‘We scorned them’: Military, political and human costs of Israeli hubris

Israel’s spy master resigned over failures to prevent October 7, but his admission of guilt is unlikely to change the course of the war.

Anti-government protesters demonstrate calling for Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu's government to resign, for failing to prevent the October 7 attacks by Hamas and bringing Israeli hostages back, in front of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, March 31, 2024 [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

“We scorned them,” Zvi Zamir once stated. He was the chief of the Israeli foreign intelligence service, Mossad, from 1968 to 1974 and was explaining the mindset that contributed to the major intelligence failure that allowed for the surprise attack that began the October 1973 war between Arab states and Israel.

At the time, Zamir wasn’t alone in “scorning” Arabs. Major General Eli Zeira, the head of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate (AMAN) during the 1973 war, reportedly also had “utter contempt for the fighting qualities of the Arab armies”.

This “scorn” and “contempt” and the consequent intelligence failures cost Israel 2,656 dead, more than 7,250 wounded and, ultimately, the Sinai Peninsula. They also cost Zeira his job.

History doesn’t always repeat itself. But in this case, it did – both the tragedy and the farce that led to it.

“We failed in our most important mission, and as the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, I bear full responsibility for the failure,” Zeira’s successor Major General Aharon Haliva said on April 22, about 50 years after the October war, as he announced his resignation.

AMAN’s spymaster – who previously argued for the stabilisation of the Palestinian authorities, the enhancement of Gaza’s economic prospects and the intensification of surgical strikes against Palestinian resistance – admitted that he had underestimated the capabilities of the Qassam Brigades (QB), the armed wing of Hamas.

Despite having detailed information about QB’s battle plans, operational preparations and early warning signals, Haliva ordered his subordinates “to wait for the morning” on the night of October 6.

What was missed?

On October 7, the armed wing of Hamas executed an unprecedented, multidomain, combined-arms offensive manoeuvre followed by a series of atrocities in the “Gaza Envelope”, the Israeli areas near the border with Gaza.

QB and its allies executed a textbook breaching operation, storming Israel’s “iron wall”. The organisation managed to suppress and overwhelm Israeli air defences with unguided rocket artillery. Simultaneously, QB blinded Israeli surveillance and reconnaissance assets and obscured its fighters’ breach points and advance routes with a combination of armed commercial drones and sniper fire. QB did not secure its breaching points in the Israeli barrier. Hence, other organisations and armed civilians followed the QB units into Israel, multiplying the size of the attacking force.

AMAN under Haliva had missed the early warning signs of that simultaneous, five-domain, brigade-sized attack conducted from the land by a QB regiment-sized light and motorised infantry formation; from the sea by two platoon-sized naval infantry forces; and via air by a company-sized unit of paragliders. The attacks involved electromagnetic and intelligence/information operations as well. The scale of coordination, spanning multiple platoon- and company-sized units, highlighted a sophisticated level of operability across various domains of warfare. Such complexity in synchronization is arduous, demanding extensive training in command, control and both intra- and interunit communications. These preparations are likely to have taken more than two years.

Why was it missed?

To be fair, broken intelligence cycles – that is the cycle of direction, collection, processing, analysis, dissemination, feedback and decision – are more common than nonspecialists would believe.

Intelligence failures are seldom due to an absence of information. They do not often take place in the collection and the processing part of the cycle. For example, United States naval and air assets spotted, struck and sank a Japanese submarine on the morning of December 7, 1941, 90 minutes before the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii was bombed by air.

Similarly, in October 1973, days before the surprise attack, Israeli intelligence received precise details about an impending Egyptian offensive from a high-value source. Yet Israel was still blindsided on October 6.

This pattern of intelligence cycle breakdowns was also evident during the 9/11 attacks when, despite having detailed intelligence on al-Qaeda’s intentions, US security institutions failed in the effective dissemination and decision-making parts of the cycle.

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the US and United Kingdom intelligence communities not only shared with governments but also publicly disclosed information on imminent Russian movement and mobilisation in Belarus. Despite this, Ukrainian analysts and decision-makers maintained a belief that the Russian military build-up on the Belarusian border was merely a feint, designed to anchor and fix Ukrainian forces in the north and the centre while expecting the main thrust to originate from the east and south. This miscalculation left Kyiv perilously unprepared.

In Israel last year, the lapses in the intelligence cycle had been starkly evident since the summer. In July,  analysts from Unit 8200, Israel’s elite signals intelligence unit, identified and reported significant signs of an impending large-scale operation by QB. The analysis highlighted that QB had engaged in extensive training exercises that closely mirrored the tactics detailed in a 40-page battle plan that AMAN had intercepted more than a year before the October attacks. Despite the clarity of these findings, the analysis and subsequent recommendations were dismissed as “imaginative” by senior officials within the military intelligence hierarchy.

Military and political implications

Intelligence failures often precipitate dire consequences, prompting a rigorous scrutiny of accountability measures. Politically, the Israeli prime minister holds the ultimate executive authority and is responsible for the overall national security policy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is often briefed by Haliva along with Yoav Gallant, the defence minister, and Herzi Halevi, the chief of the General Staff. The resignation of Haliva serves as a poignant admonition, suggesting that Netanyahu too should assume responsibility for the oversight and consider stepping down. Nonetheless, such a prospect remains doubtful.

Israeli political dynamics are increasingly mirroring those of Arab regimes, where authoritarian rulers seldom resign after catastrophic failures, instead clinging harder to power. In such contexts, removal, revolution or “suicide” are much more common exits than resignations.

Militarily, Haliva’s resignation is unlikely to affect, as some have suggested, the seemingly imminent ground offensive on Rafah. Both the force deployment and statements of the military are signalling that the launch of that offensive is a matter of time. Preparations for an offensive are clearly under way with at least six mechanised infantry and armoured regular brigades poised for action in Rafah, supported by air, naval and artillery units.

AMAN has indicated that QB has at least four battalion-sized formations in Rafah. Allegedly, this is in addition to the remaining captives held in Gaza and the leadership of Hamas as well as extensive tunnel networks near and under the Philadelphi Corridor, the Gaza-Egypt border area.

Should AMAN’s assessments prove inaccurate once again, the consequences could be catastrophic for more than a million internally displaced Palestinians sheltering in Rafah as well as Israel and its leaders.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.