The massive surprise attack from the Gaza Strip by Iranian-backed Hamas on Israeli cities and towns Saturday represents Israel’s biggest intelligence failure since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
In an unprecedented pre-dawn attack, Hamas militants launched at least 2,500 rockets into southern Israel as its fighters invaded towns nearby the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air—via paragliders—killing at least 150 Israelis, wounding another 1,100 and kidnapping others, making it the deadliest and most audacious attack on Israel in years.
The scope, complexity and timing of the attack stunned Israelis, who were marking the joyous Simchat Torah holiday. For many it resurrected bitter memories of the combined Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack that caught Israel off guard in 1973 on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It also echoed a late-1980s assault by Palestinian militants who crossed from Lebanon into northern Israel on hang-gliders and killed six Israeli soldiers.
As Israelis huddled in bomb shelters under intense rock barrages, Israel television broadcast images of Hamas gunmen dragging an Israeli soldier out of tank near the Gaza Strip, of the militants ferrying captured Israeli soldiers and civilians into Gaza on motorcycles and parading seized Israeli military vehicles through the streets of the densely crowded coastal enclave.
The Associated Press reported videos on social media showing what appeared to be at least one dead Israeli soldier being dragged through a Gaza street as an angry Palestinian crowd trampled his corpse and chanted “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great!”) Hamas said it was holding “dozens” of prisoners.
“The capture of soldiers and civilians is beyond imagination and unbearable,” Roberta Fahn Schoffman, a Jerusalem resident, told SpyTalk in a hurried text from a bomb shelter in the city. “They are reporting 100 dead, but bodies in the street not counted. It’s terrible.”
She added: “A shitshow like this has not been seen here, not even in the Yom Kippur war. Nightmare.”
As Israeli warplanes retaliated with air strikes on Hamas targets inside the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called up the reserves and declared Israel was now in a state of war with Hamas.
“We are at war,” Netanyahu said in a televised address, declaring the mass military mobilization “Not an ‘operation,’ not a ‘round,’ but at war.”
“The enemy will pay an unprecedented price,” he added, promising that Israel would “return fire of a magnitude that the enemy has not known.”
According to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, the Israeli strikes so far had killed at least 198 people in the Gaza Strip and wounded at least 1,610.
But Netanyhu’s vows to punish Hamas could not dispel the reality that Israel once again had been caught off-guard, just as it had been in 1973.
Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israel military spokesman, would not comment on how Hamas, widely viewed as a rag-tag militia, had managed to surprise Israel’s vaunted intelligence services and far superior armed forces.
“That’s a good question,” he told reporters.
While the fighting, which is still underway, is certain to exact a heavy toll on Hamas and the Gaza Strip, the surprise attack may prove a major political blow to Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners. Political commentators have already begun castigating the government and its intelligence services for failing to see signs of a sophisticated attack that must have taken months to plan and coordinate.
After the Yom Kippur war, an independent commission of inquiry blamed the Israeli military for the intelligence failure that led to the country’s forces being taken by surprise. In a controversial ruling, the commission exonerated then-Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, but many Israelis to this day also hold them responsible for the intelligence failure.
It’s too early to say what the political repercussions of the Hamas attack will be, but it comes during a time of deep divisions within Israel over the Netanyahu government’s plan to weaken the country’s independent judiciary. For the past ten months, tens of thousands of Israelis have held massive street demonstrations against the plan, and dozens of reservists, including members of the Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence branches, have refused to report for duty in protest.
It’s possible a beleaguered Netanyahu could blame the protesting reservists for the intelligence failure—a response that almost certainly would divide Israelis even further.
Diplomatically, Israel’s U.S. and European allies have rallied to its defense, condemning the Hamas attack and supporting Israel’s right to defend itself.
“The U.S. unequivocally condemns the unprovoked attacks by Hamas terrorists against Israeli civilians,” said Adrienne Watson, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council. “We stand firmly with the government and people of Israel and extend our condolences for the Israeli lives lost in these attacks.”
But the attack comes as the Biden administration appears close to brokering a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iran, which restored relations with Saudi Arabia in March after years of proxy warfare but remains an implacable foe of Israel, has made no secret of its opposition to Saudi recognition of Israel, and the attack by Hamas, an Iranian proxy, makes it harder for Riyadh to take such a step.
In a statement, Saudi Arabia urged both Israel and Hamas to exercise restraint. But the fighting underscored the difficulties Riyadh faces if it moves forward with normalization without winning meaningful concessions from Israel regarding an end to its 56-year occupation of Palestinian territories and recognition of Palestinian political rights.
Saudi Arabia said it had repeatedly warned about “the dangers of the situation exploding as a result of the continued occupation (and) the Palestinian people being deprived of their legitimate rights.”
If the Israeli response proves excessively disproportionate, there is the possibility that Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, could join in the fighting, opening a second front on Israel’s northern border. Iran has armed Hezbollah with more than 150,000 rockets, some of which are precision-guided and capable of hitting Israel’s military bases, its oil refineries in Haifa and its nuclear reactor in Dimona. The last time Israel and Hezbollah went to war was in 2006.
“The big worry is what Hezbollah takes away from the Hamas success,” said Ze’ev Chafets, a former Israeli government official. “We need to dissuade (Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan) Nasrallah by turning Gaza into Dresden.”
The reference to Dresden, shorthand for the controversial 1945 U.S.-British air raid that killed up to 25,000 German civilians, reflects the extreme emotions among Israel hardliners triggered by the Hamas attacks. Whether Netanyahu acts on those emotions is an open question.