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  • Writer's pictureLuis Rueda

Israel's Intelligence Challenge

It remains too early to determine how the recent Hamas attack against Israel will play out. The end result won't be understood for months to come, though an Israeli military victory is almost certain. The real question is will there be a political victory for one or the other side, or for none? At this early stage, there are some lessons, however, that we can look at, primarily in the intelligence realm.


Many experts on the region are talking about whether there was a failure in Israeli intelligence. There was certainly a failure, but what few are also noting is that this has been a Hamas intelligence victory. As the old saying goes, it takes two to tango, and in this case, Hamas proved a formidable intelligence foe. Let us look at this dynamic and some lessons learned.


Fixed Defenses Have Drawbacks: Israel invested at least a billion dollars to construct a physical barrier to control Palestinian movements, to prevent terrorists from crossing over, or at least limit their room for maneuver, and to maintain the area under constant surveillance. The problem with fixed defenses is that they are predictable. The enemy has plenty of time to study these defenses, searching for weaknesses and gaps. The enemy can test the defenses by sending teams to attempt crossings with little hope of actual success but a great chance of gathering intelligence on how these defenses operate and whether there are gaps and weaknesses that can be exploited. After all, Hamas members are willing to die for the cause. It stands to reason that they would be willing to risk themselves to gather intelligence for future operations.


It is likely Hamas had been studying the Israeli barrier for months, if not longer, before their attempt to breach it. They would have run tests of the barrier in order to determine the best ways to break through.


False Sense of Security: Fixed defenses can also lead one side to believe they are safe. Over time, as the defenses deter the enemy or prevent them from successfully conducting operations, a sense of invulnerability builds. Especially when a nation has spent a significant amount of money. The expenditure has to be justified, and careers and reputations can be on the line.


Israel placed a great deal of trust in the barrier. After all, it was working. They believed Hamas lacked the sophistication and ability to breach it. Everything was under surveillance. One can almost imagine meetings where someone would say something along the lines of, "A flea can't move there without us knowing about it."


Over, Under, Around, and Through: In the end, fixed defenses can be breached by a determined enemy. History has shown that no fortifications or defenses are impenetrable. The French Maginot Line of the Second World War is an example. Billions in today's dollars were spent on constructing an impregnable line of defenses to deter a German invasion of France. But instead of going through, the Germans went around. Like the Germans and the Maginot Line, Hamas found ways to pierce the Israeli barrier. In this case, they went over it, around it, and through it. Few things are impenetrable. Build a thirty-foot wall and someone will build a thirty-one-foot ladder.


An Intelligence Service Doesn't Know Everything: The Israeli intelligence services have had a long history of successes. A string of daring operations, major operational victories, and successful coverage of all its Arab neighbors has bred a degree of arrogance. They have been hailed as masters of intelligence operations against their neighboring targets. This, however, leads intelligence agencies to believe they are infallible, that they know everything and they know best. That is a fatal flaw in the intelligence profession. Intelligence agencies should always operate under the question, "What don't we know?" Intelligence agencies can never know everything, nor can they know enough to satisfy the needs of the country. I am sure the current internal political uproar in Israel also contributed to an inward focus rather than an outward one.


Hamas Intelligence Victory: A foe must be ready to exploit the weaknesses and failings of the opposing intelligence organization. Hamas' ability to plan and execute this recent attack, on such a large scale, without it coming to the attention of the Israeli intelligence services, must be categorized as a victory for Hamas. I don’t say this with admiration, I am just stating a fact. Hamas demonstrated a new level of operational discipline in this attack. They maintained secure communications, likely avoiding phones and other transmissions, relying on old-fashioned methods, such as couriers and face-to-face meetings. They avoided or neutralized Israel's HUMINT capabilities, which is extremely significant. Were they able to identify Israeli human sources? Were they able to compromise and turn those sources, or run double agents into Mossad and Shin Bet, all designed to feed Israel the information Hamas wanted them to have?


In the late 1980s, it was discovered that Cuba and East Germany had been running double agents against the CIA. The program was so successful that the CIA's human sources reporting on Cuba and East Germany were all controlled by the opposition and were feeding the US controlled information. Could this be, in part, what happened in Gaza? These are all techniques used by Iran to great effect, and Hezbollah as well. Hamas receives support from both. It stands to reason that Hamas has received training and advice on counterintelligence tradecraft and they have applied it against Israel.


Whatever the reasons, Hamas pulled off a significant surprise attack that evaded Israel's sophisticated intelligence apparatus. Israel, and the world, face a more capable and dangerous Hamas. We must accept that Hamas has become a more sophisticated and deadly intelligence foe, one who must be taken seriously as such.


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