Netanyahu's Excuses For Bungling Intelligence On Hamas Attack Don't Add Up
One of the oldest public relations rules in the book is that you can’t have it both ways. Right now, Israel may be prevailing in its shooting war with Hamas, but it’s losing the propaganda war for exactly that reason.
It didn’t have to be this way. Much of the world rallied around Israel after the savage attack the terrorist group Hamas launched on Israel on October 8 that took 240 hostages and killed 1,400 Israelis, the large majority of whom were civilians, including the elderly, pregnant women, children, even babies.
For the next few days, the world recoiled in horror as reports of Hamas atrocities appeared. When Israel began launching airstrikes at what they called Hamas targets in Gaza, there were few complaints. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began massing on the border with Gaza by the tens and then hundreds of thousands, and nobody objected. President Joe Biden and other American politicians issued statements confirming their belief in Israel’s right to defend itself. NATO allies in Europe, including Great Britain, Italy, Germany, and other countries followed suit.
World leaders such as President Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, as well the leaders of other countries have visited Israel to show their countries’ support.
But now, as Israeli airstrikes have surged past 7,000, the death toll of Palestinians killed in Gaza surpasses 8,000, and Israeli combat troops have entered northern Gaza and are engaged in ground combat with Hamas militants, questions have arisen about Israel’s tactics and its strategy in the war beyond its avowed aim to “wipe Hamas from the face of the earth.” It is how Israel intends to accomplish this goal that has become a major concern, even among Israel’s friends and allies.
Last week, after vetoing a U.N. resolution calling for a humanitarian pause in Israel’s attacks on Gaza so that more aid could be trucked in, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was quoted as saying that “humanitarian pauses must be considered” so that more water and food and medicine could be supplied to civilians in Gaza caught in the war between Israel and Hamas. NBC News quoted a Biden administration official saying that the administration now backed a pause “of indeterminate duration” to allow aid to reach Gaza. Israeli officials told NBC that they “hear” the calls for a pause for humanitarian aid, and it was “actively being discussed.” However, Hamas has only intermittently allowed the Gaza gate with Egypt to open for aid, and the State Department has said that Hamas has forbidden the departure of civilians from Gaza.
Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes, primarily on northern Gaza, have continued unabated. On Tuesday, October 24 alone, Israel conducted more than 400 airstrikes. Health officials for Hamas claimed afterwards that those airstrikes killed 700 Palestinians. Hamas casualty figures do not separate out numbers of civilian dead from Hamas militants killed, and Israeli officials regularly call Hamas casualty figures inflated. CNN reported on Saturday that a spokesman for Israel Defense Forces announced that “its warplanes hit 150 underground targets in northern Gaza overnight, striking what it called terror tunnels and underground combat spaces and killing several Hamas operatives.”
Every news channel is reporting that overnight, Israel bombed targets in the Jabalia refugee camp just north of Gaza city in an attempt to knock out a Hamas complex of tunnels and command centers under the camp. A spokesman for the IDF claimed that the strike had killed Ibrahim Biari, who was said to have been one of the senior commanders who planned the Hamas attack on October 7. Photos show at least four massive craters in Jabalia, at least one of them appearing to be more than 100 feet in diameter, and all of them at least 50 feet deep.
It is impossible to know what was there before the bombs hit, but the blast-zone is surrounded by concrete buildings, all with their fronts blown off, what had been living spaces or bedrooms open to the air. Jabalia is not what one would regularly think of as a refugee camp, with tents and makeshift structures protecting refugees from the elements. It became a space for Palestinian refugees shortly after Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, and the place has long since been built into what amounts to a regular city. It is one of the most densely populated cities on the planet, according to several sources.
Military experts on MSNBC are saying that the craters are of the kind left by so-called bunker buster bombs. U.S. versions of bunker busters are laser-guided munitions dropped by fighter jets that weigh as much as 4,000 pounds and carry warheads weighing 650 pounds. It is known that there are larger bunker buster munitions that weigh as much as 5,000 pounds and carry 2,400-pound warheads. MSNBC quoted a Hamas hospital official saying that “dozens” had been killed, with “hundreds” injured in the attack.
On Tuesday night, MSNBC was showing footage of damage in Gaza City from Israeli airstrikes. The damage looked like it covered whole neighborhoods, with buildings collapsed into themselves and against one another. The damage looked indiscriminate, similar to what was seen after the bombing of Aleppo, Syria, by Syrian and Russian warplanes.
Military experts on CNN and MSNBC have said again and again that nothing can be determined about the damage done by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, Jabalia, and elsewhere until investigators can get into Gaza and look at evidence of what was destroyed. That is another way of saying that until then, we’re left with Israel’s reports of its airstrikes and Hamas’ reports of the casualties they caused.
The New York Times on Sunday came out with a deep dive into how Israel missed the cues leading up to the Hamas sneak attack on October 7. It ran on the front page under the headline, “Hubris and Mixed Signals as Hamas Readied Attack.” The story contains some very damning information about Bibi Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians turning down meetings with Israel’s top generals in the months leading up to the attack. With demonstrations in the streets against Netanyahu’s plan to limit the power of Israel’s judiciary, and Israeli military reservists and air force pilots threatening to resign over the issue, the Times report says that General Aharon Haliva, the head of the Israeli Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence Directorate, tried to meet with members of the Knesset on July 24 with a report “that the political turmoil was creating an opportunity for Israel’s enemies to attack, particularly if there were more resignations in the military. Only two members of the Knesset came to hear his briefing. One top-secret document he was prepared to share with Israel’s top parliamentary leaders said “that the leaders of what Israeli officials call the ‘axis of resistance” — Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad — believed this was a moment of Israeli weakness and a time to strike.”
The Times reported Israel’s top uniformed military leader, Chief of Staff Gen. Herzi Halevi, requested a meeting “to deliver the same warnings to Mr. Netanyahu.” The Israeli Prime Minister refused to meet with him.
According to the Times, before last summer Israel had almost completely dropped its guard with respect to Hamas, choosing instead to consider that Hezbollah, backed directly by Iran, was the biggest threat the nation faced. Hezbollah had military assets all the way across Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, and had shelled and rocketed Israel occasionally for years.
“The official assessment of Israeli military intelligence and the National Security Council since May 2021 was that Hamas had no interest in launching an attack from Gaza that might invite a devastating response from Israel,” the Times reported on Sunday. “Instead, Israeli intelligence assessed that Hamas was trying to foment violence against Israelis in the West Bank, which is controlled by its rival, the Palestinian Authority.”
In the days before the Hamas attack on October 7, Israel had sent three battalions of its front-line troops north from their stations on the Gaza border north into the West Bank to deter an expected Hezbollah attack on a religious celebration by ultra-Orthodox settlers there, which along with erroneous intelligence threat assessments could explain why the Gaza border was so thinly defended by the Israel Defense Forces on October 7.
Israel thought Hamas posed such a minor threat that four senior Israeli military officials told the Times they had reduced their defenses so that “The Barrier -- a nearly 40-mile-long reinforced concrete wall above and below ground, completed in 2021 — would hermetically seal off Gaza. There was also a surveillance system at the border based almost exclusively on cameras, sensors and remote-operated ‘sight-shooter’ systems.” Because of Israel’s reduced observation of Hamas movements, training, and electronic communications, Israel’s intelligence agencies completely missed evidence of Hamas training exercises that took place out in the open in broad daylight. Hamas had even constructed a model of an Israeli village behind a bulldozed berm in Gaza where Hamas fighters practiced attacking the mock-village.
The major thing that went unexplained by the New York Times story on Sunday was this: If Israel had relaxed its intelligence gathering about Hamas to the major extent described by the Times, how did they immediately after the October 7 attack come up with so many of what they called “Hamas targets” for Israel’s air force to hit in what quickly became thousands of airstrikes? If they had lost track of Hamas intentions regarding Israel, how did they know where all those Hamas “command and control” centers were in Gaza?
Quite simply, it doesn’t add up: If Israel knew where all the “Hamas targets” were located in Gaza before October 7, wouldn’t they have been more wary of Hamas’ intentions and readied a more beefed-up defense of the Gaza border? If they didn’t suspect that Hamas was planning an attack, as Israel clearly did not, how could they have come up with so many Hamas military targets so quickly that they almost immediately began launching hundreds of nightly airstrikes on Hamas?
It seems unlikely to me that after years of considering that Hamas was not the main threat to Israel – to the extent that they were surveilling the border almost completely with cameras and preparing to defend against an attack with automated remote controlled machine guns -- that Israel was able to immediately ramp up its human intelligence capability enough to know the exact locations of Hamas military headquarters and weapons and ammunition storage locations. So, either one of two things is true: Israel knew all along that Hamas was powerful and well-supplied with troops and weapons and ammunition, and they just chose to ignore it. Or Israel had lost track of Hamas intentions and preparations for war, and because they dropped that ball, they didn’t know where Hamas was storing all its military supplies, so they just started guessing and giving “last known location” targets to its air force and launched air strikes willy-nilly all over the place hoping they would hit some of the places where Hamas is currently headquartered and keeping its military stores.
You can’t have it both ways: You can’t know where all those Hamas munitions stores were – and Israel has claimed to have targeted thousands – and not suspect that Hamas had accumulated them for the purpose of launching an attack. In a social media post on Sunday, Netanyahu tried to blame the October 7 attack on the leaders of his intelligence services and the military. Within 24 hours, he was forced to take it down. He has yet to take responsibility himself for Israel’s failure to defend itself against Hamas.
It turns out that Netanyahu was like George Bush at his Texas ranch on August 6, 2001 when he blew off a CIA report that was headlined, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” As it turned out, we did know where the al Qaeda training camps were in Afghanistan, because after 9/11 we hit them and knocked them out and had Bin Laden on the run in a matter of days. The Bush administration had just chosen to ignore the intelligence, and his mistakes caused more than 3,000 Americans to lose their lives on 9/11 and got us bogged down in one war for 20 years and in another for over ten.
Netanyahu’s mistakes cost Israel the lives of 1,400 of its citizens so far, and we won’t know the total of its military casualties for months, if not years, not to mention the number of Palestinians who will have lost their lives. I’m tempted to quote a lyric of Pete Seeger’s, so I will: When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.
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