Israel is Brussels — if Brussels shared a border with a bunch of tribal medieval warlords with access to 21st-century weaponry.
Many people wondered after Oct. 7 how an advanced nation like Israel could have allowed a massive, three-pronged, well-executed terrorist incursion into its civilian areas. The myth about Israel’s infallible security services isn’t new.
Last week, The New York Times reported that Israeli officials had their hands on Hamas’ Oct. 7 plans a year ago. Though there was no specific date for the attack attached to the plan, it described a “methodical assault designed to overwhelm the fortifications around the Gaza Strip, take over Israeli cities and storm key military bases, including a division headquarters.”
Both Israeli military and intelligence officials apparently dismissed the plans as merely “aspirational” and ignored the warnings.
A few things to remember:
Israelis can be arrogant and dismissive about their enemies. It leads to disasters. In this case, it’s clear Israel overestimated the effectiveness of its security services and its border and underestimated Hamas. Their enemies might be terrorists, but they aren’t stupid.
There probably isn’t another nation that has such a pronounced economic, moral, and lifestyle disparity with its neighbors. Perhaps South Korea? Israel’s per capita GDP is on par with most Western European nations at $54,660, while in Palestinian territories the per capita GDP is $3,789 — which, despite claims of Gaza being an “open-air prison” etc., is on par with Egyptians ($4,295), Jordanians ($4,205) and Lebanese ($4,136).
This unpleasant reality is often forgotten by Israelis, who live in a technologically and morally advanced first-world democracy. The Iron Dome. The top-tier conventional military. The prosperous Western lifestyles. Its innovative science and tech sectors. All of it can lull a country into a false sense of security.
Moreover, Israeli officials probably get tons of warnings — some of them disinformation. It is immeasurably more difficult to protect civilians from random murder than to murder them. Every Hamas encounter — every act of murder, rape, and cruelty — is a victory for the terror group. Every loss of life is a disaster for Israel.
Until Oct. 7, no such attack had ever been attempted by Hamas, much less succeeded. Israel can’t afford to mobilize its army in perpetuity. It’s an economically devastating position for a small nation. Israel’s unique struggle is operating a modern, conventional military, but also dealing with lo-fi, high-reward terrorist events that rely on automatic rifles, knives, homemade explosives, and paragliders.
Every time Israel is compelled to crack down on Hamas — in this case, in what would have been a preemptive measure — brings world condemnation and pressure from everyone, including allies. Consequently, there are a slew of political considerations that go into these kinds of decisions. Politicians in Israel, like anywhere else, are risk averse.
This isn’t the first time this has happened in Israel. It happened most famously in 1973. Anwar Sadat, after expelling Soviet advisers, planned to restore Egyptian self-respect after its devastating defeat of 1967. The first goal was to take back land it had lost and the second was to damage Israel’s sense of superiority.
Military intelligence informed Prime Minister Golda Meir that Egypt and Syria were massing troops along the borders. There is some historical debate over what happened next. Some say (recently deceased) Henry Kissinger warned Israel not to preemptively attack as it had in 1967. Others contend that even then, Meir dismissed the ability of Arab nations to mount such an attack.
Whatever the case, Israel was unprepared. Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur of 1973, resulting in the most devastating loss of life Israel had seen until Oct 7. Israel rebounded from the initial shock, but it was never the same.
The attack on Oct. 7 was a bigger blow to Israel than the 1973 war. Not only because more civilians were killed, but because, as any non-sociopath who’s read about or seen images of the gloating killers would comprehend, the psychological trauma of the event is brutal.
Even before the Times piece was published, conspiracy theorists spread the claim that Benjamin Netanyahu knew about the attack, allowing it to happen as a way of consolidating power or unleashing his genocidal intentions on Gaza. The truth is much more boring, and, for Israel, much more serious.