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How did we go so wrong: 13 questions for a former IDF intelligence chief

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from The Times of Israel.

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

Maj. Gen. (res) Tamir Hayman spent 34 years in the IDF, culminating in more than three years as head of Military Intelligence in 2018-21. He is now the head of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, a leading think tank, and has been a prominent, no-nonsense Hebrew media analyst of the cataclysmic events of October 7 and the progress of Israel’s military campaign, since that darkest of days, to dismantle Hamas in Gaza.

In columns these past two months, I have tried to convey a sense of how Israel is grappling militarily, politically, socially, and psychologically with the repercussions of the savage Hamas-led slaughter of so many of our people — the gravest event our modern state has had to deal with. On the military front, I have been to various briefings, seen a little for myself, and been helped especially by The Times of Israel’s indefatigable military reporter Emanuel Fabian. But I thought Hayman might be able to fill in some gaps on key questions.

What follows is an edited transcript, translated from the Hebrew.

1. We’ve heard dark, vague talk of still greater ambitions that Hamas had for October 7. What else did Hamas plan that day?

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It’s hard to imagine a graver event than what happened. It’s astonishingly terrible, the worst thing that has happened. Beyond that? Well, if they hadn’t been stopped at several key junctions in Israel, they would have gone deeper and wider.

Also, if they had managed to capture the headquarters of the Gaza Division, at the Re’im base, our security situation would have been even more complex than it was. But they didn’t get into the HQ, mainly thanks to the heroism of the Bedouin trackers who were there. And there were other sensitive areas that they were not able to get to.

2. We’ve also heard that Hamas did not directly coordinate, at least on the timing, with Iran and Hezbollah. What would Iran and Hezbollah have done if Hamas had told them ahead of time?

If there had been wider coordination, we might have caught onto it. We didn’t because they kept the secret to a very centralized, limited group.

If they had done that coordination, there’s a big question as to whether Iran and Hezbollah would have agreed to participate. I don’t know.

Members of the Lebanese Shiite terror group Hezbollah salute during the funeral of Youssef Karam Jawad, a gunman killed during cross-border clashes with Israel in the southern Lebanese village of Aita Al Shaab, on November 24, 2023. (Photo by AFP)

There are two possibilities. One, they might have said to Hamas, no, don’t do it. Two, they might have agreed, but I imagine it would have looked different. It would have placed new stresses on their operational actions. But it’s very hard to answer questions that are so hypothetical.

Certainly, if they had coordinated well ahead, and we hadn’t caught onto it, and Iran and Hezbollah had agreed [to participate], it would have been so much worse.

3. What has been Egypt’s role — before and after October 7? And did Egypt enable Hamas to bring in weapons or the components for weapons over the years, above ground and through border tunnels?

Egypt did not actively support the arming of Hamas and did not turn a blind eye to it. The strengthening of Hamas is counter to Egyptian interests. We’re talking about [an iteration of] the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Egyptians do not much like the Muslim Brotherhood in principle, and they don’t like Hamas in particular. You won’t find many people who like Hamas in so-called “moderate” Arab states. Apart from Qatar and Turkey, you won’t find many who like Hamas.

So it was against Egypt’s interests [for Hamas to get stronger] and they didn’t [help them] do it.

Tamir Hayman, Managing Director of the Institute for National Security Studies (Courtesy)

As for now, Egypt has a real concern about Palestinian refugees from Gaza entering Egypt. In their view, that’s a potentially very dangerous situation. It could destabilize… it could engender very problematic sentiments in Egypt. Egypt could be accused of collaborating with Israel on a kind of Nakba.

Despite Israel’s clarifications that Israel has no intention of expelling the populace, various statements by ministers, including the publication of research by the intelligence minister, and comments by other officials, have meant that they’re very worried about this.

They’re worried on two timescales — a mass expulsion [in the near term], and also that, over time, Israeli policy will encourage a gradual emigration to Egypt.

They also fear that, one way or another, they are responsible for Gaza. And since Camp David, they have made definitively clear that they do not intend to take Gaza back [under Egyptian sovereignty]. They firmly oppose any responsibility for Gaza. As far as they’re concerned, it’s connected to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and not related to an Egypt border dispute, even though that’s the historic truth.

4. Let’s turn to the Gaza tunnels. Before the ground offensive began, I remember hearing the former deputy IDF chief of staff Yair Golan saying, We know what to do with the tunnels, and, Don’t worry, soldiers won’t be going into the tunnels. Did the IDF underestimate the extent and nature of the tunnels and how impenetrable they are?

It’s a very grave problem. Our assessment was not flawed. Nonetheless, it’s a complicated problem that has no magic solution. We are using lots of techniques. The most efficient is what we’ve done in northern Gaza: You work from the air before the ground forces enter. Then you take control of the area on the ground, above the ground, and then you complete the destruction of the underground with various discovery and destruction techniques. And then you move on to the next area. It’s very slow, because you’re working above and below the ground.

A tunnel shaft inside a mosque in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood, located by IDF troops, in a handout image published November 20, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

In Gaza City, northern Gaza, it was possible. In the south of the Strip, because of operational reasons, we have acted differently. The ground offensive there is moving much faster, and there is still a more serious problem below ground, and therefore there are more ambushes, gunmen coming out of tunnel shafts, explosive devices being planted, and we are paying a heavy price.

5. Operational reasons or international pressure?

No. Operational. The international pressure was to evacuate noncombatants in advance of the ground forces’ arrival, and we, of course, would have done that anyway. We have no intention of harming innocent people.

Tents and makeshift shelters at a camp for displaced Gazans in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 13, 2023. (Mahmud HAMS / AFP)

6. The tunnels aren’t all interconnected? I worried, for instance, that when the IDF resumed the ground offensive after the truce [in the final week of November, during which 105 hostages were freed], Hamas gunmen would have returned to the north, and would start emerging from the tunnels again in areas the IDF thought were secure. Are you saying that the IDF separated the northern tunnels from the rest of the Strip?

Absolutely. Hamas is divided into five brigades and 24 battalions. Every battalion has its own underground fighting district, where it maneuvers and moves from place to place. And there are areas that connect between the battalions. To defeat a battalion, you destroy its hideouts above ground, and you destroy its tunnel junctions and shafts below ground and neutralize its capacity to move around underground. It’s complicated. And it takes a long time.

When you’ve stopped a battalion functioning above and below ground, either it flees or it surrenders. It has stopped functioning. That is what is called defeating a Hamas battalion.

If you halted the fire, or left the area, they could reorganize. But not during the fighting.

Soldiers killed fighting against Hamas in the northern Gaza Strip on December 12, 2023: Top: L-R: Maj. Roei Meldasi, Lt. Col. Tomer Grinberg, Sgt. Achia Daskal, Maj. Moshe Avram Bar On, Cpt. Liel Hayo; bottom: Staff Sgt. Oriya Yaakov, Sgt. First Class Rom Hecht, Maj. Ben Shelly, Sgt. Eran Aloni, and Col. Itzhak Ben Basat. (Courtesy; combo image: Times of Israel)

7. Overall, the war is proceeding as planned? I hate to use the word “well,” especially because of the mounting losses. The plan is good and effective?

On the tactical and operational level, yes, though tackling the underground remains a major issue.

And the capacity to free hostages through operational actions has been very, very limited. Most of the hostages we have managed to get out were through negotiation, not through military operations. We keep on trying.

Relatives and friends of hostages held in the Gaza Strip by Hamas hold candles and call for their release during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, in Jerusalem, December 12, 2023. (AP/Leo Correa)

At a strategic, diplomatic level, we’re coming to a moment of truth. We will have to translate the military achievements into a diplomatic plan: What’s the alternative future for Gaza?

It doesn’t matter what choice we make, it needs to be integrated — [toward the establishment of a governing body] covering foreign policy, economics, interior, rule of law, security, of course… But for what I think are mainly political reasons, decisions defining [how Gaza is to be governed] on the day after are not being made. And that makes it much harder for the security establishment to plan how to reach that day after.

8. The fact that you’re saying this suggests, in terms of what has been achieved, that the war is very advanced, that the IDF is nearly there in terms of dismantling Gaza, that it could start to integrate the successes with the longer-term planning?

We are advancing as planned. Slower than we thought, but according to the plan, according to the phases. We’re attaining all the required and intended achievements.

There’s a sense that it’s over. It’s not over yet. There’s a lot more to do.

It’s taking a heavy price in terms of soldiers’ lives. Relative to the operational challenge, it could have been much worse. It’s a crowded area, fighting a very well-organized enemy that prepared itself for years to fight in its backyard. And yet we are succeeding. The enemy never stops us. We are never halted. We’re working pretty professionally. So, bottom line, yes, the tactical operational effort is going very well.

Family, friends, and brothers-in-arms participate in the funeral of tank commander Omri Roth, killed in Gaza, at the Rosh Pina Military Cemetery on December 10, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

We need to think about the day after.

9. Are you saying that if the government had decided, say, that the PA was to take over on the day after, the war would be handled differently right now? And that because there’s no decision, something is not happening that should be happening on the ground?

In the initial stages of the war, while you are busy dismantling, destroying Hamas, it makes no difference. But in the more advanced stages, when you’ve reached a situation where you’ve destroyed enough of Hamas, you have to decide what not to harm, and what has to be preserved, so that this will be the infrastructural basis to enable an alternative [governance] to function. Because if you don’t have that [postwar plan], you could by mistake destroy something that you wanted.

I’ll give you a theoretical example.

Let’s say you decide that the alternative address that you want [for postwar governance] is a local family, a wealthy family who wants to control Gaza. You have to decide not to kill them or hurt them. You have to preserve their assets, their strength. So you have to limit yourself. That needs operational planning.

Or if you decide that you want an “international mandate” that would take charge of Gaza for a few years — a protectorate — then you need, already now, at the diplomatic level, to decide who is going to preside over that mandate, and then sit with them and define how the infrastructure is to look, what has to be preserved, how it will operate there on the day after. This has to be worked on now.

10. Is there an option for local families — Israel tried that decades ago in the West Bank — or for an international mandate? Are either of those possible, or other options?

It needs to be a combination. I don’t believe in this local idea, because all the local families are tainted by cooperation with Hamas. They must have paid protection to Hamas. But what is possible is a combination of an international actor that nurtures and builds and oversees some kind of alternate governance that is not this Palestinian Authority, but, rather, a future Palestinian Authority, a different Palestinian Authority, which is deradicalized and significantly reformed.

If [the PA] doesn’t volunteer to undergo that process, then the interim international mandate will remain for a long time. Until it does.

Israeli soldiers are briefed as they prepare to go into the Gaza Strip, near the border area in southern Israel on December 13, 2023. ( JACK GUEZ / AFP)

11. And who would hold that mandate? Which international player would take up so poisoned a chalice?

The prime minister on Monday spoke in the Foreign Affairs and Defense committee about the Saudis, for example. The potential could be examined for states in that Gulf area to join up, as part of the American motivation for warmed partnerships in the Middle East. There are also European states that greatly want to help in the rehabilitation of the Strip. This, too, can be utilized.

Overall, there’ll be some kind of combination of three elements. One, something international that will deal with rehabilitating the Strip. A PA bureaucratic component — I’m not talking about Ramallah, but local Fatah from Gaza. And maybe some local Gaza leaders. The combination of those three — an international protectorate, the remains of the PA in Gaza and a local element — that’s the mix that could evolve into something different. But we have to be very modest when discussing the future in an area that’s a war zone right now.

12. What should Israel be doing about the Houthi threat?

The situation where there is a blockade on Israel, and now a shipping boycott of Israel, is intolerable for Israel geostrategically. Israel is an island state, more than 90% dependent on supplies that come from the sea. There are only two routes — via the Strait of Gibraltar or the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. And this moment, where half of the route is blocked, affecting lots of the trade from the Far East, is unacceptable and impossible. It’s an international problem as regards Freedom of the seas. But it’s mainly Israel’s problem. And Israel needs to know how to deal with it, even if the international community doesn’t deal with it.

Gaza terrorists abduct an Israeli civilian, center, from Kibbutz Kfar Aza to the Gaza Strip on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. (AP Photo)

13. And finally, I have to ask you what everybody has asked for two months, and continues to ask, because it is unfathomable: How could Israel’s intelligence agencies, its military, the security establishment, have failed to understand what Hamas was planning? We’ve heard this from the very top echelons and down to people who fought heroically on that day: ‘We never imagined that anything like this could happen. We never dreamed…’

I just don’t understand it. We knew who their key commanders were. We knew about their battalions. We knew what they were doing. This is your world. Why were the assumptions not questioned? Why were the warnings brushed aside? How did this happen?

It’s the million-dollar question. It’s the question that the entire intelligence community in Israel asks itself morning and night. Where did we go wrong? And how did we go so wrong?

The mistake is one of assessment. I prefer not to call it a failure of “conception.” It’s a failure of assessment. That’s the heart of the intelligence profession. And the assessment was that Hamas was not interested in starting a [war] campaign. And that all the violence we saw in the period [before October 7], the so-called uprising at the fence, stemmed from money problems. And that if the flow of Qatari money resumed, they’d go back to restraint. The Qatari money resumed, right before October 7, and they indeed reined in [the violence], and that strengthened the theory that Hamas was deterred. That was the thinking.

And all intelligence that was received which could be interpreted in line with that thinking was indeed interpreted according to that thinking. And that applied even to scraps of information in the hours before, the day before, because the internal conviction was so deep that Hamas did not want a war.

Still, that doesn’t explain a thing. It just describes the problem. It doesn’t explain the problem because there were mechanisms that are supposed to deal with that problem, control mechanisms, the Ifcha Mistabra [the IDF’s Devil’s Advocate Unit] and more. There are two large intelligence hierarchies that work separately on the same thing, so that they can formulate intelligence independently of each other — the Shin Bet and IDF Military Intelligence — and both erred in the same way.

I have no satisfactory explanation. It will be investigated.

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