Hours before Hamas attack, IDF noticed dozens of terrorists activating Israeli SIMs

Because such activations had taken place in the past, the development was not seen as a definite red flag; military censor permits detail for publication following media leak

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

File: An armed Hamas terrorist walking around the Supernova music festival, near Kibbutz Re'im in the Negev desert in southern Israel on October 7, where terrorists from Gaza massacred hundreds of people. (South First Responders/AFP)
File: An armed Hamas terrorist walking around the Supernova music festival, near Kibbutz Re'im in the Negev desert in southern Israel on October 7, where terrorists from Gaza massacred hundreds of people. (South First Responders/AFP)

At around midnight before Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, Israeli intelligence officials identified that dozens of terror operatives in the Gaza Strip had activated Israeli SIM cards in their phones, the Israel Defense Forces acknowledged on Monday.

The massacre in southern Israel was launched hours later, at 6:30 a.m., during which some 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists burst across the border into Israel from Gaza by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages of all ages — mostly civilians — under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

The IDF censor allowed some details of the SIM cards case to be published after it was reported during a live Channel 14 news broadcast on Sunday, although it did not verify the report, which claimed some 1,000 SIMs were activated simultaneously at midnight.

In a statement Monday, the IDF and Shin Bet security agency said reports that around 1,000 Israeli SIM cards were activated simultaneously in the Gaza Strip hours before the October 7 onslaught were “false and far from reality.”

They said that in practice, “several indicative signs accumulated, which included, among other things, the activation of only dozens of SIMs, which were activated in previous events in the past.”

“As previously published, on the night of October 7th, indicative signs were received for which situation assessments were conducted and operative decisions were made accordingly,” the IDF and Shin Bet said.

“The indicative signs are based on a variety of tools and capabilities, including technological tools whose method of operation cannot be detailed,” the statement added.

As the devices with Israeli SIMs had been activated in the past, without anything happening, this led Israeli intelligence officials to believe Hamas could again be carrying out an exercise, and this was not seen as a definitive sign of a planned attack. They decided to continue consultations on the matter throughout the night.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Monday initially denied that Netanyahu had been aware that invading Hamas terrorists switched to Israeli SIM cards until Channel 14 on Sunday broadcast the claim that the terrorists activated 1,000 Israeli SIM cards. The PMO later clarified that he hadn’t been aware of that numerical claim until the TV report, but was told, “at the start of the war, … that the terrorists used dozens of Israeli SIMs.”

Further details surrounding the case of the SIM cards were not permitted to be published at this stage. It is believed that Israeli SIM cards enabled the terrorists better communication in southern Israel during the onslaught.

The IDF has said it will investigate all the incidents in the lead-up to the October 7 attack.

It was previously reported that on the night between October 6 and 7, hours before the early morning assault, an email was sent from an IDF base on the Gaza border describing “certain signs coming from Gaza” about an imminent attack. At the same time, the Shin Bet security agency also saw signs that something was up.

Shin Bet head Ronen Bar (R) and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi (L) hold an assessment with senior officers in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, December 11, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

At around 1:30 a.m. on October 7, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi’s office manager was updated about this by the Shin Bet, and then by the IDF general in charge of the Southern Command. At around 3:30 a.m., Halevi was awakened. He asked to arrange a telephone consultation in order to hold a situational assessment. That session took place some 90 minutes later.

The IDF’s operations chief arranged his own consultation ahead of Halevi’s, found the same signs of an imminent attack and sought explanations as to whether this was a drill or a strategic operation against Israel set for the coming hours. That consultation concluded that no definitive explanation could be reached, and sought additional intelligence from the IDF’s 8200 signal intelligence unit.

When they held their consultation, Halevi, the head of IDF operations and the Southern Command chief were updated on the signs of an imminent attack. Halevi asked for more information and ordered that the Israel Air Force be updated. He also ordered that the intelligence information be checked — including from a perspective skeptical of the then-prevailing assumption that Hamas was not interested in war.

Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, the head of the Intelligence Directorate, was not involved in these October 6-7 consultations, as he was on vacation in Eilat. He was updated around 3 a.m. about the worrying signs from Gaza, but took no part in the consultations and wasn’t available by phone for them.

Hamas terrorists near Kibbutz Nir Oz during the massacre on October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Eslaiah)

Haliva was quoted as later telling those around him that, even if he had participated in the consultations, he would have concluded that it was apparently a drill and dealing with the matter could wait until the morning. “It wouldn’t have changed the final result in any way,” he reportedly said.

Israel had multiple sources of information on Hamas’s drills and other preparations for an assault in the weeks ahead of October 7, reportedly including a 2022 Hamas attack plan.

The IDF had long touted its security fence, with cameras, watchtowers and high-tech sensors, as providing security to residents of Gaza border towns. But on October 7, Hamas terrorists knocked chunks of it aside with explosives and bulldozers at multiple locations, then drove right through the gaping holes in jeeps and on motorcycles, while others sailed over in hang gliders, as drones dropped explosives on observation towers and took out cameras. Amid a simultaneous rocket barrage across southern and central Israel, an estimated 3,000 terrorists stormed into southern Israel and slaughtered soldiers and civilians alike, with some local resistance but the military establishment slow to react.

Last week, The Times of Israel learned that the IDF would begin probing operational failures in the lead-up to the October 7 massacre, after Halevi decided not to wait until after the fighting ends to look into what went wrong.

The probes, set to begin by the end of the month, are aimed at drawing operational conclusions for the military, and will not look into the policies of the political leadership — thus avoiding a fight with government leaders who have insisted that investigations wait until after the end of Israel’s war against Hamas.

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