Faced with one of the most sophisticated surveillance states on the planet, Hamas went dark. The militant group’s attack on Saturday caught Israel’s national security apparatus entirely off guard — a shocking fact given the scope of the incursion, which included attacks by sea, air, and land and pushed deep into Israeli territory.
In theory, it shouldn’t have been possible. Israel’s intelligence services have a reputation as some of the world’s most sophisticated. Its military flies spy drones around the globe. Its military snipers are among the most deadly in the world. Its ground forces can track movements from miles away, allowing commanders to avoid needless combat and limit the number of casualties.
But despite the best efforts of Israel’s military and intelligence services, it seems that Hamas got away with it. Its success reveals that actual intelligence failures aren’t just about a lack of information but also about how you interpret the information you do have. It is a lesson that will haunt the CIA and its allies as long as they continue to rely on Israel for intelligence about the Middle East.
The most serious error that Israel and the US made after the attack may have been a simple assumption about Hamas. Israeli officials may have thought they understood the evil hatred that drives the group and its backers in Iran. However, they seem to have failed to appreciate the organization’s creativity and competence in using its resources.
It’s hard to know what Hamas was after in its surprise attack on Israel. The group’s leaders may have decided that with Israelis riven by division over the efforts of the most right-wing government in the country’s history to neuter its supreme court, it was time for a strike. It’s possible, too, that the decision was a calculated risk taken to disrupt the prospects for an accord between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which would require Israel to make concessions on Jerusalem’s disputed Al Aqsa mosque.
It will take years to sift through all the intelligence failings that allowed Hamas to operate with such brazen impunity. But the details are beginning to emerge. In particular, it was crucial to the group’s ability to operate in low-tech ways that avoided Israel’s capacity to tap its communications. Its use of social media was another critical factor. And, as a former CIA official once said, it pays to have an excellent public relations team.