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Explaining Israel’s ‘Intelligence Failure’ on Hamas

Discussion about the failure to see that Hamas had the capability and intent to do what it did isn’t being linked to something that would be obvious to any historian of colonialism: these intelligence failures are inherent to any colonial project.

One of the biggest questions around Hamas’s October 7 attack remains unanswered: Why didn’t Israel or its allies see it coming? Oliver Kearns is a lecturer in intelligence and security studies at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, where he is currently researching the U.S. War on Terror, lynchings, and how secrecy shapes the way that violence was understood. That work builds on his 2023 book The Covert Colour Line: The racialised politics of Western state intelligence. In it, Kearns analyzes declassified documents from the United Kingdom’s Iraq war inquiry to understand “intelligence failures” and how racism played a role in the conflict. 

He spoke with The Progressive via telephone to discuss Israel’s “intelligence failures” in Gaza, and how they came about. 

Q: What is an “intelligence failure” and how should we understand that term? 

Oliver Kearns: The idea of “failure” gives us an idea of what intelligence looks like when it goes right, and when it goes wrong. Normally, failures are described as a mismatch between what you say and what actually happened. So talking about failure implies that there are real facts out there that you could go and get if only you had the right informant or the right satellite information… And certainly the way Hamas’s attack has been talked about, there’s been a lot of repetition of the idea. [Which is that] despite Israel having a gigantic surveillance machine pointing towards the Gaza Strip, there’s either something Israel missed because it didn’t have enough human sources [or] someone higher up in the government didn’t make the links. The main problem with that story of what intelligence failures are is that there’s no politics in it. There’s no discussion of how intelligence services end up understanding their role in the world [or] their ultimate political objective.

Q: What context do you see as missing from the discussion of Hamas’s attack? 

Kearns: A lot of the early coverage rightly emphasized that Hamas chose to attack on the fiftieth anniversary of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. That’s an easy story to then tell—oh, this is the biggest intelligence failure since 1973 . . . . [But] why did that happen? Henry Kissinger famously said that the failure to predict the Egyptian-Syrian attack in 1973 was because [the] United States [and] Israel’s definition of “rationality” did not take seriously the notion of starting an unwinnable war to restore self-respect. So even very early on, Kissinger was setting up the idea that it’s about different ideas of what’s rational or irrational to do, which as I show in my book, is a very old idea in Anglophone intelligence . . . . [many have said] how unexpected it was that Hamas would be able to carry out such a—as it’s usually put—“sophisticated” operation, involving such “high-tech” techniques as saying things that aren’t true over a mobile phone to try to fool the enemy.

But there’s also this lack of understanding of Hamas’ political objectives . . . . Hamas released a statement shortly after they began their attack, explaining their political objectives. One of the top three was to get political attention to the issue of Palestine and to try to prevent normalization between Israel and other Arab states.  

In the Six-Day War in 1967, the United States and Britain [thought] if Israel won, it would permanently cow Arab states, and they would accept some sort of settlement in Israel’s favor. And instead what happened is [the Yom Kippur war in 1973] . . . . [I]ntelligence has been so bad at acknowledging the sheer scale of those political problems, and that it might be advisable, for instance, to recommend Israel withdraw from the Occupied Territories or that the United States take a less interventionist approach towards the Middle East. Both of those things might be rational. But it goes against the fundamental principle of these intelligence services, which is to support their state’s power and influence in the world.

Q: How does racism play into the “failures” of Western state intelligence? 

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Kearns: In the case of 1973, there was this very prominent idea that the reason it was unlikely Egypt would carry out an attack was because there would be a need for a level of Arab unity which was [seen as] simply impossible . . . . Something strikingly similar has come up in the last few months, where former and current [Israeli and U.S.] officials have explained an operation of this scale by Hamas, with other Palestinian militant factions—what’s unsaid is their assumption that it just wasn’t going to happen, that it was seen as impossible because “you know what these people are like.” 

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The big paradox about [this] is the sheer amount of racist ideas in intelligence doesn’t make intelligence any better. Instead, what happens is intelligence officers try to hold onto their basic ideas about race and the world for as long as possible. All of this discussion right now about the failure to see that Hamas had the capability and intent to do what it did isn’t being linked to something that would be obvious to any historian of colonialism: that these intelligence failures are inherent to any colonial project.

Q: How does the narrative of Arabs as “irrational” drive Israel’s genocidal campaign against Gaza? 

Kearns: It means that Israel can appear “reasonable and rational” in its response to “barbaric violence,” as they would put it, by explaining why they didn’t predict what happened, without having to acknowledge the political agency of Hamas and the Palestinians. When you racialize and dehumanize a population, you’re denying the idea that those people [are] actively shaping politics. What Hamas did . . . was very disruptive in that it proved Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have the ability to radically change the status quo overnight. That poses a big challenge to the story Israel tries to tell the rest of the world, including the United States, about how successful its “management” of the Occupied Territories has been.

Q: There’s been a lot of speculation that Israel may have allowed the attack to happen. Egypt, for example, said it warned Israel of a potential attack. An Israeli military official claims she tried to warn her supervisors, as media have reported. How useful is this discussion? 

Kearns: Asking those questions after a while lets Israel off the hook. The much bigger and more extensively documented, proven “conspiracy,” if you like, involving Israel, has been the idea of a peace process and of Israel being committed to negotiations and a two-state settlement. We know there’s an extensive historical record showing from early on in Israel’s existence, prime ministers like Ben Gurion were very explicit to their cabinet members, saying—this is simply a ruse until we’re in a position to expand our territory and create a Greater Israel. 

The documentary record of the peace process in the 1990s shows something similar. You could take that story right up to Israel’s deliberate assistance towards Hamas . . . because Israel recognized, like other colonial powers have, that this is a way of controlling a colonized population if you try to pick particular leaders to favor over others and sow discontent. 

Q: How does state intelligence shape the media narrative we’re seeing of Israel’s war on Gaza? 

Kearns: Lots of former intelligence chiefs now appear on TV [or on social media], giving their informed opinion about things. One example that struck me was the former head of Britain’s MI6, John Sawyers, who recently wrote an editorial in the Financial Times, beginning by saying Israel must recognize it cannot eliminate Hamas completely, since it has . . . popular support, and it has an infrastructure there. So what should Israel do? It should bring in some sort of international administration in Gaza, as the United States did in Iraq after its invasion. He then says: Mistakes were made, but nonetheless, that international administration did allow for a new government with local support to emerge. So not only is that contradictory—he already said Hamas has local support—but it’s sheer stupidity to suggest that the occupation of Iraq should be a model for Israel.

Q: Is this another Iraq war moment? Will it again erode public trust in establishment politics? 

Kearns: It’s significant that this is happening as we’re entering the third year of the war in Ukraine. That happened off the back of the United States’s massive intelligence failure around Afghanistan, and its failure to predict how quickly the Taliban would retake Kabul. When that happened, there was a lot of hand-wringing around Washington—we should have realized that any armed and motivated insurgency against an occupying force tends to be successful eventually. Israel may, and it’s horrible to say this, succeed in carrying out this genocide . . . But in terms of a long-term political solution, it has no chance of success.

Nyki Duda is a writer and editor focused on social movements and the rise of the far right. Her work has appeared in Dissent, NACLA, and In These Times.

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