OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

How could this happen?

Fifty years and a day from the Egyptian and Syrian surprise invasion on Yom Kippur of 1973, the Israel Defense Forces were again caught unprepared.

Family and friends attend the funeral of Israeli soldier Uri Mordechai at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, Oct. 10, 2023. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
Family and friends attend the funeral of Israeli soldier Uri Mordechai at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, Oct. 10, 2023. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

Israelis woke up on Oct. 7, 2023, to a day of grief, outrage, and ultimately, incomprehension. 

It was not the missiles that mattered. Israelis have grown accustomed to missile attacks from Gaza. The horrors which gradually unfolded resulted from an overland breach of the Gaza border defenses.

Fourteen rural villages and three forward military bases were overrun and held by Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists. Two small towns near Gaza—Sderot and Ofakim—were invaded for long hours. Hundreds were slaughtered in the streets, in their cars, at a desert rave attended by young people and in their homes. Children and elderly women were forcibly taken to Gaza, and the stripped body of a young German woman was put on display. Young children in a kibbutz home hid in a closet with the bodies of their parents lying nearby. The heartbreaking reports kept coming in, with expressions of international support bringing little by way of solace. 

With the number of murders exceeding 900 (and the count still far from final), the wounded at 2,300 and counting, and more than 100 Israelis taken hostage, including children, the question that came first to many in Israel was: How could this happen? 

Fifty years and a day from the Egyptian and Syrian surprise invasion on Yom Kippur of 1973, the Israel Defense Forces was once again caught unprepared. Once again it happened on a Jewish holiday, with consequences not witnessed in Israel since the desperate days of the War of Independence in 1948. There will surely be a commission of inquiry, not unlike the Agranat Commission of 1974. But well before this happens, several initial observations can be offered. 

Improvements in Hamas planning and tactics

Hamas meticulously planned and coordinated this operation, which included an unprecedented use of sophisticated homemade tools. This, in turn, raises further questions about Israel’s failure to learn of such plans or detect the work done on technical devices. Specifically, the key to the border fence breach was the use of small bombs dropped from drones, which were used to disable tanks as well as destroy the monitoring cameras guarding the fence. The Hamas operators managed to maintain strict secrecy as these preparations were underway, which incidentally gives the lie to the claim that the attack was a spontaneous response to Israeli actions in Jerusalem in the prior week. 

Strategic intelligence failure

The intelligence failure begins at the strategic level. Over the preceding two weeks, the Hamas de facto government in Gaza, led by Yahya Sinwar, seemed to be angling for more Qatari money (brought in suitcases full of cash, since the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah controls the banks and refuses to help what they see as a rebellious province) and for more workers to be allowed into Israel, which the Netanyahu government was willing to concede. Israeli analysts concluded that Hamas was steadily becoming more concerned with running a government rather.

Whether or not the creation of this impression was intentional on Sinwar’s part or not we may never find out. His indirect dialogue with Israel through the Egyptian Intelligence Service also served as cover for Hamas’s well-guarded plans.  

As Hamas military commander in Gaza, Muhammad Dheif has survived past Israeli assassination attempts (though he was maimed in one of them) and was clearly the mastermind behind this well-planned and meticulously executed assault. The Hamas leaders in exile, hosted by Qatar and joyously monitoring events from Doha, provided the vital link to Iranian support. All the while, the Israeli Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) as well as the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), responding to a rise in terror attacks in the West Bank, concluded that the Gaza border could be held with fewer troops, with 21 battalions diverted over the last few months to the West Bank, trusting that an incursion into Israel from Gaza was unlikely. Hence also what seems to have been a reduced level of alert. 

Another less explicable failure occurred at the tactical level. The key asset at the crucial moment in the early morning hours of Oct. 7 should have been visual observation of the penetration point and a timely alert. But using drone attacks, as indicated above, the Hamas attackers apparently neutralized the long-range observation unit (staffed by young IDF women soldiers) and the compound they were working from. Hamas rendered the IDF blind for a painfully long period. A better-prepared arrangement for redundancy in monitoring the border could have made this much more difficult to do.

Operational failure

To this was added what some observers, particularly IDF Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, a former tank officer and later IDF ombudsman, has been warning about for the last 15 years. The IDF, once upon a time a well-trained and relatively large military based on its reserve armored formations, has become much smaller, less disciplined, less well trained (since the reserves are rarely called up), poorly prepared for ground warfare and maneuver, and much too reliant on airstrikes, precision munitions and highly specific intelligence. As a result, there was little that could compensate for the lack of intelligence on Oct. 7. 

While individuals and special forces units did fight with great bravery, and indeed suffered painful losses, it took much too long for the IDF formations to be where they were needed. For much of the day the residents of the area Israelis call “the Gaza envelope”—the towns and villages of the western Negev—were abandoned to their fate. 

The task ahead, despite the immense complications posed by the hostage situation, and by the danger of the conflict expanding to the northern front with Lebanon, is to put an end to the ability of Hamas (and Palestinian Islamic Jihad) to constitute a threat in the future. 

These organizations may have gained a short-term tactical success. But they also made the profound mistake of awakening the deepest fears and emotions of the Jewish people. Mass slaughter of civilians and abuse of captive children evoke powerful reactions that will not be quelled until the perpetrators in Gaza and elsewhere (including Qatar) have paid the ultimate penalty for these acts.

While the social networks are flooded with expressions of Palestinian pride over what Hamas has wrought, one is bound at the end of these bitter days to wonder about the sanity of those who chose to inflict such atrocities on a much superior military power—and still hope they can survive the ordeal they have now brought upon their own people. 

Originally published by The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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