The ferocity of Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel, nearly 50 years after the Yom Kippur war, has provoked questions about Israel’s intelligence capabilities. How, many wonder, did a hardened group of fighters operating deep inside Israeli towns and villages manage to launch such a devastating assault?
The answer, experts say, is that sophisticated counterintelligence measures probably aided the surprise attack. That, combined with internal weakness and laxity in Israel’s security posture, enabled Hamas to attack on such a scale without being detected.
A former longtime senior CIA operations officer in the Middle East and elsewhere, Marc Polymeropoulos, says Hamas likely used an unprecedented tactic to mislead Israel over the last months by giving it the impression that its leaders were unprepared for a full-scale fight. In the end, he notes, Israel was caught entirely by surprise. It will have to take immediate steps to determine what counterintelligence measures were employed, root out any insider threats, and fill crucial gaps in its intelligence-collection posture in the future.
It is also possible that conditions aided Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where its fighters are confined behind a 51-km border, and a 2.3 million-strong population is crammed into a space about the size of Washington DC. The territory is riven with tunnels and bunkers that make finding and rescuing militants captured in such places difficult. And, of course, the area is crowded with Hezbollah and other militias that work closely with Hamas, providing logistical support in their battle against Israel.
Another factor that may have helped Hamas is that it was encouraged by Iran, a state sponsor of terrorism, and the Islamic Republic’s allies in Qatar and Turkey. They have provided Hamas with financial, material, and operational assistance since its inception in the late 1980s.
As a result, Hamas’s commando forces operate as a conventional army would, using modern tactical resources and fighting in multiple locations at once rather than simply sending out scouts to monitor Israel’s borders and airspace. As a result, they often move unseen and can deliver deadly and devastating attacks. Even so, it is unlikely that such a large-scale military confrontation between Hamas and Israel will continue to happen indefinitely. Despite the carnage that has already occurred and is sure to continue, both sides are likely to feel compelled by their self-interest to make concessions. But a significant flare-up could occur at any time, given the right circumstances. And in that case, neither side will want to pay the price for being the first to blink. That is why this unexpected conflict shows that surprise can still be possible in the era of artificial intelligence. The writer is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. Follow him on Twitter: @RichardLeBaron. This commentary is provided free of charge through a grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.