The chaos and confusion of this weekend’s unprecedented and devastating Hamas attack on Israel appears to be continuing into the response by both Israel and the United States. The events beg a number of questions about potential foreign involvement in the Hamas attack, including the nature and extent of Iranian involvement; the intelligence failures on the part of Israel, the United States, and others, as well as Hamas’ apparent counterintelligence success; and how to avoid unnecessary escalation and loss of civilian lives in the military responses underway now and coming in the days and weeks ahead.
Israel took two days to secure its territory in the south, while pressing an air assault and siege on Gaza and gauging whether or how to send ground forces into the Gaza Strip, given Hamas and its collaborator Palestinian Islamic Jihad (the “Resistance Front”) claim to be holding more than 100 hostages. Israeli and American officials struggled to verify even basic information about how many hostages were being held, whether they were civilians or armed forces, and their nationalities, and reached out to Qatar for help based on its contacts with Hamas.
As of evening in Israel and Gaza, authorities said at least 900 Israelis and 560 Palestinians have been killed, including hundreds of young people at an outdoor, all-night music festival in the Israeli desert. Fighting and airstrikes continue.
Looming over all that are serious questions about how this could happen in the first place. How did Israel’s vaunted Mossad and other intelligence apparatuses in Israel and beyond – the United States, Egypt, Turkey, the Gulf States, etc. – miss the extensive planning and preparation that must have gone into the complex air, ground and sea assault that Hamas began in the early hours of Saturday morning, the Sabbath in Israel?
The U.S. policy response is also complex. One unwavering component is its longstanding support of Israel in its own right. In addition, news reports at press time indicate at least nine Americans have been killed in the Hamas attacks, a figure that might grow, and possibly “dozens” held hostage by Hamas, which the U.S. government is trying to verify.
But the Biden administration also must balance the U.S. pledge that “support for Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering” with an aim of preventing regional escalation. On the first day of the attack, President Joe Biden, in a White House statement about his call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stated, “I made clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that we stand ready to offer all appropriate means of support to the Government and people of Israel. Terrorism is never justified. Israel has a right to defend itself and its people.” (emphasis added) But the United States is not calling for a ceasefire (at least not once Secretary of State Antony Blinken removed and replaced a post on X (Twitter)).
Israel appears to be pursuing a no-holds-barred military assault on Gaza. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant today ordered a “complete siege” on Gaza, home to 2.3 million people, “saying authorities would cut electricity and block the entry of food and fuel.” Netanyahu yesterday warned Gaza residents to leave any area where Hamas or other groups it deems terrorists might shelter, in anticipation of Israeli air strikes.
Foreign Involvement Behind the Hamas Attack
Israeli, U.S., and other officials are still looking for clear evidence to determine the extent and nature of Iranian involvement in the Hamas attack or planning and preparations for it. The Wall Street Journal yesterday cited “senior members of Hamas and Hezbollah” claiming “Iranian security officials helped plan” and “gave the green light.” Specifically, the Journal wrote, “Officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had worked with Hamas since August to devise the air, land and sea incursions,” and “[d]etails of the operation were refined during several meetings in Beirut attended by IRGC officers and representatives of four Iran-backed militant groups, including Hamas, which holds power in Gaza, and Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group and political faction in Lebanon, they said.” Further, the Journal reported, “A European official and an adviser to the Syrian government … gave the same account of Iran’s involvement in the lead-up to the attack.”
Others have cautioned that Iran’s involvement may be more complex. While it has long supported Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and associated forces, Iran’s relationship with these groups should not necessarily be conceived as a traditional one of command and control. Most analysts seem to agree that it would be inconceivable that this attack would have been launched without an Iranian green light, at minimum. But precisely what support Iran may have offered and its degree of involvement in attack planning remain big question marks at this stage. Analysts have also noted the need to “distinguish between Iranian support to Hamas, as well as the ongoing coordination between IRGC, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (the ‘Resistance Front’) and between the initiative, organization, and execution of the Hamas operation.”
U.S. officials have said to date that they have found no evidence of Iran’s direct involvement. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN yesterday, “We have not yet seen evidence that Iran directed or was behind this particular attack, but there is certainly a long relationship.” White House Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer told NPR’s Morning Edition today that “neither we nor, apparently, the Israeli Defense Forces has any specific information about Iran’s direct involvement in the last couple of days’ attacks,” though he also noted that Iran has been “complicit” in backing Hamas for “decades…But this is something that we’re going to continue to look at very closely.”
- What is the nature and extent of Iranian involvement in these attacks?
- How should the United States and other States respond if Iran is found to have been behind the attack in concrete terms, such as aiding with planning or other operational support? It is useful to think of a spectrum of possibilities, as the policy response may vary accordingly. The spectrum could include everything from baseline support for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (such as financial and material support) to helping plan the attack to involvement in carrying out the attack.
- What is the nature and extent of Hezbollah’s involvement in planning, preparation and ongoing operations, beyond brief skirmishes with Israel in disputed territory?
- What might have been the various motivations and drivers of the Hamas attack, e.g. Israel’s efforts to reach an accommodation with Saudi Arabia for recognition? Conditions in the Gaza Strip and prospects for a further crackdown on Palestinians by Netanyahu’s government? The view of Israel as weak internally at the moment, especially in its security structures, because of the internal rifts over the government’s attempts to weaken the Supreme Court? Iran’s regional aspirations?
Intelligence Failures – and Counterintelligence Success
The attack, already referred to as Israel’s 9/11, is a significant intelligence failure for Israel and its allies. The attack took Israeli and U.S. officials by surprise, suggesting that the extensive human and technical intelligence collection networks that have been built over several decades to prevent just such an attack failed to uncover months of intensive planning, weapons stockpiling, and potential coordination with regional backers. Just a week before the attack, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the Middle East was “stable” and “quieter than it has been in two decades.” This statement echoed widespread views that Gaza would remain quiet for the foreseeable future after international mediators appeared to have persuaded Hamas to end a recent weeks-long series of riots and protests on the border with Israel.
The intelligence failures are also a huge counterintelligence win for Hamas. To have carried out an attack of this size and complexity without being detected, Hamas likely employed sophisticated counterintelligence measures beyond what it was capable of in the past. Israel will have to take immediate steps to determine what counterintelligence measures were employed, root out any potential insider threats, and fill crucial gaps in its intelligence-collection posture going forward.
More broadly, the fact that both Israel and the United States appear to have been blindsided by the attack raises significant concerns about their ability to detect and respond to future threats from the region. Policymakers, experts, and the public should demand answers to the following questions:
- Were there Israeli intelligence failures at the collection, analysis, or dissemination levels? Given the significant resources, planning, and coordination required for Hamas to carry out this attack and the fact that it took place the day after the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, what specifically went wrong in the Israeli intelligence bureaucracy?
- Were there strategic warnings that were ignored in the absence of tactical warnings about a specific attack?
- How was Hamas able to engage in what appears to be extensive planning and coordination without Israeli or other intelligence agencies apparently learning of the attack? What possible counterintelligence and security measures did Hamas – and its regional backers – employ to evade detection?
- What does this intelligence failure mean in terms of Tel Aviv’s current visibility into Hamas, as well as its ability to detect and respond to future threats emanating from Gaza or elsewhere?
- Are there any indications that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, or Lebanese Hezbollah conducted counterintelligence training with Hamas officials or instructed them on how to evade detection?
- To what extent does the United States rely on Israeli intelligence streams in its assessment of regional threats? Did U.S. intelligence agencies fail to anticipate the attack because they were over-reliant on Israeli collection and dissemination?
- If Lebanese Hezbollah or Iranian officials were involved in attack planning in some way – or at least aware that an attack was about to occur – why did Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies fail to detect this? What does this mean for the West’s intelligence collection posture towards Iran more broadly – or even towards other adversaries, for that matter?
- What indications, if any, did other regional intelligence services have about a potential attack? Were any warnings communicated prior to the attack? Egypt, Turkey, and the Gulf States, in particular, have long had contacts with Hamas and are thought to have significant sway over the group – did any of them have any foreknowledge of the attack? (News reports today indicated Egypt gave vague warnings to Israel.)
- What does this intelligence failure say about Israel’s – and the United States’ – ability to detect and respond to future terrorist (or state-directed) threats in the region and beyond?
Military Responses and the Scope of the Conflict
Amid the comparisons to the 9/11 attacks on the United States, some analysts, including former U.S. officials in government at the time, have already advised that Israel should heed lessons from the successes – and failures – of the U.S. response in the weeks and years that followed. Many of the actions taken in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks are ones that have haunted the United States for decades, and that could easily have been avoided if commitment to core democratic values and the rule of law had prevailed. Moreover, those same actions needlessly alienated allies and partners, eroding the strong base of support the United States enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
In the current environment, Palestinians not involved with Hamas are asking the international community to press the Israeli government to avoid reprisal attacks on civilians. At the same time, there are already some voices calling loudly for widening the war to Iran or other regional players. As noted above, however, the United States, for its part, is making clear it has not seen specific evidence of Iran’s direct involvement, and also has sent a carrier strike group to the region as a warning not to escalate.
- President Biden said on Saturday that “Israel has a right to defend itself and its people.” Are all of the actions being taken in response clearly self-defense, or do some cross the line into mere retaliation?
- Are any of the actions being undertaken or under consideration needlessly escalatory? How can escalation be limited? What actions might Israel take that would alienate its partners versus address the threat and build support?
- What is Hezbollah’s posture and capability, beyond the above-referenced skirmishes?
- What should the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which has been at odds with Hamas for years and does not seem to have been involved in the Hamas attack on Israel, do now in relation to Hamas and Israel?
- What diplomatic solutions might be available to address and de-escalate the conflict at this stage or in the near future?
Stay tuned for more analysis on these and other questions from Just Security as this conflict unfolds.