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Hamas’s stealth attack will be remembered as Israeli intelligence failure for the ages

Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel, on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war, will be remembered as an intelligence failure for the ages.

In the space of several hours, dozens of Gaza militants broke through the border fence into southern Israel, surprising local military positions.

Gunmen kidnapped and murdered Israelis in the southern border communities, filming their assault as they advanced in numerous locations. In one instance, a Gaza television journalist delivered a standup report about one attack from inside Israel, an almost unthinkable moment.

While the images of several thousand rockets sectoring the sky has become familiar over the years during the periodic upticks in fighting around Gaza, the footage of Hamas assault teams moving through the streets in communities such as Sderot, blowing the gates off a kibbutz and firing on passing cars and pedestrians, showed scenes not witnessed by most Israelis, for whom short-lived attacks in cities have become a fact of life.

If it is surprising it is because Israel’s surveillance of Palestinian society is both highly sophisticated and highly invasive, with monitoring of Hamas’s activity in particular one of the most important tasks for the security establishment.

As whistleblowers from the Israeli defence forces cyberwarfare 8200 Unit revealed to the Guardian and other media in 2014, the net for developing sources is almost all-encompassing in their task to identify potential informers in the occupied Palestinian territories.

They were told to seek individuals with financial and health problems, those vulnerable because of sexual impropriety, efforts duplicated in entry and exit interviews for those Palestinians allowed to leave the coastal strip.

Members of militant groups inside Israeli prisons have also historically been targeted for intelligence efforts, all of which makes Israel’s being unsighted on the planned Hamas attack all the more surprising.

Israel’s surveillance technology industry, as evidenced by the Pegasus spyware scandal, is among the most advanced in the world. Despite all of this, Hamas’s preparations were missed.

It is true that Hamas, while always determined and capable of long-term planning, has become much more skilful at adapting to the military challenges it faces, often expending large amounts of effort in its planning and in its identification of Israeli vulnerabilities, a fact very well-known to Israel’s defence forces.

Israel 'at war' as Hamas militants launch surprise attack – video

Israel ‘at war’ as Hamas militants launch surprise attack – video

While it is known from previous rounds of fighting in Gaza that Hamas has worked to develop independent and redundant military communication networks, including their own battlefield rebroadcast systems, this suggests two things.

The first is that this was planned with a level of operational security, not just within Hamas but also rival Gaza factions, unprecedented in previous rounds of fighting where at least the broad shape if not the extent of Hamas’s building-up of stockpiles has been identified and broadcast by Israel.

Military analysts have already been quick to suggest that Hamas is likely to have employed significant deception as well as the shock of attacks from multiple domains – including rocket and infiltration – to create maximum chaos.

What is clear is that at several points in the buildup, potential preparations were missed: planning, stockpiling, but most crucially, in the immediate run-up to the Hamas offensive when its fighters were mustering and approaching border areas overseen by regular patrols, cameras, ground motion sensors and remote-controlled mini-cannon in places which in the past have proved effective against attempts to storm the border fence.

All of which suggests an operation which – like previous Hamas surprise infiltration attacks including those involving tunnels into Israel – required a huge amount of preparation.

Perhaps significant is the fact – as Israeli media has pointed out – that incidents involving Hamas in recent months were not identified by the Israeli defence forces and intelligence agencies as part of a buildup to war.

People look at the damage on their street after a rocket attack by Hamas.People look at the damage on their street in Ramla, Israel, after a rocket attack by Hamas. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Even as firefights continued with Hamas infiltrators in Israeli communities in southern Israel, the Israeli media was asking the inevitable question: how this could have been allowed to happen on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war, itself regarded as a colossal intelligence failure when Israel was attacked by an Arab coalition.

“All of Israel is asking itself: Where is the IDF, where is the police, where is the security?” asked Eli Marom, the former head of the Israeli navy, on live television. “It’s a colossal failure; the hierarchies have simply failed, with vast consequences.”

On social media and elsewhere, Israeli leaders – including the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu – were being openly castigated for hours from officials as the attack unfolded, a silence that was only broken by the appearance of the defence minister, Yoav Gallant.

One thing is clear, however: this attack takes place in the midst of a period of profound social dislocation for Israel. Netanyahu’s far-right government, peopled with individuals in cabinet roles who should not hold public office, such as Itamar Ben Gvir, the minister for national security, have spent their time pouring petrol on what was an already highly combustible situation in the occupied territories.

Netanyahu’s pointless and self-serving conflict with large parts of Israeli society over his much-criticised plans to undermine the country’s supreme court, even as he is in the midst of legal proceedings for allegations of corruption, has overwhelmed public debate, prompting large numbers of reservists to threaten to withhold their service.

Even when Netanyahu did finally speak, it was to reflect an Israeli political and security establishment profoundly shaken. This was not an “operation” or a “round” of fighting he stated, but a state of war.

With Hamas unable to sustain its incursion for any length of time, it seems horribly clear that it will end with maximum horror. Shock was, and is, the point.

The major question is the scope of Israel’s response. Already framed as a war, Hamas’s attack will put pressure on Netanyahu from a far right that has long pushed for a definitive attack on Gaza, perhaps ending in full reoccupation. Messages from friends in Gaza and Israel show the fear over what comes next is overwhelming.

Peter Beaumont is a former Jerusalem correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer

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