Israel long thought the high-tech security barrier dividing it from the Gaza Strip — bristling with razor wire, cameras and sensors, and fortified with a concrete base against tunnels and remote-controlled machine guns — was impenetrable.
But in the aftermath of the devastating surprise Hamas onslaught that killed over 1,200 people — the vast majority of them civilians — Israeli military officials speaking anonymously to media outlets have revealed some of the severe intelligence and operational deficiencies that enabled the surprisingly easy mass breach of the fence.
Meanwhile, IDF soldiers who were on guard duty have been recounting the shocking moments when the terrorists launched their complex operation to breach Israel’s “Iron Wall” around the enclave in multiple locations.
As Israel continued to reel from the worst single-day massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, questions remained as to how the attackers were able to breach the tightly defended boundary and then rampage murderously through surrounding areas for hours until security forces could respond with enough might to end the assault. Military officials have said these questions will eventually be dealt with, but that the IDF is currently dedicating its resources to the ongoing war.
The massive attack at dawn Saturday came under cover of a barrage of missiles aimed at Israeli civilian areas, and involved sniper fire, explosives dropped from drones on lookout and communication towers, and bulldozers that ripped through the six-meter (20-foot)-tall double fence barrier at an estimated 30 places along the border.
More than 1,500 terrorists quickly swarmed through in pickup trucks and on motorcycles, joined by others using gliders and speedboats at sea, to unleash gun attacks on nearby communities. Entire families were butchered as they tried to hide in their homes, with mutilated bodies later discovered in some locations. At an outdoor music festival, 260 people were systematically killed with gunfire and grenades.
The terrorists also abducted some 150 men, women and children, who were dragged back to Gaza as captives.
According to details reported Tuesday by The New York Times, citing initial assessments by four senior Israeli security officials, the operational failure began when an urgent alert early Saturday morning by intelligence officials about a sudden surge in Hamas communication networks wasn’t acted upon by border guards, who presumably didn’t get it or didn’t read it.
But the main failure was said to lie with over-reliance on the remote-controlled border fence and improper defenses of it, which allowed drones controlled remotely by Hamas to bomb and disable communication towers, surveillance centers and remotely operated machine guns near the border, as well as disabling security cameras with sniper fire, instantly rendering the border defenseless.
Few soldiers were stationed near the border, both because forces were diverted to the West Bank and because the reliance on the high-tech barrier led the military to believe troops didn’t have to physically guard the frontier in large numbers.
Additionally, according to the report, many commanders were clustered in a single army base near the border, preventing a coordinated response and passing of information to the rest of the army once the base was overrun by terrorists and the commanders were killed, wounded or abducted along with many lower-ranking soldiers, some of whom were targeted while sleeping in their barracks.
It took many hours until the military was able to connect the dots and take in the magnitude of the situation in the border towns, and send in adequate forces to overrun the terrorists.
The operational lapses were compounded by an even greater intelligence failure, involving a years-long subterfuge operation by Hamas that convinced Israel to falsely believe the terror group was deterred from engaging in open conflict and willing to keep the calm and maintain covert coordination and silent understandings with Israel.
This included a failure to monitor some key communications channels used by Hamas, and an acceptance at face value of messages by Hamas commanders that said they weren’t seeking war that were made on channels the terror group knew were being tapped by Israel, the Times report said. The Israeli security establishment was convinced, right up to the attack, that Hamas genuinely wasn’t interested in or preparing for battle, so that the unprecedented invasion came as a complete surprise to border guards.
“At 6:30 a.m. (0330 GMT) the rockets started,” a lookout soldier who was stationed in Nahal Oz, across from Gaza City, said in a televised interview from her hospital bed.
“About 30” Palestinian gunmen quickly occupied the army base and held it for seven hours, the soldier, identified only by the Hebrew initial “Yud,” told Channel 12.
As rockets rained down for an hour, the soldiers took cover while the terrorists overran the base.
“I sprinted barefoot to the bomb shelter, and after an hour we started hearing voices in Arabic, and they started shooting at the entrance,” she recalled.
Terrorists threw grenades at the huddled soldiers, said Yud, who was able to hide with others in a small room.
Until an elite Israeli army unit finally retook the base, “for all those hours, it became their [Hamas’s] camp,” the soldier said.
Yud said the army had prepared for scenarios where the fence might be penetrated by a handful of armed invaders, or even 20 or so, but the idea that “they would overtake an army base, that is something that I never dreamed would happen.”
In the opening moments of the massive attack, snipers “fired at the observation posts” dotted along the 65-kilometer (40-mile) long barrier, an Israeli army spokesperson told AFP.
A soldier stationed at an observation post in the Kissufim base also said the Palestinian gunmen “started shooting at… observation cameras, and it got to the point where we could no longer observe” the border.
The soldier, identified by the initial “Lamed,” told Channel 12 that reports began to come in of a raid involving hordes of terrorists, “something crazy.”
As her army base came under attack, “we were told our only option was to… run for our lives into the situation room.”
A detachment of infantry soldiers at the base was quickly overwhelmed, she said.
Security forces “didn’t know where to begin,” Lamed said. “There were so many terrorists, so many things [happening].”
Other soldiers shared similar accounts in social media posts and media interviews, all pointing to an initial mass attack that crippled the barrier’s observation and communications systems.
The army spokesperson denied to AFP rumors of a cyberattack targeting military systems as the cause of the blackout.
Video footage released by Hamas also showed attackers firing at observation posts, including their remotely operated systems with firing capabilities.
Other footage online was taken of drones that hovered above watchtowers and dropped explosives onto them, while terrorists were also seen using bulldozers or blasting gaping holes through the border fence, allowing fighters to rush through.
A compilation of Hamas clips shows how the terror group invaded southern Israel yesterday. First they bombed Israeli observation towers and weapons systems on the border, then fired hundreds of rockets as terrorists on paragliders flew over the border. Moments later, Hamas… pic.twitter.com/D4iIoCV51q
— Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian (@manniefabian) October 8, 2023
‘A huge failure’
The attack that followed was the worst in Israel’s 75-year history, setting off retaliatory strikes on Gaza and sparking a war that has no quick end in sight.
Hamas has continued to bombard southern and central areas with rocket attacks, causing more deaths and injuries.
Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says over 950 people in the Palestinian enclave have been killed in retaliatory Israeli strikes. Israel says it is targeting terrorist infrastructure and all areas where Hamas operates or hides out. The IDF also says forces have killed about 1,500 terrorists in its territory since the mass infiltration.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have pledged to ensure Hamas can never again muster the capacity to harm Israel, stating that the terror group’s demise is critical to the country’s future, with Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden likening the atrocities against Israeli civilians on Saturday to the actions of Islamic State.
“It’s a huge failure of the intelligence system and the military apparatus in the south,” said retired military general Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser.
Survivors of the attacks on communities near the Gaza border have been shocked at the failure of the systems that were meant to ensure their security.
Inbal Reich Alon, 58, from the hard-hit Be’eri kibbutz, recounted that years ago, “after they set up the barrier, we realized we were safe.”
That, she added, “was an illusion.”