Report: US army in October planned, shelved, potential op to rescue American hostages

US imaging capacities played secondary but crucial role in recent rescue op, say officials, with Israel’s lackluster data underscoring its pre-Oct. 7 human intel failure

A photo released by the IDF on February 7, 2024 shows a major Hamas tunnel captured by Israeli troops in Khan Younis, southern Gaza (IDF)
A photo released by the IDF on February 7, 2024 shows a major Hamas tunnel captured by Israeli troops in Khan Younis, southern Gaza (IDF)

The United States made plans early in the war for a potential operation to rescue eight American-Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, the Washington Post reported on Friday, citing current and former US and Israeli officials.

Though that operation was never carried out, US intelligence ultimately played an important, though secondary, role in Israel’s June 8 operation that saw four hostages rescued, the Post cited Israeli officials as saying.

According to American and Israeli officials quoted in the report, the US provided Israel with overhead imagery to help plan the daylight rescue, as well as advanced imaging and data analysis technologies. The Post said the Israeli officials stressed they could have obtained most of the intelligence without US help.

In a joint operation of Israeli security forces, hostages Noa Argamani, Almog Meir Jan, Shlomi Ziv, and Andrey Kozlov were rescued from two separate apartments in the central Gaza Strip refugee camp of Nuseirat. Hamas authorities said the operation, amid massive exchanges of fire with terror operatives, killed over 270 people and injured nearly 700, though it did not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Israel said its information pointed to under 100 people killed, some of them civilians.

Israel depended on US intelligence to discover the hostages’ precise location, the Post said. According to the newspaper, that dependence underscored Israel’s overreliance in recent years on technology at the expense of traditional intelligence-gathering methods — specifically human intelligence — as exemplified by Israel’s failure to put together a spy network in Gaza.

Israel has gradually increased its cache of human intelligence as the war goes on, including by interrogating detained Hamas operatives and scouring documents and digital files discovered during ongoing operations in the Strip.

Intelligence gleaned from such sources was used in Saturday’s hostage rescue operation, as well as in previous operations to recover bodies of hostages, the Post reported.

Israeli hostages pictured after their rescue from Hamas captivity in Gaza on June 8, 2024. From left: Shlomi Ziv (IDF); Andrey Kozlov and Almog Meir Jan (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90); and Noa Argamani (Courtesy).

The paper cited current and former Israeli officials as saying the lack of human intelligence was partially to blame for the country’s failure to detect Hamas’s preparations for October 7, when the terror group led a thousands-strong onslaught on southern Israel, killing nearly 1,200 people and taking over 250 hostages.

Of the hostages, eight were US citizens, three of whom have been confirmed dead. Current and former US officials told the Post that in October, plans were made to deploy troops from the Joint Special Operations Command — an elite military force experienced in rescuing hostages — to rescue the American hostages.

“If we managed to unilaterally get information that we could act on, and we thought we could actually get US people out alive, we could act, but there was genuinely very little information specifically about US hostages,” the Post quoted one of the US officials as saying.

Before October 7, neither Israel nor the US considered Hamas to be a major threat, but that changed “almost immediately” after the onslaught, according to the Post. Since then, officials from the US State and Defense Departments, as well as the CIA, FBI and the Joint Special Operations Command have been working in Israel to investigate Hamas attacks on US citizens and help oversee hostage recovery efforts, the paper said.

Illustrative: Destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Nirim on October 7, 2023, near the Israeli-Gaza border, southern Israel, seen on January 21, 2024. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

US intelligence assistance provided “capabilities to us that we never had before October 7,” the Post quoted an Israeli official as saying. Another Israeli official indicated that those capabilities included highly detailed satellite imagery.

Per an agreement with the White House, Israel can use US intelligence only to locate hostages and Hamas leadership. However, the Post said, the pact has no apparent enforcement mechanism. Moreover, since hostages are surrounded by Hamas gunmen using them as human shields, using US intelligence to locate the captives inevitably enables Israel to hone in on lower-level Hamas operatives as well.

A serving member of the Israeli army’s 8200 intelligence gathering unit told the Post that Israel’s intelligence organizations “are very careful not to use what the US gives them operationally if that’s not allowed.

“Intelligence sharing with the United States is very good. There are direct relationships at the working level, and it’s important to preserve them,” said the servicemember.

Illustrative: A ceremony for the incoming head of Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200 in the Gelilot base, north of Tel Aviv, on April 6, 2017. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The once-celebrated unit has been at the epicenter of criticism for eschewing traditional information-gathering methods to focus on new technologies before Oct. 7. The top brass of 8200 has also been accused of dismissing voices that called into question the unit’s overall disregard of Hamas as a major security threat.

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