Hamas terrorists break through the Israeli side of the fence in Gaza City on Saturday. (Photo by Hani Alshaer via Getty Images)

How Israel Got Ambushed

The country’s world-famous defenses failed on four levels. The worst was underestimating the enemy.

Since 2011, Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome has saved countless lives and made its citizens feel safe under its security blanket. But that feeling of security was shattered on Saturday, when close to 1,000 Hamas fighters, armed to the teeth with assault rifles, explosive devices, and RPGs, penetrated Israel in a surprise ground attack that breached multiple border defenses. Now, as this piece is going to press, Hezbollah in Lebanon is attacking Israel from the north. 

The Iron Dome largely worked on Saturday—intercepting most of the rockets fired. And yet Israel’s world-famous defense system has suffered a collapse, enabling Hamas terrorists, funded and directed by Iran, to invade without resistance, giving them hours to roam and kill innocent citizens, abducting babies, men, and women as they slept in their beds, hid inside bomb shelters, and ran from a desert rave.

Today, senior Hamas official Ali Baraka, in an interview on an Arabic-language TV station, boasted that the terrorist organization had been planning the attack for two years. 

“The zero hour was kept completely secret. . . . Hamas leaders knew it. The number of people who knew about the attack and its timing could be counted on one hand.” 

The fact that Hamas kept this secret is arguably Israel’s most serious failure. Israeli intelligence agencies—the Mossad, the Shin Bet, and the Military Intelligence Directorate (Aman)—are seen as world-beating institutions. Only a few years ago, they located and stole Iran’s nuclear archives right from under the noses of the ayatollahs. Israel invests billions in tracking every movement of every presumed terrorist in Gaza. But somehow they missed this. 

One reason why is that Israel hasn’t had a physical presence or human agents in Gaza since its unilateral withdrawal from the region in 2005. Most of its tracking today is done by signals intelligence. So Hamas likely avoided using any electronic devices to communicate plans of their attack. And, as Baraka said, they kept the plan highly compartmentalized within Hamas ranks, with gunmen told only a small piece of the puzzle, to prevent a leak. 

This shows impressive operational discipline on Hamas’s part, and it will require Israel to restructure its intelligence apparatus once this war is over. The fact that—as of Wednesday night in Israel—the IDF has still not entered Gaza shows they’re remaining cautious, because what else might they be missing? 

The breakdown in Israel’s physical defenses was its second big failure. Over the years, Israel has invested billions of dollars in barriers—above and below ground—in addition to sophisticated sensors, cameras, radars, and remote-control guns that were supposed to stop anyone from entering Israel through the fence or via cross-border tunnels.

And yet, Hamas proved these defensive measures were not just penetrable, but nothing more than a nuisance. The terrorist organization released videos showing their gunmen breaking through with ease, cutting holes in the barrier so big that pickup trucks could drive right across. They sent in drones, paragliders, and navy forces under the cover of rocket barrages, while bombing Israel’s remote-control guns from above.

The terrorists’ breach of the fence appears to be down to a mix of luck and sophisticated tactics. Hamas used the last few weeks to hold protests along the border to normalize the presence of people in a usually restricted area. Attacking on Saturday morning during a holiday gave them another advantage. At 6:30 a.m., soldiers are just waking up and switching shifts. Meanwhile, rocket fire from the sky pushed Israeli soldiers at their bases into protective spaces, meaning they were unable to stand outside and watch for invaders. And when Hamas used drones to drop bombs on Israel’s communications towers, the IDF lost its chain of command. 

And this led to a delay in the deployment of IDF forces, Israel’s third defensive failure. 

One former IDF colonel told me he was wondering all day Saturday why there were no Air Force Apache attack helicopters hovering above the border firing Hellfire missiles at anyone who dared cross. But, with the IDF’s division headquarters under attack, it was almost impossible for the chief of staff in Tel Aviv to find out what was going on or how to respond in those crucial early hours of the assault. This is why there are so many amazing stories of brave reservists and civilians who heard the gunfire, grabbed a weapon, and drove down south, going house-to-house to save lives. They just went on their own, without any air support.

Rockets fired from Gaza are intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome on October 8. (Eyad Baba via Getty Images)

It has taken the IDF a long time to regain its war footing. Only on Monday morning did the military announce—with some degree of confidence—that it had succeeded in clearing out armed Hamas terrorist infiltrators from the kibbutzim along the border.

But possibly Israel’s biggest failure is that it overestimated its strength—and underestimated its enemy. 

For the last nine months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been tearing itself apart over its proposed judicial reforms, leading to massive protests of hundreds of thousands of Israelis on a weekly basis. Reservists were even threatening not to serve in the army. Israel has appeared weak and divided—and Hamas has taken full advantage of that. 

What’s more, according to recent reports, an Egyptian intelligence official had warned Netanyahu of a looming Hamas attack, but those warnings were ignored. Though Israel has dismissed the claim as “fake news,” it’s true the nation has become lax toward the situation in Gaza.

For almost 20 years, since pulling out of the area, Israel has kept to a policy of containment regarding Gaza’s Hamas rulers, believing it could deter the terrorist group through occasional military confrontations and economic incentives. Israel gave work permits to Gazans so they could get jobs in construction or agriculture or the service sector in the country or the West Bank, where the pay is ten times higher.

But this strategy assumed Hamas was a rational actor. Clearly, that was a deadly assumption.

As Hamas leader Baraka bragged on TV, “We made them think that Hamas was busy governing Gaza and that it wanted to focus on the 2.5 million Palestinians (in Gaza) and has abandoned the resistance altogether. All the while. . . Hamas was preparing for this big attack.

“The Israelis are known to love life,” he continued. “We, on the other hand, sacrifice ourselves. We consider our dead to be martyrs. The thing any Palestinian desires the most is to be martyred for the sake of Allah, defending his land.”

Until the weekend, everyone in Jerusalem and Washington believed the terrorist group cared more about the survival of its regime than all-out war.

After an attack in the south and now in the north, Israel is waking up to its inherent vulnerability.

And their myth about the enemy has been exploded. 

Yaakov Katz is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, a former editor of the Jerusalem Post where he remains a columnist, and the author of three books on Israeli military affairs. Follow him on Twitter (now X) @yaakovkatz.

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