In the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel vowed to never again be caught off-guard as it was when Egyptian and Syrian forces, backed by Jordanian, Iraqi, Libyan and Tunisian troops, invaded the tiny Mediterranean country on the holiest Jewish day. Fifty years and one day later, Jerusalem again was unprepared as Iran-backed Hamas launched a surprise attack against Israel.
Israel’s seeming intelligence failure was colossal, on par with the Yom Kippur War, Pearl Harbor and 9/1l. Using methods and procedures not yet known, Hamas was able to coordinate, under the radar screen of the Israel Defense Forces, the simultaneous launching of more than 5,000 rockets, amphibious assaults using watercraft, breaching en masse the Erez border crossing, and even purportedly using a hang glider to circumvent the border fence separating Gaza from Israel.
The Military Intelligence Directorate (Aman), Mossad and Shin Bet likely are scrambling to determine how and why Israel failed to predict and prevent what is still unfolding across the country — especially given the symbolism of Oct. 6 as a date in Mideast history.
In addition to the start of the Yom Kippur War, that date marked the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1981. And Oct. 7, the date of Hamas’ attack, is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s birthday, so perhaps Hamas opted to be part of his “Arsenals of Evil” with Iran and North Korea.
How could Israel have missed this, knowing that terrorist organizations often attack on meaningful dates?
Even Hamas’ codename for the assault — “Al-Aqsa Storm” — suggests that Mohammed Deif, its military commander, intended the magnitude of this military operation to be so great that Israeli intelligence should have had opportunities to detect elements of it. “Al-Aqsa” traditionally is used by Palestinian terrorist groups when they commit large-scale attacks, such as the “Second Intifada” uprising in the early 2000s, which is commonly known as the “Al-Aqsa Intifada” in Palestine.
Israel now knows the scale, at least as it stands now. Early Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “We are at war — not an ‘operation,’ not a ‘round,’ but at war.” Suddenly, a country that was badly divided over Netanyahu’s judicial reforms reunited in the wake of the attacks.
Long-planned judicial protests were abruptly canceled and Israel’s leading political opposition leaders, including Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Avigdor Liberman and Merav Michaeli, issued a joint statement, declaring: “In times like these, there is no opposition and coalition in Israel. We will provide full support to the security forces for a harsh and strong response against terrorism.”
Jerusalem’s ruling elite clearly understand that the situation is grave and could become worse. Iran-backed Hezbollah looms to the north as a menace in Lebanon, and Iran itself, with its growing nuclear weapons program, poses an existential threat to Israel from the east. As Saturday turned into nighttime, Netanyahu, his generals and intelligence figures likely were wondering whether more was to come from Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran — or perhaps all three.
If reports are accurate, Israel will take no chances. Fox News’ Trey Yingst tweeted on X that “Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are being called up. Israel is bracing for the possibility of a multi-front conflict.”
That level of military mobilization, unprecedented for 50 years, would dwarf the 30,000 soldiers deployed during the ground invasion of Lebanon against Hezbollah in 2006. It also would eclipse the 78,000 troops used during Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982, when Israel attacked Palestinian Liberation Organization, Syrian and Lebanese forces, resulting in the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.
We go back to the Yom Kippur War to find a parallel level of mobilization. Then, fighting for its survival, Israel fielded more than 415,000 troops and reservists. So, at least for now, Israel believes this fight is far greater than just the close fight with Hamas in Gaza — and potentially one that could extend all the way to Tehran.
Israel also cannot discount that individuals or groups might attempt attacks from the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas did nothing to assure Jerusalem that this will not happen. Even though Hamas is his mortal enemy, he backed the terrorist organization, saying, “Palestinians have a right to defend themselves.”
It is too early to conclude exactly how Israel — and Egyptian, U.S. and NATO intelligence agencies as well — missed this buildup, but it is likely that Hamas went to ground in a fashion similar to Osama bin Laden’s approach in Afghanistan: foot messengers, cut-outs and paper plans, if needed, to avoid cell or satellite phone chatter and email or other forms of messaging and file storage on the web that could be detected by Israel.
Regardless of how Deif pulled this off, Israel knows its next fight against Hamas, or its successor, just became exponentially harder. Netanyahu and his war Cabinet may conclude that Hamas must be destroyed and Iran’s nuclear weapons program neutralized.
Hamas’ incursion has the look and feel of an operation planned by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). If true, this likely was a state-sponsored act of war and planned as a multi-domain operation that was handed down to Gaza City for execution. Combining cyber attacks, drones, rockets, ground attacks, hang gliders and amphibious assaults may not have been detected because the planning happened in Tehran.
Israel’s intelligence agencies eventually will face a day of reckoning, and Netanyahu could find himself ousted from office, as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was in June 1974, after her government failed to realize an attack was imminent with the Yom Kippur War. For now, however, there is a war to be won — against Hamas, at a minimum, and Iran, if need be.
Mark Toth (@MCTothSTL) writes on national security and foreign policy. Previously an economist and entrepreneur, he has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. A former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, he has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world.
Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet (@JESweet2022) served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14.