How Was Israel Caught Off-Guard?

Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks did not happen out of the blue. They were preceded by years of bitter conflict, ever since the group consolidated its control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Ariel Levite writes in War on the Rocks that, months later, it remains deeply puzzling how Israel was caught so woefully unprepared.

He adds:

Conventional explanations advanced over the years by numerous scholars and practitioners analyzing similar historical fiascoes provide part of the answer. The surprise can be attributed to abundant noise, deception, wishful thinking, groupthink, and failure of imagination. Nevertheless, careful analysis of the case at hand highlights several additional factors. The degree of surprise reflected an intelligence-collection shortfall on Hamas’ intentions. There was an over-reliance on warning systems, a misguided policy and military attitude toward Hamas, and a toxic relationship between Israel’s top leadership and its defense and intelligence establishment. These factors both distracted the establishment and systematically discouraged a confrontation with Hamas. Taken together, these factors underscore the need for countries to recalibrate their expectations regarding warnings of potential attacks and to put a newfound emphasis on readiness rather than prediction.

Levite writes that what we saw on 7 October were two analytically distinct phenomena: “

The failure of intelligence to anticipate and warn of an impending attack, and the inadequate military preparations in the face of an unanticipated threat. Israel not only failed to anticipate such a bold Hamas assault, but also lacked adequate plans, forces, and levels of readiness to effectively respond to such a scenario.”

Levite writes that Israel’s intelligence failure was the result or a combination of five factors:

·  An over-reliance on their formidable technical intelligence apparatus — primarily signals intelligence — to offset the collection difficulty associated with prying open, through human intelligence.

·  Cultural arrogance, leading the Israeli establishment to grossly underestimate the capacity and audacity of Hamas.

·  Institutional chauvinism, manifested in systematic undervaluation of warnings sounded by junior women in various observation and collection units.

·  Bandwidth limitations on Israeli intelligence, which was simultaneously focused on disconcerting developments and operational requirements in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.

·  Hamas deception may have played a role, as perhaps did the crying wolf syndrome; Israeli intelligence had previously warned of a possible attack on April 23 that Hamas then called off, apparently realizing that its plans had been compromised.


The intelligence failure was compounded by an operation failure:

The Israeli military’s standing forces and contingency plans proved woefully inadequate to effectively contain and subsequently respond to the 10/7 Hamas attack. With the partial exception of the internal security head who responded to non-specific but alarming signals hours before the attack by dispatching to the area a small counter-terrorism unit, Israeli units on the ground as well higher echelon commanders further afield were caught completely off-guard, woefully uninformed about the situation, and utterly unprepared to effectively address such a chaotic scene. For the better part of a day, the military’s reaction to Hamas’ atrocities was largely improvised, and by the time the military and security forces were able to regroup, much of the damage had already been done.

One reason contributing to the insufficient Israeli protection along the border with the Gaza Strip was the deteriorating security situation in the West Nank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition depends on two far-right parties representing extremist Jewish settlers in the West Bank. The deteriorating security situation in the West Bank posed a threat to these settlers, “a threat that was especially politically sensitive for the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which resulted in the gradual redeployment of units away from the vicinity of Gaza to beef up the presence in the West Bank.”

But there even more failures:

These failures were compounded by trouble at the intelligence–policy nexus. First, relations between the prime minster, the defense minister (who he unsuccessfully tried to fire), and the security establishment had grown especially toxic after they repeatedly warned the prime minister earlier in 2023 about the adverse impact on Israeli security of his extreme right-wing government’s policies and the growing prospects of war as a result. Netanyahu resented their repeated warnings about the growing internal divide within Israeli society unleashed by his policies and the way these influenced foes’ perceptions of Israeli vulnerability.

Second, Netanyahu was less receptive to warnings about Hamas because he saw the group’s hostility toward Israel and rivalry with the Palestinian Authority as helpful bulwarks against external pressures to negotiate the formation of a Palestinian state. This perception of expediency manifested itself in his consistent decisions to try to “bribe” Hamas and resist repeated calls to check its militarization through a combination of sanctions and decisive military action. Netanyahu’s preference for seeking some form of modus vivendi with Hamas probably also factored in the formidable risks associated with launching a comprehensive preemptive Israeli military campaign against them, as well as his previous success in managing tensions with the group.

Levite concludes:

In final analysis, governments should periodically revisit their precise expectations of warnings from the intelligence community to ascertain that these are not only realistic but also adjusted to changing circumstances and policy priorities. They should recognize the ever-present risks of relying on intelligence at the expense of planning for unexpected scenarios. Most policymakers would rather not worry about threats that their intelligence services view as unlikely. Prediction and estimates should not supplant preparedness, as they will inevitably lead to occasional failure. Some, perhaps subconsciously, are eager to have intelligence as a convenient scapegoat should debacles occur. But it falls to policymakers to realize that intelligence is always imperfect. For this reason, prediction should never take the place of preparedness.