At dawn, Palestinian militants broke through Israel’s multibillion-dollar border fence separating the blockaded Gaza Strip from Israeli communities, breaching the barrier in as many as 80 different places. The militants navigated small drones that disabled Israeli cameras, remote sensing systems, and automated machine guns that would have alerted the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that the fence had failed.
After they crossed, militants swarmed Israel’s Zikim military base, killing many soldiers and taking some hostage. Hamas militants killed or took hostage scores of Israelis and foreigners over the course of six hours. Militants massacred 250 revelers at a desert rave and hundreds of other people in their own homes, shooting entire families at point-blank range. More than 200 soldiers and civilians–including infants, children, older people, and migrant farm laborers–were shoved onto motorcycles or into golf carts and driven back over the border into Gaza as captives. Four have been freed since. Residents of cities farther north were roused by air sirens warning of incoming missiles, as news alerts began revealing the scale of the attack.
In total, the operation killed more than 1,400 Israelis. It had been planned for months, if not years, and mobilized more than 1,500 militants from Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, as well as some from Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another militant group.
The failure by Israeli intelligence to anticipate the massacre was a shock, given the country’s cutting-edge surveillance systems and weaponry pioneered by its technologically advanced military. From borders equipped with hundreds of sensors, cameras, robotic machine guns, and automated drone swarms to biometric databases and spyware, high-tech systems have helped enforce a 16-year Israeli blockade of Gaza and its 2. 3 million Palestinian inhabitants. These systems have also been deployed against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, as part of a broader regime of population control.
Yet, on Oct. 7, that intelligence apparatus did not work as promised. Security experts and human rights advocates in Israel say the atrocities are evidence that technology can never be a tenable salve to regional insecurity. It is time to reconsider whether high-tech solutions to violence can ever stand in for political ones.
How exactly Hamas defeated Israel’s sophisticated technology–including a $1. 1 billion border wall fortified with underground and aerial remote sensing technologies–is still being investigated. For more than 16 years, the IDF thwarted all but a handful of breaches to the border fence with deadly aerial bombardments, sniper fire, and dragnet surveillance.
But from early indications, it seems the Palestinian militia operated right under Israel’s nose. Hamas compiled troves of information about Israel’s intelligence capabilities and security infrastructure for months. Operatives reportedly trained for the onslaught at a sprawling base near the Gaza-Israel fence for more than a year. They drove through the barrier on trucks and motorcycles, flew over it on bright beach paragliders, and motorboated up the Mediterranean coast.
“They [the Gaza militants] studied us very well. They knew what kind of technology we had on the fence. They knew what needed to be destroyed before getting through the fence. “They also knew the locations of the army units, tanks and bases,” Yohanan Tzoreff said, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv.
“Nothing alerted us that something was wrong along the border. Nothing gave us a picture of what happened in this area,” he said.
While in the occupied West Bank, Israel relies on spy networks, embedded informants, and secret agents, its tactics in Gaza largely rest on digital and automated systems. Israel controls and limits access to telecommunications and internet across the territory, and the military deploys automated drones in nearly 24/7 aerial reconnaissance of densely populated urban areas. Hamas managed to map the cameras, sensors, towers and military bases on the Israeli border, planning its sabotage, without raising a single alarm.
The group hid its preparation by avoiding digital communications altogether while planning for the attack. Many of its operations were moved to underground bunkers equipped with hardwired phones outside the range of 2G networks monitored by the IDF. But components of the attack were also rehearsed in broad daylight in plain view of Israeli military personnel. IDF officials even wrote off a September propaganda video of Hamas exploding the border fence; the army simply assumed the border was impenetrable.
Members of Israel’s security establishment have publicly denounced the IDF’s overreliance on technology to contain Gaza in the wake of the attack. Some also lamented that resources were directed away from ground troops on the Gaza border and toward a tech-obsessed military, which had become, in the words of retired IDF Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Barik, “swollen with arrogance.”
“If most of your intelligence comes from sigint [signals intelligence], then I suppose you’re in a way blind if anyone is operating without cellphones or digital communications,” said Ami Ayalon, the former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency. “We just assumed they [Hamas] wouldn’t attack now.”
Ayalon, who has devoted his retirement to advocating for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, told Foreign Policy that the military used technology as a “bandage,” focusing on quick fixes to regional volatility while the government abandoned any possibility of bringing about a lasting peace.
“Our [Israel’s] policy has been, we should do everything to maintain this situation, to manage the conflict, not to solve it, because to solve would mean we would pay a huge price”–such as pulling hundreds of thousands of settlers from the occupied West Bank and forfeiting swaths of land in the name of a two-state solution.
Israeli investments in high-tech security and surveillance systems took off in the early 2000s, in response to a surge of Palestinian suicide attacks and other violence of the Second Intifada. Israel spent millions of dollars on developing more efficient ways to control regional violence under a right-wing government, rather than dealing with its causes.
Generals assured the world that biometric cameras, automated drones, targeted spyware, and smarter border walls could effectively quell Palestinian militant groups across the region. Once these generals retired from the military, many of them sat on the boards of weapons companies that promised the technologies would enhance global security. Israeli assaults on Gaza doubled as opportunities arose for Israeli defense firms to unveil automated reconnaissance and strike drones, which were then exported around the world.
As one Israeli columnist put it: “For every significant threat originating in Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007, Israel responded with technological solutions.” The country experienced unprecedented economic growth, powered in large part by the military technology sector, as Gaza endured an economic crisis compounded by the collective trauma of unending war.
Human rights advocates say the Israeli government’s tech-heavy policies helped shield Israeli society from the violence and humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza. Miriam Marmur is the Director of Public Advocacy at Gisha. This Israeli non-profit promotes free movement of Palestinians living in Gaza. “Now we’re seeing it surface in horrifying and terrifying ways.”
Israel’s belief that technology can act as a salve to geopolitical volatility mirrors global trends. From NATO- and U.S.-sponsored drone warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq to predictive policing algorithms in the United States, militaries and police forces worldwide have touted high-tech innovation as a silver bullet to quell chronic insecurity. Yet precision strikes and algorithms have done little to address the root causes of violence in all these places. Nearly two decades of drone warfare failed to eliminate al Qaeda–or stop the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. In the United States, predictive policing software, which is rarely accurate, has diverted resources from social services that might more effectively deter crime.
An Israeli approach to Palestinians that would have genuinely improved their lives and offered them hope for independence may well have strengthened the more moderate elements in the West Bank and Gaza and weakened Hamas–a group whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw political advantages in allowing Hamas to continue ruling Gaza.
As recently as 2019, Netanyahu said strengthening Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank would keep Palestinians divided politically and sabotage any chance for a viable two-state solution. It would also potentially abet the Israeli far right’s goal of annexing the West Bank.
Israel’s military leadership promised that sophisticated weaponry and missile defense systems could maintain this equilibrium. The recent war between Gaza and Israel did not disrupt the social and economic lives of Israel’s cities. The status quo, which exacted Palestinian pain and suffering, felt sustainable to most Israelis.
But Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack destroyed the image of a sleek and efficient Israeli war machine that Netanyahu and his allies tried so hard to cultivate. It took one of the most vaunted militaries in the world hours to respond to pleas for help from civilians locked inside their homes or hiding under piles of dead bodies as Hamas militants poured in from Gaza and went on a killing spree. In some cases, off-duty or retired military personnel donned uniforms to rescue their own relatives, driving alone into besieged towns to engage in direct combat.
Intent on redeeming itself, the IDF has responded in an unrestrained and brutal way. Israeli aircraft are carpet bombing Gaza’s densely populated urban areas to prepare for a ground invasion that is expected to be even more deadly. Israeli strikes have so far killed more than 8,000 Palestinians, with thousands more injured, according to Palestinian health officials. Some 700,000 Palestinians in Gaza have fled their homes. Already, one Israeli publication has said the next phase of war will be “a proving ground for some of Israel’s latest military technology.”
Yet any escalation of the war will only lead to more deaths, no matter the technologies deployed. “Do not destroy the Gaza Strip,” Neta Heiman wrote in Haaretz days after Hamas kidnapped her 84-year-old mother, “that won’t help anyone and will only bring an even more ferocious round of violence the next time.”
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