ignored because he was an untested agent, new to the job.

“There was a Shin Bet agent who reported intelligence of an imminent attack around the [Supernova] music festival on October 7, which was basically ignored and given a fairly low-reliability grading because he was a new agent and it does not appear to have been pushed up to the top of Shin Bet,” an Israeli security source said. “They were just outright dismissing warnings that were the most dangerous.”

Balloons adrift

There were numerous reports that breaches had appeared in the 40km fence that surrounds Gaza but these were not followed up on.

One shocking oversight was that two observation balloons, key to watching movements in Gaza, malfunctioned but due to either budgetary restraints or logistics issues they were not replaced.

“They essentially left entire areas open to being infiltrated by Hamas, there were too many blind spots,” said open-source intelligence specialist Tal Hagin.

Hamas operatives had also regularly approached the fence to test Israeli forces’ reaction times.

“We saw a build-up on the border months before,” Mr Hagin said. “I know personally from soldiers who saw this happen that Hamas would get youngsters right up to the border and when the Israeli military got there they would just put their hands up and walk away.”

Hamas also built its own observation towers about every 300 metres along certain points of the border from which operatives could look directly into Israeli kibbutzim or army bases.

“We heard this from a lot of witness testimonies from the observers, mainly female observers, a lot of whom were killed on October 7,” Mr Hagin added.

Women not believed

A difficult area for the investigation will be the overlooked information from army intelligence observers, who were predominantly women of the Caracal battalion, monitoring screens from camera feeds.

“One of the reasons why the warnings were ignored was because these units are predominantly women,” said the security source. “They saw digging manoeuvres and even picked up training missions, including Hamas doing a raid on a fake kibbutz with a yellow gate.”

Mr Hagin suggested “sexism is always going to play a part, on how men treat the remarks by women” by not taking them seriously enough.

“But the real issue was simply not listening to more junior people who are in the field. That was fatal.”

He said the warnings were ignored by the middle-ranking and senior decision-makers.

Not invincible

The confidence that Israel put in its border fence with its highly sophisticated camera and listening devices, as well as its armed forces, was a significant contributing factor.

So much so that members of the forces were having birthday parties right in sight of a “hostile entity”, said Mr Hagin.

“People viewed the Israeli army as invincible,” he added. “We relied on all these sentry towers and smart fences to protect us but omitted the fact of how important human intelligence can be.”

Israel’s pre-October political crisis also played a role, with mass protests over reforms to the Supreme Court, corruption allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and too many infantry battalions committed to the occupied West Bank.

Updated: February 27, 2024, 3:07 AM