When Israeli troops entered Gaza in July, 2014, they were armed with superb tactical intelligence as well as superior weaponry and training. The soldiers on the ground were supplied at every level with astonishing detail which saved lives.
But thanks to the a radical shift in Israel’s intelligence focus, initiated 10 years ago and followed through since, those calling the shots in the IDF’s war on Hamas were short of a deeper picture and insights into the enemy’s mindset and guiding motives, data that transcends tactical knowledge
This revision of Israel’s operational intelligence orientation began in 2003 under Meir Dagan, with the approval of the late prime minister Ariel Sharon. It refocused the work of Israel’s clandestine agencies on collecting tactical intelligence and giving up on digging for strategic data on the dynamics of the region and world and their key players. This revolution affected the short and long term operations of of Israel’s external and internal security and counterterrorism arms, the Mossad and Shin Bet, as well as military intelligence AMAN.
The Mossad shut down stations world wide, sacking or sidelining agents who disputed the Dagan overhaul.. The desks specializing in the strategic research of international events were streamlined out of the organization. The new entity began to resemble the US Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Operations Division (SAD), a covert paramilitary unit that focuses on gathering tactical intelligence for the use of operatives serving on foreign soil, especially in the Mid East.
Those agencies eventually became small armies geared more to cooperating with the IDF in times of tension and war, as they strikingly demonstrated in the current Operation Defensive Edge.
During this evolution, spread over years, the Mossad scored some major coups. One was the targeted assassination in 2008 of the lethal Imad Mughniyeh, who for two decades, in the service of Hizballah and Iran, secretly masterminded large-scale terrorist and kidnapping atrocities against Israel and the US.
Another was the Stuxnet malworm invasion of the computer systems of Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities which slowed Iran’s nuclear program. A series of assassinations inside Iran targeted key figures of this program; and, in 2007, an Israeli special force raided and destroyed a plutonium reactor, which Iran and North Korea were building in Syria, shortly before it went on line.
But the overhaul, though beneficial in some respects, left Israeli intelligence short of important tools for fighting terrorism and fundamentalist Islam when it went on the march. Generations of new personnel were hired on the strength of their ability to think tactically. Strategic evaluation and research departments went by the board.. When it came to th crunchs, the Mossad, Shin Bet and AMAN lacked the tools for supplying Israel’s political and security leaders with professional analyses of the bigger picture.
Their analysts, who are still in place today, got the wrong end of the 2011 Arab Spring and were unready for the toppling of two Egyptian presidents, Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, as well as Syrian President Bashar Assadi’s political and military longevity, largely thanks to Iranian-Hizballah intervention, which was not anticipated. All the conclusions drawn by Israel intelligence about those momentous events and processes were confined to the tactical sphere – or just plain wrong.
The same missing strategic dimension recurred in Israel’s misevaluation of the US-Iranian détente and its import for the Jewish state and, more immediately, in failing to second guess Hamas in Operation Protective Edge.
DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources award top marks for the quality of tactical intelligence provided Israeli troops during the month of hostilities in Gaza. It was outstanding by any standards of modern warfare. The troops were constantly updated, even when engaged in the smallest, most localized field operations, on such details as the layout of buildings before going in, the placement of windows and likely enemy hidey holes.
As they moved forward, tank commanders were warned what lay beyond the next corner. Much valuable information was extracted from Hamas prisoners by advance intelligence units and provided the troops with instantaneous data feeds in a steady stream that saved lives.
But tactical intelligence could only take the IDF so far in Gaza – as in other hostile arenas. Israel’s leaders found that, for charting their own moves, they missed essential strategic data on Hamas’s top-level planners’ intentions.
This deficiency was the cause of the glaring error in judgment made by Israel’s war leaders – an error that persisted right up until Sunday, Aug. 24, the 48th day of Operation Defensive Edge. This was the fallacious assumption that, if only its Gaza strongholds were hammered hard enough by the Israeli military, Hamas would fold and sign a long-term truce on terms dictated by Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.
This misreading of the motives governing Hamas’ actions was the source of the statement Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon made Sunday, that the operation would end “only when quiet returns to southern Israel. Till then, we shall continue to hammer Hamas, for the moment by air.”He went on to say: “We stand by our policy of avoiding direct confrontation with Hamas or a decisive end to the war; rather preferring diplomatic closure.”
This approach leaves the initiative in Hamas hands and Israel ignorantly navigating its military moves towards a ceasefire instead of winning the war. Despite its inferiority in fighting strength and weaponry, Israel’s enemy uses this ambivalence to retain the element of surprise and keep the IDF moving without direction.
This week, by focusing on its strategic objectives, Hamas scored two major goals:
1. It dragged Israel willy-nilly into a war of attrition – with no end in sight, according to its leaders. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s repeated assertion that attrition would be countered by hammer blows ddid not alter the fact that the rockets and the mortars keep coming from the Gaza Strip in a steady flow which is attritioning the civilian population.
2. And indeed, around 70 percent of the population of the villages around the Gaza Strip have packed their bags and left their homes. Despite the aid offered by the government, these people and their families have become refugees or displaced persons in their own country, in order to escape the relentless Hamas pounding of rockets and mortars. This is a strategic achievement on a par with Hamas’ success in closing Ben Gurion international air port for a couple of days last month.
The Islamists are coming close to a third strategic achievement: Israel’s inability to start the school year on September 1 – and not just in the near neighborhood of the Gaza Strip. Voices are being raised in Ashkelon, Ashdod and further north in Greater Tel Aviv and its densely populated satellite towns, by parents who say they will not send children back to school in the current state of security.
So while Israel’s military and intelligence chiefs use tactical yardsticks to weigh their steps and assess Hamas’ intentions, Hamas operates on the strategic level to keep Israel guessing.