How Changes in the Israeli Military Led to the Failure of October 7

Overreliance on technology, dehumanization of Palestinians and incompetence left a once-effective force unable to prevent Hamas’ assault

How Changes in the Israeli Military Led to the Failure of October 7
Wrecked vehicles in Sderot, Israel, one day after the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, 2023. (Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In public presentations, Saar Koursh, former CEO of the Israeli security firm Magal Security Systems — the company that built the Gaza border fence — often boasted that the blockaded territory was his “showroom.”

“Anybody can give you a very nice PowerPoint, but few can show you such a complex project as Gaza that is constantly battle-tested,” Koursh said in a 2016 interview.

Magal’s smart fence formed part of an integrated system of concrete barriers, high-tech sensor systems, automated machine-gun nests and observation towers dubbed the “Iron Wall” by some Israelis in tribute to a term coined by the radical Zionist pioneer Zeev Jabotinsky. By the time of its completion in 2021, the Gaza border fence and the system of controls supporting it were deemed impenetrable. The more than 2 million Palestinians trapped behind the barrier were put out of sight and mind of the Israeli public.

Under this system, every inch of the Gaza Strip was routinely surveilled by drones, satellites and spy balloons known as aerostats. All communications were forcibly routed through Israel and monitored. In case Palestinian militant groups thought to fire rockets over the fence, even the sky was guarded by the U.S.-funded missile defense system known as Iron Dome. Nothing, it was thought, could happen in Gaza without Israel knowing.

Yet on Oct. 7 this seemingly invincible system of control failed catastrophically. The details by now are familiar: On that day, 50 years after the start of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, thousands of Hamas-affiliated fighters streamed deep into Israeli territory in a combined land, air and sea attack. The attackers took over 200 people hostage, while killing an estimated 376 members of local Israeli security forces and the military, along with 767 civilians. Despite their oversight of Gaza, the Israeli military — the Israeli Defense Forces or IDF — failed to detect the incursion as it happened, in some cases learning of it alongside the general public through social media posts and frantic phone calls from the front.

The Israeli chain of command buckled under pressure, taking until late in the day to organize a counterattack. The IDF scrambled to get forces to the south yet found it had no troop transports. Soldiers had to take carpools, rideshares and commandeered school buses to the front, only to wait hours at designated meeting spots like gas stations and parking lots for someone to issue orders, despite sometimes being only minutes from active combat zones.

To the shock of many observers in Israel and abroad, it took two days for Israel to repel a terrorist attack that its own leaders and experts had assured the public would be impossible in the first place.

Like many others, I found myself asking how this devastating attack could happen under the watchful eye of Israel’s vaunted military and intelligence services. But I am also equipped with a unique perspective to make sense of how it happened. My field, organizational science, studies how complex social systems function, why they fail and how they can be improved. In the case of so-called “man-made catastrophes” like complex engineering failures and terrorist attacks, this means looking at the chain of events leading up to the catastrophe and identifying failure points where the outcome could have either been prevented or mitigated.

The punishing system of control maintained by the Israeli government over Gaza prior to Oct. 7 collapsed because of a decadeslong failure to address structural and operational problems within the military-intelligence system, systematic dehumanization of the Palestinians that blinded Israeli analysts to Palestinian capabilities, rising politicization of military decision-making and a fixation with technological “solutions” as a substitute for political engagement to address the long-running conflict. The blind spots created by this approach bred systemic rot inside Israel’s security establishment. These failures ultimately enabled Hamas’ assault, shattering Israel’s image of invulnerability.

Israel is now in the midst of a military campaign that has killed at least 34,000 people in Gaza, and likely many more, along with several hundred IDF soldiers. The carnage stemming from this offensive has triggered an outpouring of international criticism, including charges of genocide filed against Israel at the International Court of Justice. Israel is more isolated than ever globally, reliant once again on the U.S. to provide it with diplomatic and military protection, as well as a steady supply of munitions to continue its campaign. Although Hamas may not control Gaza once the war ends, the collapse of the pre-Oct. 7 status quo has brought devastating harm to Israel.

An inquest into the string of failures that brought about this catastrophe has been deferred until after the war. But through the lens of organizational science, we can already see how an accumulated set of problems — technological solutionism, military incompetence, politicization of the armed forces and dehumanization of the Palestinian population — set the stage for the Israeli “showroom” in Gaza to collapse as it did.

The first Gaza barrier was a simple fence erected in 1971 by Ariel Sharon, a general at the time, to constrain and punish the Gazan population for their national aspirations and the violent actions of Palestinian guerrillas. It remained in place until 1994, when, spurred by the Oslo Accords, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin replaced it with a high-security barrier laden with cameras, sensors and “high-tech entry and exit points.” Sharon’s fence sought to contain Gazans not only in the Gaza Strip, but in the refugee camps therein — paving the way for Jewish settlement of the enclave. In contrast, Rabin’s smart fence represented a new policy of separation or “hafrada” between the two populations: Israel for the Jews, Palestine for the Palestinians, with technology as the key ingredient separating the two.

By 2005, Rabin’s wall gained broad acceptance in Israel, driven both by a belief that such measures reduced suicide bombings and other attacks by Palestinian militants common throughout the Second Intifada as well as growing fears of a “demographic crisis” in which the Jewish Israeli population would be overshadowed by a burgeoning Palestinian one. As Sharon, who had become prime minister, moved to unilaterally withdraw Israeli forces from Gaza, he expanded Rabin’s border wall into a network of armed garrisons, reinforced walls, high-tech surveillance infrastructure and autonomous weapons systems akin to an Israeli Maginot Line. As with Rabin’s fence, Sharon’s new barrier wall isolated Gaza, separating it from the world while replacing the formal military occupation with a “virtual occupation,” in which Palestinian rights would be as tightly controlled as before, but with less ground-level contact with Israeli soldiers.

The wall framed Gazans as naturally violent, in need of containment in a giant cage lest they seek to express their violent tendencies, while also mitigating the perceived “demographic risk” to Israel. It promised a military-technological solution to the problem of peace, minimizing risks to Israeli soldiers and allowing politicians to avoid a political settlement that would require compromise or acknowledgment of Palestinian grievances.

This new iteration of the wall differed from Rabin’s in a key way, however. It expressly sought to create opportunities for marketing advanced Israeli defense and surveillance technology to the world. From defense contractors to high-tech startups, Israeli firms began including in their marketing materials that their products had been “battle-tested” on a captive Palestinian population.

Meanwhile, with every aspect of daily life in Gaza watched, constrained and controlled from behind computer terminals on the Israeli side of the barrier, top IDF officials publicly began bragging that Gaza was no longer a threat. Taking the views of hawkish members of the military-intelligence establishment as gospel, as is the norm in Israel, policymakers proceeded to scale back forces and disarmed local security details near the border.

Gaza was once relatively accessible to Israelis. But the new security wall changed that. For many people beyond the Gaza envelope, technology sanitized the conflict by putting it literally out of sight. Despite their close proximity, the very existence of Gazans gradually became an abstraction to many Israelis, aside from occasional encounters with day laborers given permits to leave the strip for work in Israel. The wall, lightly manned in terms of troops but heavy on technological investment, was thought to have successfully contained the “Gaza problem.” Any allocation of forces to Gaza became more about providing comfort to the local population than a perceived need for deterrence or security.

The change in Israel’s approach to Gaza and the Palestinian conflict in general mirrored broader changes in Israeli society. Instead of solving its political conflict with the Palestinians, Israel now sought to simply transcend it, embracing a new identity as a wealthy, developed, tech-based society whose conflict with the Palestinians no longer defined it. Epitomizing this shift was the IDF’s increasing self-presentation not merely as an army, but as “Israel’s largest startup” — a government-backed incubator developing and spinning out technology companies to expand the national economy.

In line with these cultural changes, recent years have seen explosive growth in the size of Unit 8200, the IDF’s signals intelligence unit, driven in part by the pursuit of lucrative technological products developed by veterans of Israel’s intelligence establishment. Indeed, for every problem the state and military faced, technology was proposed as the sole and best solution. Gaza and the West Bank quickly came to be seen as laboratories in which marketable security and surveillance technologies could be “battle-tested” on a captive Palestinian population.

This change in approach married a vision of technological progress with private gain, and eventually transformed Israel’s own approach to dealing with Palestinians. Human intelligence, gained by so-called “hard contact” with Palestinians, was gradually replaced with information derived from wiretaps, internet communication monitoring and facial recognition software, as well as visual intelligence from drones, balloons and camera feeds.

The vision of a fully automated system for controlling and monitoring Gaza became a national obsession, a reputation-building project for defense bureaucrats and a means of funneling money from the military-intelligence apparatus to the technology and defense sectors. Some of this money went to Israeli private security contractors, as even border stations were privatized in an effort to generate economic growth.

Yet this shift in priorities from traditional intelligence analysis to market-ready technological solutions came at a cost, neglecting, as some Israeli military officials have now said, “nuances, and the effort to understand the enemy beyond mere surveillance.” Each addition to the surveillance and barrier system became an opportunity for the government and defense services to tout their supposed technological sophistication, supplanting practical security requirements with the goal of appearing attractive for external marketing purposes. Indeed, multiple generals who pushed the border wall project while in government went on to sit on the boards of the weapons manufacturers who built it after retirement.

As years went on without a major Hamas attack, the Gaza border project was deemed a tremendous success. Its development continued unquestioned, even as a web of corruption developed behind the scenes. Years before Oct. 7, some inside Israel had already begun warning that the marriage of tech solutionism and economic gain was lulling Israel into a false sense of security. Writing in the internal IDF journal Bein-Haktavim in 2019, Col. Yehuda Vach warned that the fence “creates an illusion, a false perception that [misleads people into believing that] they are safe.”

On Oct. 7, Hamas shattered that perception of safety entirely. In the face of the towering technological might of the border fence, the group deployed around 200 special forces operatives tasked with knocking out its cameras and wireless communications towers, blinding the system of autonomous weapons and sensors it depended on to operate. Hamas employed the very human-based solutions that Israel had since abandoned, meticulously observing and mapping out the weak points in the system created by the IDF and overwhelming it in one coordinated attack.

The attack proved once and for all that the “Iron Wall” was a flimsy vanity project of expensive toys with few built-in redundancies, subject to catastrophic failure. But overreliance on technology was not the only structural failure on the Israeli side that made the calamity of Oct. 7 possible.

The early construction of Sharon’s Gazan border wall overlapped with the 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon, a conflict that revealed deep flaws within the IDF’s operating structure that emerged as it evolved from an army of combat into an army of occupation. In addition to failing to achieve key military objectives, IDF communications and anti-missile systems were technologically compromised by Hezbollah, while the army experienced severe shortages of food, water, ammunition, equipment and other supplies in the field. Put to the test, many military commanders proved incapable of undertaking basic battlefield decision-making. These failures were produced by a deeper shift in the role of the IDF in Israeli society.

As peace treaties were signed with Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, the threat dynamic facing Israel shifted from conventional warfare to asymmetric, “low-intensity conflict” with nonstate actors. This allowed the vast majority of military resources to shift from national defense to the project of policing the occupied Palestinian Territories. By the time the 2006 war with Hezbollah came, the IDF had fully transformed from a robust war-fighting organization into a militarized police force tasked less with conventional combat than with mass surveillance, crowd control and providing protection to Israel’s expanding West Bank settlement enterprise.

Writing in his 2008 critical history of the IDF, Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld observed, “the troops now look at mostly empty-handed Palestinian men, women, and children as if they were in fact a serious military threat.” Meanwhile, “Among the commanders, the great majority can barely remember when they trained for and engaged in anything more dangerous than a police-type operation; in the entire IDF there is now hardly any officer left who has commanded so much as a brigade in real war.”

This would not have been a particularly challenging problem if the IDF had a strong “intellectual” military tradition — a term used by military sociologist Morris Janowitz to describe an officer corps that takes a studious, scientific approach to understanding and improving military performance. Were the IDF so inclined, they would simply have to unwind the structural overlap between military and police, review old best practices, and stage remedial education and training exercises for officers.

But unlike other modern armies, who rigorously record and teach military doctrine and lessons learned to new generations, the IDF instead taught young officers through apprenticeship and direct battlefield experience. This meant that after decades of almost exclusively engaging in police operations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, police operations became almost the only thing that the IDF knew how to do. Indeed, as General Yoram Yair noted in his probe of Division 91’s performance after the 2006 war, there was “a lack of comprehension at all levels that this was a war, not merely a security operation.”

The 2006 war was broadly considered a failure, and a special commission was convened to investigate the root causes under former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Eliyahu Winograd. At the time, the commission was criticized for not being sufficiently arm’s-length from the government, and thus unlikely to be highly critical of how it managed the war. Yet its ultimate recommendations were scathing.

From decision-making to preparedness, logistics to strategy, deep-seated issues across the Israeli political and military structures were found by the commission to have taken root long before the war itself. The report criticized, “the quality of preparedness, decision-making and performance in the IDF high command, especially in the Army,” while suggesting a far-reaching program of internal reform.

Yet the recommendations of the commission were largely ignored. In the years to come, the Israeli military continued down a path of leaning on technological advantage to mitigate other weaknesses. This trend was noted by Israeli writer Ari Shavit in Haaretz in 2014, six years after the commission’s results were released: “Yes, we have high-tech; terrific high-tech. And we have the resources to finance a large, awkward, tired army. But we don’t have the creative bravado and the national discipline that typified us in the past.”

In 2011, the Syrian Civil War caused the last hostile conventional army bordering Israel to nearly collapse. The political and military establishment took this as an opportunity to make budget cuts and restructure while still demanding a consistent $3.8 billion a year in U.S. defense funding. In the years that followed, the annual defense budget was cut by about $1 billion, 10% of officer posts were eliminated, forces were reduced by 5,000 career soldiers, and the reserves were cut by 30%. Training for both regular army and reserve forces was substantially cut as well, while just under half of all logistics and maintenance posts were left unstaffed, according to reports in the Israeli press. By 2018, 52% of the northern division’s combat vehicles were declared unfit for use because of inadequate maintenance, according to an IDF ombudsperson’s audit report. As multiple successive governments failed to pass budgets, the army fell into severe disrepair.

The Hamas attack of Oct. 7 exposed severe shortages of transport vehicles, communications equipment and weaponry. The command structure fared no better. During the years of occupation, the chain of command was altered from a traditional military hierarchy in which autonomous battlefield command was encouraged to a risk-averse, bureaucratic matrix in which actions had to be cross-checked and verified by a range of civilian stakeholders, including nongovernmental organizations and settler groups. In a telltale sign of institutional decay, military decisions became increasingly beholden to political considerations, leading former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi to famously complain, “I have no one to work with in the army. They’re all politicians.”

As settler militias were folded into the broader IDF and settlers started taking up a greater proportion of the officer corps, this politicization got worse. Senior commanders started facing humiliation, loss of control and even mutiny when asked to fulfill simple orders — like enforcing the law in settler communities. And when the military brass attempted to correct the growing lack of discipline, officers would often snub their attempts and refuse to show up to disciplinary hearings altogether.

As the disciplinary problem worsened, many inside the IDF even began protesting efforts to investigate the problem. When the State Control Committee called army ombudsperson Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Brik to testify on these issues in 2018, committee Chair Shelly Yachimovich faced such strong pressure to cancel the session that she quipped, “It appears as if the enemy is Brik and not Hezbollah and Hamas.”

Politicization permeated up and down the ranks, creating two broad categories of commander: the impulsive commander, who behaves chaotically out of ego and ambition, thinking of personal advancement but not potential consequences, and the skittish commander, who fears potential consequences to the point of refusing to act unless having full information, instructions and sign-off from higher-ups. A common IDF expression, “tzalash oh tarash” (“[you either] get a medal or demoted to corporal”), perfectly captures the political lens through which many IDF commanders began to handle crises.

Soldiers and commanders who spent their careers in occupation grew to expect that all combat environments would have the same ubiquitous visibility, absolute situational control, clear command-and-control structures and negligible supply challenges as the police actions they spent years carrying out in the occupied Palestinian Territories. Senior officers and politicians began to expect that future wars would all come to resemble the low-intensity confrontations they were accustomed to with lightly armed Palestinian militants. Some expected that they could even be fought and won without the death of a single Israeli soldier.

All of this accumulated institutional decay helped foster a situation where, when the IDF was faced with a real fog-of-war situation, a small proportion of “heroic” commanders impulsively jumped to action without thinking, often incurring civilian casualties in the process, while the rest had their troops stand around in parking and gas station lots for hours, waiting for someone else to take charge and tell them what to do.

Were the IDF a resilient military organization, such a debacle could never happen — commanders would behave in a consistent manner, the military command system would reconstitute itself from below and a counterattack would self-organize without waiting for orders from Tel Aviv. But in the absence of solid training, relevant combat experience and a strong institutional culture, military organization instead collapsed entirely, with each commander going their own separate way until corralled from above, allowing Hamas militants hours of free rein to perpetrate violence, with disastrous results.

A more effective Iron Wall and reasonably competent IDF would have significantly reduced the severity of the Oct. 7 massacre. Even Hamas sources have expressed surprise at the extent to which the IDF failed to fulfill its function that day. But even if the IDF could have mitigated the attack, preventing it would have required significant advance notice and the capacity to intervene beforehand.

In theory, Israel had both. In addition to omnipresent Israeli surveillance, the attack took two years to plan, many preparations happened in plain sight of Israeli authorities, Israel received advanced warning from multiple allies including Egypt and the United States, and Hamas made multiple public references to an impending attack.

Not only were all of these signals ignored, but a few days before the attack three battalions were removed from the Gaza border and sent to protect illegal settlers’ Sukkot celebrations in the West Bank. Six days prior to the assault, Tzachi Hanegbi, head of the Israeli National Security Council, dismissed entirely the chances of a potential Hamas offensive, saying, “Hamas is very, very cautious and understands the implications of further disobedience.”

For a military-intelligence system in such an overwhelmingly advantageous position to fail so spectacularly implies an issue far greater than hubris — or a “failure of imagination,” as the intelligence failure preceding the 9/11 attack in the United States was called. The failure leading up to Oct. 7 required a systematic dismissal at multiple levels of seniority of all signals of a possible attack. In short, it needed to be so inconceivable that Gazan militants were capable of mounting a substantive attack that it became second nature to dismiss evidence to the contrary. This blind spot toward the Palestinians reflected a deep-rooted attitude of dismissal and dehumanization that had permeated both Israeli society and its security establishment.

Protracted conflicts like Israel-Palestine take a substantial psychological toll on members of the societies involved. They also produce a number of coping mechanisms for managing that toll, something that Israeli social psychologist Daniel Bar-Tal has termed the “ethos of conflict.” Over decades of fighting, Israelis had successfully developed a core perception of themselves as fighting for a cause that is straightforwardly rational, just and morally good, in comparison with the malign and unworthy aims of the Palestinians, which could be dismissed as mere fanaticism. This ethos allowed Israelis to maintain a positive self-image as the years of fighting went on. But it came at the cost of fostering a narrow, dogmatic worldview that led Israelis to view Palestinians in simplistically negative terms, while denying the legitimacy of their political rights, or even their capacity as adversaries.

As Bar-Tal notes, “From early on … Arabs were thought of as primitive, uncivilized, savage or backward. … In addition, Arabs were blamed for the continuation of the conflict, for the eruption of all wars and military clashes, and for intransigently rejecting a peaceful resolution.” The perpetuation of these stereotypes reduced the Palestinians’ humanity in the eyes of the military-intelligence apparatus, and ultimately resulted in a stunted assessment of Gazan militants’ motivations and capabilities.

Aided by a growing power imbalance — driven in no small part by American weapons and capital — a belief that the “irrational savages” living in the Palestinian Territories could be contained and outcompeted through the superior intellect, cleverness and technology of Jewish Israelis also came to dominate Israeli society at large. The idea of Palestinians as sophisticated individuals capable of complex thought and planning gradually disappeared from view. Numerous intelligence analysts have noted, in the aftermath of Oct. 7, that they did not believe the Palestinians were even capable of organizing a sizable, concerted military action, a point echoed by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who noted in an interview after the attack that “Hamas did to us what we normally do: surprise, cleverness, outside-the-box thinking”.

The dismissal of the Palestinians as rivals or even equal human beings, a step in the process of dehumanization, also made it much easier to treat them as merely technical problems that could be solved by the application of advanced technology. This shift in attitude had practical implications, as the Israeli intelligence apparatus shifted overwhelmingly from human to signals intelligence in its fight against Palestinian militants.

As the Gaza Strip was subjected to a monumental surveillance apparatus, human biases were inevitably written into the algorithms used to sort through the raw surveillance data of Palestinians. Those algorithms were then used to supply human analysts with intelligence under the assumption they were doing so in a computationally objective way. Thus, atypical information that might have otherwise been flagged by a human analyst trying to understand their subject and overcome their biases became far easier to miss.

To a degree, Israeli intelligence was aware of this risk, and developed an internal workflow, known as “validation,” to double-check that previous assessments were correct. Yet, as a 2019 Haaretz report noted, this validation step was massively disincentivized within the intelligence apparatus, as senior leadership rewarded analysts who produced high volumes of new targets with lucrative benefits like field trips and vacation days, and tacitly penalized them for time spent on validation. The result was an environment where, as one analyst said, “everyone in the room understands that if we begin to look in depth at every target, they won’t leave for the next two weeks. So in many cases, it becomes a sort of automatic activity.”

As the reach of Israeli surveillance grew, some members of the intelligence community began to worry about the twisted view it created of Palestinians, and the impact of that view on their performance. In September 2014, 43 agents and alumni of the Unit 8200 intelligence service penned a letter dissenting from the extreme surveillance imposed by Israel on Palestinians, with one signatory even comparing their work to the East German Stasi.

Others, quoted in the Financial Times a year later, noted that they were asked not just to surveil suspected militants but the entire Palestinian population in the search for people who could be blackmailed into becoming informants. As one ex-agent said, “In a way, this power is intoxicating. You get inside people’s lives and you laugh about their sexual habits or medical problems. And it shows how far it goes. It shows you how power can corrupt.” Yet despite these periodic internal objections, Israel’s security establishment continued with the same dehumanizing, tech-based approach to controlling the Palestinian population.

As “low-intensity” military action became commonplace in Gaza prior to Oct. 7, a drone strike, arrest or commando raid would frequently be carried out with little regard as to whether or not the person targeted was of genuine national security value. And as politicians increasingly saw strikes in Gaza as a way of scoring political points, the military itself began to carry out more aggressive short-term operations in order to ingratiate themselves to the political class, even at the expense of their long-term strategic advantage. In the words of one former IDF intelligence agent, “there are cases where attacking a target may expose IDF intelligence in such a way as to lead the other side to reorganize. You feel the frustration of all those who understand that … in deference to some politician’s position, you are asked to do something with no operational justification and which may damage plans you’ve been working on for years.”

In the end, that obsession with short-term victories and automated solutions at the expense of long-term, in-depth knowledge of the Palestinian population, including its grievances and aspirations, helped produce Oct. 7. In an ironic symmetry, however, at the same time that Israel had given up on understanding the Palestinians, their militant rivals had begun to study them more closely than ever.

From its founding in 1987, Hamas placed tremendous emphasis on secrecy. Efforts by Israeli intelligence to infiltrate and undermine Palestinian militant groups had been well-known for decades. To counter this threat, Hamas established a counterintelligence wing, known initially as al-Majd. For years, the focus of al-Majd was on identifying and executing suspected informants. But all that began to change in 1993, when two informants, Maher Abu Srur and Abd al-Munaim Abu Hamid, offered to turn and become double agents, supplying information on Shin Bet methods and informants to Hamas before assassinating their Israeli handlers.

By the early 2000s, methods progressed to planting false information, again with the goal of setting traps and killing Israeli military and intelligence operatives. As Hamas began to act more like a government than an underground militant group after taking control of Gaza in 2007, two new counterintelligence services were formed: the Military Intelligence Department and the Internal Security Force. Sophisticated multiyear intelligence operations ensued. One such initiative, from 2016 to 2018, set a goal of intimately understanding the mechanisms by which Israeli intelligence surveilled and meddled in Hamas affairs.

Governing had changed Hamas’ worldview. Where they previously sought to merely hit back at the Israelis upfront, now they genuinely wanted to understand them and how they worked. In one notable operation, a Gazan Shin Bet informant was identified and converted into a highly effective Hamas double agent. Equipped with wiretaps and hidden cameras, the agent enabled his handlers in Hamas intelligence to monitor and study the operations and behavior of Israeli spies. With keen curiosity, Hamas studied everything from the questions spies asked to the knowledge they had of Hamas’ operations and the methods they asked informants to use to collect intelligence. They tracked, modeled and studied how the Israelis used drones to keep tabs on the movement of their double agent. And when the Israelis tasked the double agent with an act of subterfuge by sabotaging Hamas’ rocket systems, they studied the dead drops, training materials and gaps in Israeli knowledge about their capabilities.

The operation was so successful that, even as the double agent actively undermined the work of Israeli intelligence and planted false information, the Shin Bet handler, Gazan sector chief and Israeli government heaped praise on the double agent for the work done “on behalf of Israel.” When, after two years of subterfuge, the Israelis started to become suspicious, Hamas released a movie about the operation and provided evidence that rockets recently launched at Israel were the very same rockets Israeli intelligence thought they had disabled.

This failure sent a shockwave through the Israeli intelligence establishment. But in the years that followed, rather than expanding and improving on human intelligence, those efforts were downgraded and subsumed under a massively expanded Unit 8200 — yet another sign of the belief in Israeli leadership that every problem could be solved through technology. As Hamas deepened their knowledge of Israeli beliefs, methods and intelligence practices, and learned to use Israelis’ myriad biases as tools to advance their political and military objectives, Israelis dismissed their enemies as not worth knowing at all. And as Hamas intelligence efforts continued to bear fruit, and Israeli intelligence efforts degraded, the eventual conclusion was the successful — and wholly unexpected — surprise attack of Oct. 7, 2023.

On the eve of the current war, an increasingly conservative Israeli society broadly believed that it had already “won” the Israel-Palestine conflict. Gaza was contained behind a heavily militarized wall; Hamas was believed to have been beaten into submission by decades of land, air and sea blockades and routine bombings (or “mowing the lawn,” as the IDF called it); and gradual annexation of the West Bank continued apace without real consequences.

The peace movement in Israel was largely dead after 30 years of Likud rule, and the United States — previously the greatest source of pressure toward a two-state solution — had finally acquiesced to long-standing Israeli demands to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while also pressuring Arab neighbors to fully normalize relations. All of this occurred without a single political concession to the Palestinians.

While some analysts made a moral case for why the status quo was untenable, it was unclear to many that the status quo had left Israeli society both complacent and vulnerable. The unusual combination of decades of ever-improving regional peace and security and a garrison mentality that claimed Israel was under perpetual, existential threat, created a dynamic where the military-intelligence apparatus was allowed to degrade without challenge, as open criticism was believed to “embolden Israel’s enemies” even as many of its traditional enemies had ceased to pose a threat.

Public inquiries were dismissed, internal dissent went ignored, and whistleblowers were treated not as well-meaning citizens but public enemies. This allowed Israelis to continue to firmly believe the IDF was the same robust, highly competent force that single-handedly defeated five Arab armies in 1967 despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Meanwhile, for the vast majority of Israelis, seeking a resolution to the “Palestinian issue,” peaceful or otherwise, was no longer a kitchen table issue. This indifference was further cemented as the Iron Dome turned rocket attacks into a minor nuisance; walls, private access roads and checkpoints removed Palestinians from view; and expanding West Bank settlements became an attractive alternative for many to rising home prices in Israel proper. To many, including members of the defense establishment, this isolation allowed the occasional protest or rocket attack by Palestinians in Gaza to be explained away as an example of the “violent tendencies” of the Palestinian people and not, as the Palestinian view goes, an act of resistance against an occupying power. The growing centrality of advanced technology catered to Israelis’ evolving self-perception as a modern, Western nation pitted against a “backward” Arab population.

This status quo was unacceptable to Hamas, who embarked on a two-year plan for an operation aiming not to destroy Israel, but rather to shock it back to the negotiating table with leverage gained through hostage-taking. As later reports showed, within three days of the initial attack Hamas had offered to return all civilian hostages in exchange for Israel foregoing a ground invasion.

Yet neither side understood the degree to which Israel’s national security capabilities had degraded, nor how Israelis would react to having their national self-image shattered by the attack. As Hamas fighters made their way into Israel, expecting fierce resistance and martyrdom at the hands of a vastly superior opponent, what they found instead was minimal resistance and an army so caught by surprise it was willing in a handful of cases to fire on its own civilians.

Senior officials, themselves caught by surprise with no explanation for how such an attack could occur, quickly resorted to threat inflation to skirt accountability, while deferring a formal investigation until after the conclusion of a hastily launched war of reprisal. The lack of official explanation as to how an attack of this magnitude could occur in the first place further panicked the population, creating the pretext for a level of retaliatory violence unprecedented in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Yet, as the analysis above shows, no part of this was inevitable. To paraphrase the great military scholar Carl von Clausewitz, the purpose of military action and, by extension, military technology, is to create the conditions where diplomacy becomes possible, not to eliminate the need for negotiation altogether. An organizational science analysis shows clearly how Israel’s substitution of technology for politics, dehumanization of Palestinians, and growing corruption inside its security and political establishment had set the stage years in advance for the disaster that struck on Oct.7.

The Gaza “showroom” once bragged about by Saar Koursh has now collapsed. Instead of showcasing Israel’s technological prowess and military might, the Gaza Strip has become a monument to Israel’s institutional decay, indifference to international norms and accelerating global isolation. What new order will emerge from the ruins of the current war is not yet clear. But the belief that Israel could enjoy safety while dismissing, ignoring or suppressing a captive Palestinian population, caged in by surveillance technology and brutal security policies, has been exposed as a costly illusion — paid for in both Israeli and Palestinian lives.

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