There is no cause for optimism (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

October 12, 2023   5 mins

The last major news item about Gaza before the first news of Hamas’s surprise attack was the September 22 announcement that 17,000 Gazans would immediately receive permits to work in Israel, with that number set to rise to 20,000. All understood the likelihood of a permit-holder smuggling in a bomb, or perhaps stabbing an Israeli fellow worker, but that seemed a risk worth taking.

Hamas, after all, had stopped launching rockets against Israel, and appeared to be focused on containing the influence of Islamic Jihad — Hamas’s only remaining competitor after its suppression of the PLO, and one which is financed by Iran to propagate Shi’ism in Gaza. This obvious rivalry was skilfully exploited by Hamas to deceive the Israelis into thinking that it was no longer launching rockets because, as an emphatically Sunni organisation, it wanted to join the Sunni reconciliation with Israel that was already a fait accompli from Morocco to Bahrain.

Once again, as so many times before, Israel’s leaders were deluded into thinking that a Palestinian leadership had some concern for the welfare of its own people, as opposed to its ideological aim: “Palestine” for the nationalist PLO (which always included Christians), and Islamic supremacy for Hamas. The latter’s leaders have frequently explained that Islamic rule must be imposed not just on Israel but on the entire world, and that Palestinian nationalism is un-Islamic twice over — because it includes Christians, and because any nationalism intrinsically subverts Islamic unity.

With Hamas seemingly on a path to reconciliation, only the much smaller Islamic Jihad was still assembling and launching rockets. But most of those attempts were pre-empted by Israeli strikes, guided by precise intelligence supplied by a seemingly reliable agent network. Almost certainly, Hamas itself supplied the “actionable” information passed on by those agents. This efficiently blinded Israeli intelligence, which has plenty of expertise in detecting double agents peddling false information, but could hardly suspect agents who were supplying highly accurate information.

This was the first Israeli failure: its intelligence analysts did not realise that the silence of Hamas was not due to inactivity, but to planning that they could not detect. Such silence was far from normal, and it should have inspired efforts to find out what was going on. But it did not.

On top of that, there was a separate failure which was purely military. Even if intelligence reported that all was well and that Gaza was on the path to peace, military planners should not have yielded to such optimism — for a very specific Israeli reason. Since the Israeli armed forces rely on reservists, who must be recalled to duty and kitted out before they can fight, as opposed to an enemy that can switch from peace to war instantaneously, military planners must be professional pessimists no matter what. They must always be mindful of the minutes needed to broadcast an alert, of the hours that even soldiers in situ need to prepare for action, and the full 24 hours required to mobilise the reservists.

On Saturday, this lack of prudence was so extreme that a single tank with four crew was caught guarding a key segment of the border previously held by a platoon of three tanks. Elsewhere, the 23 high-tech observation points around Gaza’s perimeter were each manned by a single soldier. All of them were female soldiers selected for being especially attentive, and they were all killed by the very first infiltrators. The same was to blame for the lack of security surrounding the “rave” within walking distance of the Gaza strip, which would cost the lives of more than 250 youngsters.

True, it was a purely private initiative, but security is a police responsibility no matter what, and while the local police certainly told the organisers not to hold the event so close to Gaza, they did not call for the massive reinforcements that would have been needed to send everybody away. Moreover, the youngsters who drove from near and far to the music festival did not appear to be typical young Israelis, who are likely to have guns in their cars. So, when the Hamas killers arrived, there were only a few policemen in the crowd. Very conspicuous in their uniforms, they were promptly gunned down.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to forget how integral this optimistic bias is to the entire Israel project — pessimists would have stopped praying for Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. Nor is this the first time that Israel’s military planners courted disaster by grossly underestimating the dangers of war. On October 6, 1973, when the Egyptian army suddenly flooded across the Suez Canal with an initial wave of thousands of men, fewer than 441 soldiers stood on the Israeli side, and were expected to hold a chain of 16 widely separated fortified outposts.

That time, Israel’s lack of prudence reflected the calculation that Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat, was an intelligent man who understood that Egypt would eventually be defeated no matter what, once the Israelis were fully mobilised. That was true enough: the war that started on October 6 ended on October 23 with Egypt’s army wrecked, tens of thousands of Egyptian troops surrounded, and Israeli troops just 101 kilometres from Cairo. But what Israeli intelligence failed to understand was that Sadat had no need of an actual military victory to achieve his aim, which was to activate US diplomacy to finally end the conflict with Israel.

As of this morning, the penetration of Israeli columns into Gaza has not yet started. They cannot hope to find Hamas leaders who have had years to prepare properly fitted-out, secret bunkers which may be known to Israeli agents, as well as their actual hideouts known only to themselves. Nor can they hope to find Israeli hostages who might be killed before their eyes if they come too close.

What they can do is destroy Hamas’s rocket factories, weapon depots and deep underground headquarters — indeed, the decision to go in at all depends on how many such targets have been identified, and not already effectively bombed. If the incursion does happen, the world will see new vehicles, weapons and techniques deployed for the first time that will reduce Israeli casualties to very small numbers. These include the world’s largest and best-protected armoured vehicle, the 65-ton Namer, which has active defences to intercept anti-armour missiles and rockets, in addition to both reactive and conventional armour.

Yet even with their use, there are no guarantees that any lasting result will be achieved. Hamas is an exceptionally brutal dictatorship not only against Jews — in 130 years of conflict, very few Jewish children have been deliberately killed by Palestinians until now — but also, and indeed mostly, against Gaza’s population. Having been elected into power long ago, Hamas has killed anyone in Gaza who has asked for new elections.

As for anyone who remains determined to be optimistic, they would do well to return to October 1973. One can imagine that, just as Sadat did, Hamas also had a feasible goal when it launched its attack. Inevitably, this time it would be to activate Saudi diplomacy, to add a solution for Gaza to its peace plan. After three years of watching impotently as Israel and Saudi Arabia were getting closer to formal diplomatic relations, Hamas decided to force its way into the Israeli-Saudi dialogue — and to get something for itself.

Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.