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The Hamas Attack and the Failure to Understand “Intelligence Failures”

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Paul Pillar

The most basic distinction concerning knowledge of foreign threats is between tactical knowledge of plans and intentions for a specific attack and strategic knowledge of a foreign danger that could materialize in any of several forms of attack.

Much early commentary about the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting has followed a familiar script that appears each time a foreign state or group commits a sudden, violent act large enough to shock the global public. At least as much attention has been given to asking how Israel, with its vaunted intelligence and security services, could have failed to predict—and, presumably, to ward off preemptively—the assault as to the discussion of the fundamental circumstances underlying the violence. Among declarations of “intelligence failure,” one hears related terms that are used often enough to have become clichés, such as “connecting the dots” and “failure of imagination.”

Viewing the Israel-Hamas situation with this script misrepresents what does and does not tend to be knowable by governments, as well as what is most important for a government to know to protect its citizens from harm.

It is impossible to make well-founded judgments about all the failures that may have occurred without detailed knowledge of the relevant communications and interactions inside Israeli officialdom. Lack of such knowledge has not stopped many outside commentators from nonetheless offering opinions on the subject—another familiar pattern in reactions to shocking events. At some point, the inevitable commission of inquiry in Israel will perhaps make some relevant information public.

However, one should not place great hope in such inquiries because they tend to be political exercises whose shortcomings are seldom recognized. Those conducting the investigation are under pressure to satisfy a public yearning for an explanation based on an understandable and fixable problem. This yearning is powered by the intense emotions that a recent tragedy has aroused. It is not beyond such inquiries to twist explanations to satisfy that yearning, as the 9/11 Commission in the United States did, in the process of selling its proposed organizational fix, by misrepresenting what intelligence agencies did or did not say about jihadist terrorism before the 9/11 attacks.

After the last previous Arab attack that was a national shock to Israel—the Egyptian offensive in the Sinai that began the Yom Kippur War fifty years ago this month—the subsequent Israeli commission of inquiry concluded that to avoid such surprises in the future, the Israeli intelligence community needed to become more decentralized. The 9/11 Commission made the opposite argument in pushing for greater centralization of the U.S. intelligence community. Both commissions cannot be correct. Each was satisfying a public and political desire for some change, which could be considered a “fix” to the organizational status quo.

The most basic distinction, too little understood, concerning knowledge of foreign threats, is between tactical knowledge of plans and intentions for a specific attack and strategic knowledge of a foreign danger that could materialize in several forms of attack.

The tactical type of knowledge is typically difficult for any government to obtain, even with a highly professional intelligence service. A small terrorist group can make plans and preparations surreptitiously, eschewing vulnerable means of communication and acting ruthlessly toward suspected informants. Hamas is a larger organization with broader responsibilities in the Gaza Strip, but it also is quite capable of acting surreptitiously and ruthlessly. There is no reason to doubt that Hamas places high emphasis on, and is adept at, keeping secrets.

The more strategic type of knowledge is generally more obtainable. It has been easily obtainable regarding the possibility of serious Palestinian violence against Israel because it is based on circumstances in the Palestinian territories that have been playing out for many years.

Specifically, strategic knowledge of the threat of violence against Israel is based on the anger and resentment that inevitably result from occupation, denial of political and human rights, and the denial of a reasonable daily life. The anger and resentment can take and have taken various forms. This month’s horrific attack by Hamas is one form. There are others. Even before the current round of fighting in and around Gaza, the chance of a new popular uprising, or intifada, in the West Bank was high. It is still high today.

The strategic type of knowledge is at least as valuable as the tactical type because it is the basis for fundamental solutions to long-term problems. Responding to specific or possible threats with tactical intelligence can have a whack-a-mole quality. In defending against a terrorist group, this means the group switches plans and targets when it appears that an earlier plan has been foiled or precluded.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would be hard-pressed to continually counter all the possible avenues of violent expression of Palestinian resentment. The Israeli leadership has been criticized for focusing on occupation in the West Bank in ways that drew IDF resources away from the areas near the Gaza Strip. That is a fair criticism, although if the violence this month had instead started with a West Bank intifada, questions probably would have been raised in the opposite direction about where IDF troops had been deployed.

The most basic failure in the Israeli government has been the perpetuation of occupation and suppression of Palestinian rights (including a suffocating blockade of the Gaza Strip) that perpetuates the kind of anger that, in turn, perpetuates violence, including the violence seen this month. This judgment does not require any detailed knowledge of communications within the Israeli government. It is based on policies that are plain for all to see and on experiences elsewhere in the world when one ethnic or religious group oppresses another.

What is less certain is the extent to which this failure involves a lack of understanding—an “intelligence failure” in the broadest sense—or policy decisions taken despite such awareness. Israeli leaders have indicated that they expect perpetual violence from subjugated Palestinians but are willing to deal with that as the price for keeping the land and their other policies intact. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that Israel will control “all of the territory” and “live forever by the sword.” Israel leaders speak of periodically “mowing the lawn” with overwhelming military force to reduce Palestinian capability and will. The devastation the IDF is inflicting on Gaza is the latest mowing.

There are other indications, however, that Israeli leaders mistakenly believed that the periodic lawn-mowing, the walling off of ugly happenings in the West Bank, the distracting effect of “peace” agreements with Arab states, the occasionalgesture making life in Gaza slightly less miserable, and other tactics to “shrink” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be sufficient to keep Palestinian violence much below the level of the Hamas assault. Such a belief partly reflects motivated thinking; the desire to keep all of the West Bank and to contain Gaza as a half-forgotten open-air prison led Israeli leaders to believe that this could be done at an acceptable price regarding anti-Israeli violence.

The policies of successive U.S. administrations toward Israel have encouraged such a false belief. After a Trump administration that based its own Middle East policy on the same belief and on giving the Israeli government whatever it desired, the Biden administration has picked up on the notion that normalization agreements with Arab states can give the appearance of “peace” in the Middle East while sufficiently sidelining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that the administration can devote its attention to other matters such as China and the war in Ukraine.

This kind of administration thinking is reflected in national security advisor Jake Sullivan’s untimely and now much-criticized remarks, just eight days before the Hamas attack, describing favorable things happening in the Middle East that were permitting the United States to turn its attention elsewhere and leading Sullivan to declare, “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.” The remarks certainly deserve criticism, but not because Sullivan failed to peer intently enough into some crystal ball that would have enabled him to predict Hamas’s attack. The statement was faulty in two other respects.

One is to confuse stability and instability with whatever disorder occurs when one speaks. Instability is the potential for trouble to occur. A table with a rickety leg is unstable even if it is not in the process of collapsing right now. The Middle East was still an unstable place, worthy of attention, even on weeks when the death toll from its conflicts was relatively low.

Sullivan’s second fault was to ignore some of the bloodshed that already was occurring, specifically in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where even before this month, casualties were rising. From the beginning of 2015 (Israel’s last big war in Gaza was in 2014) through August of this year, deaths from violence between Israelis and Palestinians totaled 1,595 Palestinians—more than the casualties Hamas reportedly inflicted on Israel in its weekend assault—along with 144 Israelis.

But most of those earlier Palestinian casualties dribbled onto the tally sheet in weekly or daily encounters in which West Bank residents fell victim to the IDF or Israeli settlers. Being less noticeable, they did not deter a senior official from talking about “quiet” in the region. Nor do they influence perceptions among the public, which is largely unaware of such deaths apart from the occasional brief mention on the inner pages of a few newspapers.