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 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 and data that should transcend purely tactical knowledge
This revision of Israel’s operational intelligence orientation began in 2003. It was the brainchild of Meir Dagan, Israel’s longest-running Mossad chief (2002-2010). The process he set in motion refocused the work of Israel’s clandestine agencies on collecting tactical intelligence, rather than digging for overarching strategic data for the study and analysis of regional and international dynamics and for bolstering understanding of the key players.
This revolution, approved by the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, affected the work in the short and long term of Israel’s external and internal security and counterterrorism arms, the Mossad and Shin Bet, as well as military intelligence AMAN.
Israel scores tactical wins in a strategic black hole
The Mossad set about shutting down its stations world wide and sacking or sidelining agents who disputed the Dagan overhaul. The organization was restructured on new lines. The desks specializing in the strategic research of international events were streamlined out of the organization. The new entity assumed a form that was akin to 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.
During this evolution, 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 despite these coups, Israeli intelligence was left short of important tools for fighting terrorism and fundamentalist Islam on the march. Dagan was wont to remark: Let’s leave that to the Americans.
Hamas remains an unknown quantity
New personnel were hired on the strength of their ability to think tactically. They, in turn, sought the same qualities in the next generation of agents and staff. By perpetuating this trend, and dropping their strategic evaluation and research departments, Mossad, Shin Bet and AMAN ended up short of the tools for supplying Israel’s diplomats and security leaders with professional analyses of the bigger picture.
This deficiency was conspicuous in Israel’s failure to evaluate the US-Iranian détente and its import for the Jewish state; in its error in forecasting Bashar Assad's early downfall in the Syrian war – and, more immediately, in failing to second guess Hamas in Operation Protective Edge.
DEBKA Weekly’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.
Tank commanders were warned as they advanced what lay beyond the next corner.
Much valuable information was extracted from Hamas prisoners captured by advance intelligence units who went into enemy terrain ahead of the armored corps. Such instantaneous data feeds in a steady stream were worth their weight in gold.
But tactical intelligence could only take the IDF so far in Gaza – as in other hostile arenas.
Hamas takes opposite tack, focuses on strategy
Detailed rundowns of the movements of Iranian nuclear scientists were tactically priceless, but they were not much use for predicting when and how Iran would intervene in the Syrian conflict, or enlist Hizballah in support of Assad’s army.
In the Gaza conflict, Israel’s war planners determined that Hamas leaders were desperate for a ceasefire – and proved wrong. This fallacy arose from a lack of strategic intelligence on the enemy’s mind processes, personal predilections’ and Achilles heels. They were short of the tools for outguessing Hamas when it counted most.
As for Egypt’s role, Israel’s leaders relied too heavily on President Abdel-Fattah Sisi strong-muscling Hamas into submission at the Cairo negotiations. He obviously had his own fish to fry as well.
Lacking this type of strategic intelligence, Israel was driving blind. No wonder, its leaders were on tenterhooks for four hours Wednesday, because of an inability to read Hamas’ intentions and where it was headed when the three-day ceasefire expired at midnight.
It is this extra strategic dimension that has given Hamas the advantage of surprise to offset its deficit in numbers and arms. Tactical intelligence comes into play later as back-up.