After Attack, Israel Wrestles With the Question: How Could This Happen?

From a Wall Street Journal story by Dion Nissenbaum and Anat Peled headlined “After Attack, Israel Wrestles With Question: How Could This Happen?”:

As explosions rang out and bullets flew over Tamir Erez’s home in Mefalsim near the Gaza Strip border, he said he kept asking himself, “Where is the Israeli military?” He fled town with his children holding their heads down so they couldn’t see the bodies of dead Israelis killed by Palestinian militants.

“It will take a long time for us to recover from this day,” Erez said.

Israel’s failure to anticipate an attack Saturday that left hundreds of soldiers and civilians dead and militants rampaging through villages punctured a sense of invincibility built on its vaunted military and intelligence apparatus. It left the world questioning what went wrong and Israel’s leaders facing pressure to retaliate with overwhelming force.

Hamas’s attack also caught the Biden administration by surprise, several senior U.S. civilian and military officials said.

“I’m confident we had no intel,” said retired Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, who said he was in Israel earlier this year, including touring defenses at one of the kibbutzim in southern Israel that was overrun by Hamas.

Montgomery said a senior U.S. military officer in the region got on a plane and returned to the U.S. in recent days, implying that wouldn’t have happened if Washington knew an attack was coming.

The assault came as Israel faces its most difficult series of threats in the decades since what remains the country’s greatest security failure, the Yom Kippur War, the surprise attack launched 50 years ago this week by Egyptian and Syrian forces.

Iran has provided unprecedented coordination among the forces of several militant groups, including Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and stoked deadly conflict in the West Bank, putting Israel at risk on three fronts.

Using rockets, paragliders, motorcycles, pickup trucks, and boats, Hamas militants from the Gaza Strip launched a coordinated attack that showed an unexpected level of sophistication.

Israeli forces appeared to be caught completely by surprise as Hamas militants in Gaza used bulldozers to tear down the security fence with Israel and streamed into the country.

“Clearly this was a well-planned operation that didn’t just emerge overnight and it’s surprising it was not detected by Israel or any of its security partners,” said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington. “It’s hard to think of a security failure of this magnitude in Israel’s recent history.”

Israeli security leaders had played down the threat from Hamas in recent months, as the group abstained from conflicts started by its smaller ally in Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. There was a sense that Israel, with its Iron Dome air defense systems, had rendered ineffective Gaza’s main threat of short-range rockets.

Last month, the Israeli military confidently characterized Gaza as being in a state of “stable instability,” suggesting that the dangers posed by Hamas militants were largely contained.

Recent Israeli intelligence assessments of Hamas were that the militant group had shifted its focus to trying to stoke violence in the West Bank and that it was looking to avoid launching major attacks from Gaza in an effort to avoid the kinds of punishing Israeli military responses that have devastated the isolated area in the past.

In many respects, Saturday’s surprise attack was a low-tech assault that relied more on the element of surprise than advanced weaponry. Palestinian militants armed with machine guns, rocket propelled grenades and pistols were able to stream into Israeli towns and military bases with surprising ease.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Meir Elran, a researcher at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies. “Everybody was talking about Hamas being quiet and being stable. This whole structural concept is shattered just in front of our eyes in a very devastating ugly manner.”

Israel and Hamas have been embroiled in a decadeslong conflict in the Gaza Strip, which has been the epicenter of repeated battles since the Jewish nation was established in 1948. Egypt held control of the Gaza Strip until 1967, when Israel seized the narrow strip along the Mediterranean Sea during the Six Day War.

Thousands of Israeli settlers lived in the Gaza Strip until 2005, when Israel withdrew its soldiers and civilians and ceded control to the fragile Palestinian Authority. Hamas militants toppled the Palestinian Authority two years later and has retained control of the Gaza Strip ever since.

Hamas has used a network of tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border to smuggle in weapons and supplies used to build thousands of rockets and a small number of drones that they have fired at Israel over the years. But Israel’s air defenses have been able to largely neutralize the threat.

No one has a reliable count of how many rockets Palestinian militants have at their disposal. Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, said militants have about 15,000 rockets in Gaza.

Over the years, the Israeli military has carried out a series of airstrikes targeting Hamas tunnels dug under the Gaza-Israel border, successfully thwarting previous attempts by Palestinian militants to carry out sneak attacks.

Schanzer described Saturday’s attack as a remarkable military and intelligence failure by Israel.

“The Israelis have done a huge amount to deter tunnel building and other means of penetrating the barrier, then we see this,” he said. “It certainly appears that they have just gone through the front door.”

Schanzer said Saturday’s attack demonstrated surprising strategic and tactical success by Hamas that may have been aided by support from Iran.

“It’s very hard to imagine something like this being executed without assistance from the likes of Iran,” he said. “We have never seen anything by this group that would indicate an ability or even a desire to strike at the heart of Israel in the way that it has today.”

Israelis across the country were in shock after Hamas launched a massive surprise attack inside Israeli territory and appeared to take control of several cities and villages along the border. Many were left asking how one of the best armies in the world could be so unprepared for such a dangerous scenario.

“It is a major, major, major f— up—excuse my French—that the army did not know about this, that there was no intel on it, that they were completely caught unaware,” whispered Adele Raemer, 68, from Kibbutz Nirim near the Gaza border, as she spoke on the phone while hiding in a safe room. “I have lived here since 1975. I’ve never feared for my life like now.”

Raemer said she tried leaving the shelter briefly to use the bathroom and she saw the slats on the window were broken and somebody had tried to break into their home.

Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article.

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