Hamas’ attack: failures of deterrence and imagination are lessons beyond Israel
Israeli bulldozer near Gaza

Hamas terrorists were not deterred by Israel, whose leaders failed to imagine bulldozers and motorbikes could enable such scale of murder.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

Hamas’ murderous attack into Israel used a combination of high tech and low tech tools and weapons.  The planners banked on Israeli security forces seeing the rocket and missile barrage launched by Hamas as the main attack – and also relied on Israelis assuming that its sophisticated air defence network would defeat it, so there was no need to do much more than wait. This is how the conflict between Israeli security forces and Hamas has played out for the last five years, so there was an expected pattern.

But the rocket barrage was a distraction.  At the same time, Hamas terrorists used armed small drones to destroy and damage Israeli surveillance towers and automated machine gun emplacements along the Gaza border fence with Israel.  And they used bulldozers to break through the fence and open the way for gangs of Hamas terrorists to move through – some on motorbikes so they could, disperse across the towns and villages of Southern Israel and some ready to seize vehicles inside Israel.  All were heavily armed with assault weapons to kill and injure the maximum number of Israelis and Israeli military personnel.

Early reporting has focused on use of paragliders and boats to enter Israel, but it seems that the larger numbers of terrorists relied on the bulldozers breaching the fence and Israeli border surveillance being blinded by the armed drone attacks, together with the distraction of security force attention onto the rocket barrages.

The mass killings and abductions that followed were low tech murders and mayhem: small groups of terrorists searching for victims and gunning them down with automatic weapons, abducting others for use later as hostages, human shields and victims of violence and abuse. This will drag in other nations and governments whose citizens have been abducted – with US citizens and no doubt others – EU citizens for example – amongst the some 150 people kidnapped by Hamas.

We’re already hearing about Israeli agencies’ intelligence failures for not knowing of, warning about and preventing the attack.  While an inevitable Israeli government inquiry into the events leading up to the attack will no doubt find that there were plenty of now obvious bits of data and intelligence pointing to the attack, this will be more a case of the clarity of hindsight, where knowing the answer you are looking for makes it easier to find it in a huge volume of intelligence and surveillance data.  That’s the story of the 9/11 Commission in the US after Al Qaeda’s destruction of the World Trade Center’s twin towers.

The failure is a deeper one with harder lessons for others – including Australia’s national security agencies and decision makers.  Israeli security force analysts and military and political decision makers turn out to have been unable to imagine how Hamas might apply the lessons of drone warfare that Israel has practiced and that are on display in Ukraine every day. 

They also failed to see how everyday equipment like motorbikes and bulldozers could open up large and new opportunities for Hamas terrorists to roam almost at will inside Israeli towns and villages.  And perhaps they were beguiled – as our own military and border protections agencies are by the power of high technology systems and intricate analysis and failed to remember the enormous destructive power of humans with simple automatic weapons.

Another factor may be that Israelis living in a state governed by law and subject to elections found it hard to put themselves in the minds of Hamas terrorists.  These terrorists have no scruples about murdering small children in front of their families, killing women and elderly people and using abducted people as hostages for torture, propaganda and potential hostage exchanges.  The Hamas terrorists who spread out across southern Israel did not expect to return but to die after killing as many Israelis as possible. 

Hamas’ leaders may have considered the consequences and effects of their attack, including the scale and violence of Israel’s reaction – but they almost certainly do not care in the same way as others about the scale of suffering and death they will have inflicted on their own people in Gaza. This is not new in violent movements like terrorist groups, who justify their violence and the loss it inflicts on their own communities by an appeal to some historic mission that justifies their actions.

A disturbing insight – common to Putin ordering the attack on Ukraine and to Hamas leaders here – is that some actors can’t be deterred from pursuing their ends by force.  Rather than being deterred, they must be stopped. 

That’s an uncomfortable thought when we look at the potential conflicts in our own region driven by Xi Jinping’s leadership and ambitions during his tenure at the head of the Chinese Communist Party, like the one over Taiwan or the flashpoints in the South China Sea from China’s expansive illegitimate claims.

Both Putin and Hamas were faced with enormous response if they did what they planned and each did it anyway. Deterrence can only be part of a strategy when faced with likely aggression – plans and capacity must also be real to face and defeat the aggressor if deterrence fails.

The victory celebrations and gleeful cheering of the mass murders by Hamas terrorists are likely to prove premature and false.  Rather than a weakened and isolated Israel, as they hope, the likely longer term effect is a militarily stronger Israel, with a more unified population supporting security efforts to damage and diminish Hamas. Israel is likely to be seen as a more essential partner for Middle eastern states wanting to face the challenge of an aggressive, Iran that is sponsoring terrorist proxies in Hamas and Lebanon-based Hezbollah.    So, Hamas leaders are likely to have had a failure of imagination too. 

Rather than an intelligence failure that can be laid at the door of Israeli spy agencies, then, this was a failure of imagination by military leaders and political decision makers, with intelligence analysts playing a part. And before any air of complacency settles in, it’s the kind of failure that is rare in Israel but much more likely to happen in a country like Australia that has lived in a secure world anchored in American power for so long that change in deeply held assumptions is hard to think through.

Israelis are fast learners and they will adapt and respond to this new environment.  But the lessons about the limitations of deterrence, analysis that assumes business as usual and so doesn’t allow us to think the worst and plan around it, and too heavy a reliance on the magic of exquisite technologies are ones for Australians interested in our security just as they are lessons for Israelis. 

If we haven’t been willing to learn from Ukrainians’ impressive creativity and innovation in the face of Putin’s undeterred aggression, maybe we can now learn from this deeply painful Israeli example.