Israel's defense undone by reliance on technology

Gazans cross the border fence on Oct 7 credit: Reuters Hani Alshaer
Gazans cross the border fence on Oct 7 credit: Reuters Hani Alshaer

The conceptual failures that led to the October 7 atrocities demonstrated how putting faith solely in technology was not such a smart idea.

The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 as a standard wire and concrete fence to make it difficult for East German residents to escape to freedom in the West. By the end of the 1970s, its fourth generation already included a 127 km long electrified fence, a strip of land made of sharp metal nails, a closely-packed row of watchtowers, a patrol road, an intrusion-tracking dirt road, guard dogs, deep trenches anti-vehicle trenches, and two layers of concrete walls. "The fence was initially quite weak, so it was decided to place guards every few meters on top of the wall," Dr. Avner Barnea, a former Shin Bet senior officer and lecturer on intelligence and national security, and business intelligence at Bar-Ilan University, tells "Globes." "But until they mined the area, they didn't really succeed in preventing escapees. These low-tech solutions made all the difference. None of the authorities ever took the risk of relying on advanced technologies."

The fence that, until October 7, separated Israel and the Gaza Strip was completed in December 2021, 60 years after construction of the Berlin Wall began. It was intended to protect against a major security threat, but in practice it was much leaner than that. The fence was almost unmanned by soldiers, and relied mainly on sensors, above and below ground, surveillance cameras, and vehicle patrols. And, of course, there was no surrounding minefield.

After Operation Protective Edge in 2014 revealed that Hamas forces were able to penetrate the Gaza border settlements at several points via underground tunnels, it was decided in 2016 to build a defense line focused on this threat called "the anti-tunnel barrier" that would replace the existing fence. The upper section of the barrier was based mainly on a fence called the "sand clock," which had only proved itself in stopping illegal immigrants on the Israel-Egypt border - the same fence that then-US President Donald Trump enthused over, and wanted to duplicate on the US southern border.

The cost of the barriers was NIS 3.5 billion, mostly for the below-ground section. It was presented as a high-tech project and as a great technological achievement that would be an additional layer of protection from the Gazan threat, along with the Iron Dome. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) boasted that "the amount of concrete invested in it could pave a road from Israel to Bulgaria, and the amount of iron and steel could equal an iron bar from here to Australia". At that time, the Ministry of Defense claimed it would be integrated into the "Smart and Lethal Border" project that was being tested along the northern border of the Gaza Strip which, the Ministry of Defense stated, included mobile robots and military drones for carrying out defense missions, without endangering soldiers' lives.

At the time of the completion of the fence, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then in the opposition, referred mainly to the below-ground aspect, saying that "Any time Hamas terrorists have tried to penetrate the border settlements through the tunnels, they were terminated underground. The below-ground barrier surrounding the Gaza Strip has already saved many lives." Then-Minister of Defense Benny Gantz said, "The barrier, which is a superior initial technological and inventive project that sets an iron wall, sensors and concrete between it and the residents of the south. It provides a sense of personal security that will allow this beautiful region to continue to grow."

"The concept underlying the construction of an advanced technology fence relates to the Second Lebanon War, when Hezbollah surmounted a high fence with a ladder," says Yehoshua Kalisky , senior researcher at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). "This was the reference scenario. There was no thought that they would use aircraft here to cross it or that they would come with a heavy machinery, and simply breach it."

The illusion of superiority

On the morning of Saturday, October 7, the above-ground section of the barrier turned out to be completely insubstantial, as was its fundamental concept of defense. Using drones easily purchased on the Internet, Hamas disabled both the cameras transmitting images to control room monitors in real time, and the (See and Fire) long distance stationary remote controlled weapon stations (RCWS). There had been a second line of defense, observation balloons, but for unknown reasons, all three had stopped working some weeks before the attack, and repairs were postponed until "after the holidays."

Israel’s drone warfare fleet, which is capable of jamming signals of a hostile drone, and the attack drone fleet, known for warfare against incendiary balloons, also did not work for unknown reasons, and dozens of Hamas drones operated without interruption. The IDF's Iron Beam high energy laser (HEL) interception system, which was developed for such cases, among other things, has not yet entered into operational activity after many years of development. All allowed the Hamas terrorists to quickly reach the IDF bases along the Gaza border, disable the information and communications technology (ICT) systems, neutralizing the ability to call reinforcements without arousing much suspicion at IDF Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Above all there was a sense of security and belief in technology and the sophisticated barrier’s ability to prevent any form of intrusion. With the fence as protection, manned deployment for Gaza border settlements was cancelled, (in any case, these had been reduced immediately after Operation Protective Edge), units deployed in the area were reduced, replaced with cameras and other electronic means.

"When relying on technology, the expectation is that it will warn of the dangers and threats," Barnea says. "When the thinking is that you don't need soldiers because there are monitors, you expect in advance that you will receive the warning about the threat via the technological means and no one imagines a situation in which the observation array would be neutralized. On the contrary, it is seen as invulnerable. The problem begins when the enemy is also exposed to these means: RCWS are great, they are important and cost millions, but they are visible to everyone, and everyone knows where they are. Once you begin believing that the fence will stop all the relevant threats, you think even half a battalion on standby is enough. Technology greatly influences our way of thinking and is seen as the answer to everything - only no one ever asks themselves what the vulnerabilities are, and what is the backup plan for the doomsday scenario when the technology layer collapses."

Barnea compares Israel’s sense of technological superiority with US activity during the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1968. "The Americans relied on massive aerial bombardment with precision bombs and napalm bombs that burned huge areas, and advocated the "scorched earth" concept. They convinced themselves that the Vietcong could not withstand it. In practice, the North Vietnamese army studied the American activity. It dug tunnels, moved equipment and people between bombings, eventually enabling it to reach the important bases in the south of the country, and overwhelm the Americans. In fact, the US military so believed in the damage it was causing that they reported a far greater number of casualties on the other side than the actual number, which in turn created an illusion of victory. They told themselves, we have B-52 bombers, there's no way we can't win."

Technological sophistication and the massive investment in intelligence means have greatly increased the IDF's visual intelligence gathering capabilities, according to former IDF Intelligence Directorate head General (ret.) Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash. "I'm sure it doesn't come at the expense of human sources, but as time goes by, gathering visual intelligence is easier than human sources and they bring better results. It's hard to bring in a Palestinian 'Ashraf Marwan,' the agent who passed the information to Israel before the Egyptian attack in 1973. It’s a problem because the human source is essential to provide an interpretation of the rest of the information that’s received, and to make decisions. Golda knew who Marwan was and expected to hear what he would say about the Egyptian deployment in the south." At the same time, according to "The New York Times" a year before the attack, the IDF stopped monitoring Hamas' radio communications last year. The US had put stock in Israeli intelligence regarding Hamas in recent years and hadn’t monitored it independently.

The human factor

The technological concept is, of course, not limited to the border fence, or to intelligence, and is not just a product of Operation Protective Edge. For years, the IDF has been praising the ethos of a small and smart army, implicitly if not explicitly. In recent years, it has publicized countless technological projects and present itself as a high-tech army: establishing a technological division, called Shiloh, to coordinate the development of technologies for all branches of the army, and with the Directorate of Defense Research & Development (IMOD DDR&D or MAFAT). Shiloh, which is currently subordinate to the Ministry of Defense, was established following State Comptroller reports about the lack of coordination and synchronization between the Ministry of Defense and the IDF units; and lead a new border defense concept based on sensors and other technologies for gathering intelligence and thwarting infiltration; strengthening the Air Force in the form of additional aircraft and armaments; and strengthening the operational end of the regular front units.

All this, while at the same time closing down armored battalions and consolidating helicopter squadrons. Ground force technological capabilities were also addressed, such as improved coordination between the infantry and air forces in air-to-ground actions, or identifying terrorists and weapons in an urban environment. However, there is a problem at the outset, says, Prof. Eviatar Matania of Tel Aviv University School of Political Sciences, Government and International Affairs, and founder and first director general of the Israel National Cyber Directorate: a large gap between the technology and the officers expected to implement it as part of the security concept.

Matania explains that the IDF has always advocated technological advancement as part of a concept that values quality over quantity. "This existed even during [Israel’s first Prime Minster David] Ben-Gurion’s time, because it was clear that we could not defeat the enemy in terms of quantity, and it also integrated well with saving human lives - an important pillar in the security concept - but at that time, innovation was expressed in tactical issues. After the Yom Kippur War, Israel pulled strongly in the direction of building military technological superiority, and this integrated well with the Israeli economy, which was gradually opening up to the world, and the computer revolution.

This effort bore fruit as early as 1982, when we proved to the whole world that we could destroy most of the Syrian surface-to-air missile array using precision-guided weaponry. Israel's security concept was updated by Dan Meridor and Lt. Col. Ron Eldadi, with the addition of a fourth component, defense, to the three components of Israel’s traditional national security doctrine as determined by Ben-Gurion: deterrence, warning, and decisive victory, leading to the development of systems such as the Iron Dome, and David's Sling (formerly called Magic Wand)."

But, emphasizes Matania, "The IDF senior officers aren’t technologically savvy as a whole, some see these systems as black boxes, and don't always understand their advantages and disadvantages. At the West Point or Annapolis military academies, it's customary to teach technological subjects as well, because they understand that the military profession today requires a basic understanding of the field. The correct way to integrate technology with security is to implement it as part of an operational concept, not as a single component, and to assume that it is not perfect, but has vulnerabilities, and may suffer from system failures. Therefore, such systems always need what’s known as 'redundancy', i.e. backup systems, to make sure there isn’t a single point of vulnerability through which everything could collapse. The Air Force, for example, has several different models of aircraft just for this. Every plane also has several systems to back it up."

The Iron Dome paradox

Perhaps more than anything else, the Iron Dome system is representative as the technological response to the threat from Gaza. Matania explains, "The Iron Dome was built with the strategic vision of giving decision-makers breathing room, to allow them not to react immediately to the rockets, but to have the flexibility to react at the right time, and in the right place, in a range of ways. But some say its success was paradoxical. Iron Dome was so successful it not only supported the decision-making process but fundamentally changed it. Up until October 7, it served as a very successful plaster to threats to a sovereign state, because what legitimacy would a state leader have for going to war when no citizens were harmed?"

Brigadier General Eran Ortal, until recently the commander of The Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies, a military research center subordinate to the Operations Directorate, also believes that various technological measures such as the Iron Dome, and the barrier, influenced decision-making in Israel. In his estimation, these helped the political echelon conduct a policy of military restraint towards the Gaza Strip, which in turn allowed Hamas to strengthen and gain offensive capabilities.

In an article five years ago, Ortal, currently in active military service an unavailable for interview, wrote, "Israeli restraint as regards proactive thwarting of offensive capabilities in the Gaza Strip stems from a clear Israeli strategy that strives to reduce the influence of the enemy on the current routine of life in Israel, even at the price of worsening of the threat in the future." Ortal pointed out that this policy was natural and that "a Western nation cannot lead its life in an endless state of emergency. But alongside the understanding of the need for a containment policy, it must be recognized that the risks are high, as evidenced by the steeply worsening intensity of conflicts between Israel and the terrorist organizations in Gaza."

According to Ortal, in recent decades, Hamas and Hezbollah developed ballistic missiles and terror tunnels in response to Israeli policy that sought minimal friction with the enemy through separation and withdrawal from the security zone in southern Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip. Ortal points out that between Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Israel significantly reduced targeted countermeasures against terrorist operatives, and none focused on Hamas operatives. According to his analysis, this was because, prior to the Iron Dome coming into use in 2011, the most dangerous threat posed by Gaza developed in the period preceding Operation Protective Edge. The understandings that Israel reached with Hamas in 2012 were made "to stop the fighting", Ortal says, and to get life back to normal as quickly as possible. This, after air raid sirens sounded in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time since the Yom Kippur War, and the education system shut down for more than a week.

Even after Iron Dome, Israel found it difficult to stand up against the significant disruption of daily life on the home front. "Despite the clear threat posed by Gaza, the decision makers preferred to avoid a policy that would mean returning a large part of the country's population to the reality of air raids and disrupted daily routines. The bottom line: the Iron Dome did not change the essential strategic situation; as firepower from the Gaza Strip developed, so did the terrorist organizations’ ability to control daily life in Israel’s hinterland, hold it hostage, and restrain Israel from taking proactive measures against them."

"Why didn't the relative success of the Iron Dome translate into the even more important strategic achievement of restoring Israel's freedom of action against Hamas in the Strip?" asks Ortal rhetorically, and names several factors. "The first, like any other operational system, Iron Dome is also not perfect. The enemy studies it and develops its own challenges against it, and the decision makers recognized the fact that the State of Israel is not hermetically protected. Second, the enormous cost involved in deploying and operating [Iron Dome] batteries significantly impedes a policy based on continuous rounds of violence. Thirdly, as long as the rockets are intercepted in the skies over Israel, and not the skies over Gaza, the Israeli home front is forced to experience sirens, security rooms and shelters, and disrupted routine living. In other words, even the complete success of the Iron Dome left daily life on the home front in the hands of the terrorist organizations."

In 2018, Ortal wrote about "the barrier" that, "it would be wrong to assume it will turn out to be more immune than its predecessors. The longer as we delay cutting the direct connection between the Hamas rockets and those of our other enemies, who make extensive use of this method of operation, and the idea of attacking our territory, the longer we will be condemned to watch from the sidelines and look at their constant enhancement."

A strategic surprise

In the months leading up to October 7, the former head of the Planning Division, Major General (Res.) Giora Eiland, held a series of lectures for senior officers on the reasons for the strategic surprise that fell on the IDF in the Yom Kippur War. "Not one of the officers imagined that 50 years after that mistake, it would repeat itself in exactly the same way," he tells Globes.

The strategic surprise that hit the State of Israel about four weeks ago bears similar characteristics to the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941; to the Argentine surprise attack on Britain's Falkland Islands in 1982; the Al-Qaeda attack on the United States on September 11, 2001; and to the spread of ISIS throughout the Middle East in 2014.

In fact, Barnea claims, despite the technological progress and sophistication, intelligence officials are questioning whether there really is a trend towards improvement of early detection and thwarting of strategic threats. A comprehensive study conducted on intelligence failures in the national arena, from the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 to 2010, showed no improvement in providing or thwarting warnings about strategic surprises, even if the means of gathering information had improved. Four years after signing the study, former US President Barack Obama admitted that US intelligence had not correctly assessed the severity of the threat of large parts of Iraq and Syria being occupied by ISIS.

"No matter how technologically advanced your army or how effective your intelligence gathering system, identifying strategic surprises is a human process that depends on analyzing what is called, in the intelligence community, 'weak signals,'" Barnea says. "These are pieces of relevant information that have been conveyed to the organization, but because they are low-key, or because of the information overload around them, the organization fails to identify and interpret them correctly."

On Saturday, October 7, for example, suspicious movement in Gaza convinced the Shin Bet head to send a special team to the southern border, but he was unable to convince the top IDF echelons to prepare accordingly. To handle those weak signals, Eiland claims, one must use "scenario theory", meaning, taking into account scenarios that have a low probability of occurring, but with devastating results should they occur, and the simple way to prepare for them.

Eiland explains: "You detect certain noises on Friday night, but conclude that the probability of an attack is low, let's say only 10%. Those who act only on the probability do not consider the question: if this attack happens - will you be able to live with yourself for eliminating this threat? There’s also a third consideration, which is ease of effort: what is the effort required of me to prepare for this unlikely but dangerous scenario? It may be a relatively simple effort, like waking the troops up at 4:00 am, placing them position, and putting an aircraft in the air for a few hours. You don’t even need pilots - unmanned aircraft operators are enough. There’s no need to mobilize reserves or convene a cabinet. Every commander is allowed to give instructions to those under him - if that would have happened, everything would be different.

"This is exactly the same type of failure that was at the basis of Israeli thinking at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War," Eiland continues. "After information was gathered that indicated the intentions of the Egyptians and Syrians to launch an attack, they decided not to mobilize reserves because the cost was high. But why didn't they order the regular army to get ready? They thought the chance of war breaking out was low, they thought it was an exercise, but they didn't calculate the potential damage, they didn't imagine how serious the extreme scenario could be."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on November 5, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

Gazans cross the border fence on Oct 7 credit: Reuters Hani Alshaer
Gazans cross the border fence on Oct 7 credit: Reuters Hani Alshaer
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