The attacks by Hamas against Israel beginning early this morning, some of which are ongoing, will be met by Israel with force. How this all will unfold, and its impact on domestic and global politics, is not clear, but a simple answer may suffice for now: It will not go well. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already warned his citizens that they are at war, civil reservists have been called up, videos are showing hand battles on the streets. The country is on lockdown, with the potential for future strikes in the south by Hamas and new ones by Hezbollah in the north. A country torn apart by domestic divisions seems to be united against a common enemy. As of this writing, the death toll is confirmed at a minimum of 70 Israelis, with hundreds more wounded.
One aspect of this needs little analysis, but a lot of explanation: How did Israel’s extensive counterterrorism efforts fail to pick up an attack waged by land, sea, and air? How did its defenses fail so extensively? This wasn’t just an intelligence failure. It was an everything failure. Israeli and American commentators are already describing this as Israel’s 9/11, but that comparison is a crutch. 9/11 was about, in the words of the commission that reviewed it, a “failure of imagination” to understand what could happen in America, a nation that had not encountered foreign terror threats of any significant magnitude. Israel has existed, still exists, with that very imaginable prospect as part of its national being.
To focus on Israel’s preparedness in no way excuses the Hamas attacks and is not meant to blame the victim. Some on social media are carelessly suggesting that the failures can only be explained by some evil “wag the dog” effort by Netanyahu to unify the country by going to war. Israel has been attacked, and civilians are dead. As in any nation that encounters such a horror, it is essential for the government to determine—without the interference of politics or religion—why. Otherwise, enemies will take advantage of this devastating day for Israel’s counterterrorism strategy.
Israel’s counterterrorism efforts are extensive, and well supported by the United States. (As a member of the faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School, I have taught many Israelis in homeland security and counterterrorism planning.) The Israelis infiltrate terrorist groups and pay off members for intelligence. They destroy infrastructure in Gaza as a deterrence. Family members of suspected terrorists are not off-limits. Israel has long utilized assassination against its enemies in Iran and elsewhere. Signal intelligence, shared with and from allies and even Arab countries, is plentiful. Bombing raids and military excursions against Hamas are part of Israel’s counterterrorism mission.
Apparently, none of this picked up, or at least picked up with enough time, the signs of an attack. Just a few days ago, the Gaza border seemed to have been stabilized after some unrest, and nearly 20,000 workers were able to travel across it again. Today, thousands of rockets, which must have been obtained and hidden, were launched by Hamas. It did not end there. Hamas used drones to strike at Israeli targets. It sent its fighters on foot, by boat, and by air on motorized paragliders. Images have emerged of Hamas attackers on the streets of Israeli towns terrorizing citizens, and worse. This is as much a physical attack as a performative one: Watch us, Hamas seems to be saying. Hamas surely planned for the attack to take place on the Jewish holy day of Simchat Torah and on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.
But that is only one piece of what Israel is going to have to reckon with from an operational perspective in the days ahead. It is one thing to not imagine such an attack could occur. It is another to seemingly not have the defense in place. Israel takes its preparation for such attacks seriously; most citizens are under mandatory conscription. It tests its response and evacuation systems regularly. It recently built an extensive technology wall—including radar, cameras, and sensors—on 65 kilometers of the Gaza barrier. Its emergency-management capabilities are mature. Still, at this writing, Hamas seems to have control over several populated areas in southern Israel. Hamas’s drones seem to have penetrated parts of Israel without reports of counter-drone efforts. Iron Dome, Israel’s famous counter-weapons system, was no match for a multifaceted terror campaign, akin to the 2008 Mumbai attacks in India.
Most systems under persistent attack will eventually fail. Over the course of this century, Israel has been able to stop numerous terror plots, some supported by Iran and some by other countries. It could not do so today, to spectacular effect. Not now, but soon, Israel will have to contend with how, in the modern era, it encountered a massive security failure of a scale not seen since the Yom Kippur War. Finding the answer is Israel’s obligation to itself.