Israel has typically used extensive human networks in Gaza and intercepts of electronic communications to generate warnings of potential attacks, according to former American officials. The fact that Israeli intelligence was caught off guard by the strikes suggests that before the attacks, Hamas fighters avoided discussing the plans over mobile phones or other means of communications that could be intercepted.
Hamas likely used old-school face-to-face planning to avoid Israeli detection. But hundreds of people must have been involved, demonstrating that Hamas’ efforts to break Israel’s network of informants have been successful, according to the former officials.
Though it is shocking that Israel missed the preparations for the attack, said Ms Beth Sanner, a former senior American intelligence official, she added that few spy agencies are as good at learning from their mistakes as Israel.
“Because intelligence collection is a human endeavour, failure is inevitable,” she said. “Unfortunately it has happened at the most consequential time, when they are facing the most consequential threat in a half a century.”
In retrospect, some believe the Israelis made erroneous assumptions about the nature of the threat from Hamas.
“What people don’t understand is that while Hamas was treated as a terrorist organisation, there were decisions made by Israel to make life easier for Gazans,” said Mr Thomas Nides, a former US ambassador to Israel, who left Jerusalem this summer.
“They issued 15,000 work permits, for workers in Gaza who came into Israel each day, and I believe there was a view that Hamas would not screw that up.
“Which clearly was wrong,” Mr Nides added.
Gaza has been under an Israeli blockade, backed by Egypt, since Hamas seized control of the coastal strip in 2007.
The blockade restricts the import of goods, including electronic and computer equipment that could be used to make weapons, and prevents most people from leaving the territory. Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have also been surging for months, as have warnings of the risk of all-out war.
Most of the recent focus has been on the occupied West Bank, where recurring Israeli military operations have sparked frequent gunbattles with Palestinian militants. Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have also fought smaller tit-for-tat engagements.
And American intelligence officials were clearly worried that trouble was brewing.
This spring, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns warned that tensions between Israelis and Palestinians were threatening to bubble over again, despite diplomatic progress in the region.
But Israel appeared more focused on the West Bank as a potential source of an attack, rather than Gaza.
Experts cautioned that there was still much to learn about what precisely Israeli intelligence knew and what warning signs were missed. And the same question can be asked about Egypt and other Arab governments that have no love for Hamas and often quietly share intelligence with Israel.
“While overall this is an intelligence failure, just how and in what way remains to be seen,” said lead Middle East analyst Lewis Smart from Janes, the defence intelligence firm. NYTIMES
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