Dereliction of Duty: Israeli Blunders on the Way to Oct. 7


On Oct. 7, 2023, a nonstate actor, the violent Palestinian organization in control of the impoverished Gaza Strip, inflicted the worst defeat in the history of the country with the strongest military in the Middle East. In Israel, where policy debates revolve around keeping citizens secure, the most common question on Oct. 7 was: “Where is the army?” Hamas is, of course, responsible for the atrocities it committed, which cost the lives of more than 1,200 Israelis, injured many thousands, and resulted in the kidnapping of more than 250 people, including my cousin and his wife.

Yet the fact that the Palestinian terrorist organization was able to do so was a direct result of Israel’s government and its defense apparatus’ dereliction of duty. The resulting war in the Middle East will likely continue for the foreseeable future, postponing a thorough Israeli investigation and delaying a public discussion of the worst disaster in the history of the state. For this reason, it is important to be candid in discussing those now.

The Oct. 7 disaster was a result of a series of long-term, complex, and multi-systemic blunders. Some Israeli leaders, both political and military, already declared that they will take responsibility (even though it’s not immediately clear what this declaration entails). Others, chief among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, refuse to take responsibility. Any future investigation, if given the proper mandate, will likely illuminate the larger picture. However, a preliminary evaluation points to seven parallel blunders at different levels of decision-making: preventing a partner for peace, deterrence misperception, failed intelligence analysis, the regime change blunder, neglecting defense, shifting operational focus, and fighting the wrong war.



Preventing a Partner for Peace

Since the Second Intifada, most Israeli governments have acted under the assumption that the status quo is ideal and that any diplomatic progress or peace initiatives are a threat to Israeli interests. This assumption has weakened the moderate Palestinian forces and strengthened the extremists. This has made it easier for Israel to argue that there is “nobody to talk to” on the other side. In the words of the hard right-wing finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, “The Palestinian Authority is a burden, and Hamas is an Asset.”

This trend includes Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who gave Gaza to Hamas on a silver platter when he chose a unilateral withdrawal in 2005 to avoid giving a diplomatic achievement to the Palestinian Authority. And it includes all the Netanyahu governments, which in recent years have been quite open about their preference for Hamas over the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu has refused to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority on anything besides Israel’s security arrangement and simultaneously allowed Qatari and other funding to go to Hamas unimpeded. Prime Minister Naftali Bennet took a similar position, and Yair Lapid may well have if he had been in power long enough. The only exception in the last two decades was Ehud Olmert’s brief time as prime minister. This is not to say Israel is the sole culprit in the lack of progress, but that it was a willing partner in it.

An integral part of this status quo policy was the perception that you could “manage” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That translated into deepening the occupation in the West Bank, allowing Israeli settlements to flourish, facilitating de facto apartheid, increasing military activity, blockading the Gaza Strip, paying Hamas to “buy quiet,” and, from time to time, conducting “deterrence operations” to retaliate for Hamas’ missile attacks.

Another integral part of this policy was foiling any serious diplomatic initiatives, such as the Saudi initiative in the early 2000s or the push for peace during Barack Obama’s first administration. On Oct. 7, it became clear that strengthening the extremist enemy led, inevitably, to a stronger and more extreme enemy.

Deterrence Misperception

Over the course of decades, the concept of deterrence in the Israeli military and defense establishment became more and more detached from its rational origins. Instead of a concept based on cost-benefit analysis, it gradually became an assumption.

From time to time, politicians or senior officers would sound the alarm about the “loss of Israel’s deterrence posture,” and then the military would go to a “deterrence operation” or “operation between wars” in order to “charge the deterrence batteries.”

As far as I know, there have been no after-the-fact evaluations to examine whether the operations or small wars actually left Israel’s enemies deterred. The assumption was that the more the enemy suffered, the more it would be deterred. At least as far as Hamas (as well as Hizballah) goes, this assumption is fundamentally wrong. These organizations measure their success in political support and not in retaining their infrastructure or manpower. Therefore, Israel’s “deterrence operations” only increased their political support and helped the extremist organizations, rather than hurt them. As a result, through each round of fighting over the last 18 years, Hamas has demonstrated higher capacities and improved fighting abilities. Deterrence, clearly, did not work.

Failed Intelligence Analysis

The assumption that Hamas was deterred from taking extreme measures also prevented a serious evaluation of intelligence data. We know now that Israel’s intelligence agencies had ample information on Hamas’ training and preparation for a widespread and exceptional operation in the Gaza Strip. Israel actually obtained the blueprint of the attack (without specifics and dates), but intelligence officers viewed it as a fantasy and wishful thinking.

There were indications from human intelligence, signals intelligence, and imagery that something big was on the move. For example, military intelligence was aware that ample Israeli SIM cards in Gaza were suddenly activated on Oct. 6. Some of the information reached high-ranking officers, but it evidently did not raise the alarm — at least not enough to significantly change the Israel Defense Forces’ preparedness or alert level. A meeting between the chief of staff, the commander of the southern front, and other officers on Friday night before the attack concluded that the risk was minimal and did not result in significant special measures or alarming the force’s Gaza Division. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of Hamas in planning Oct. 7 is undeniable, yet Israel’s intelligence organizations’ inability to connect the many dots was, quite clearly, affected by the deterrence blunder discussed above.

The Regime Change Blunder

Hamas had been preparing for Oct. 7 for a long time, yet the most extreme government in Israel’s history supplied it with a remarkable opportunity. The Netanyahu government’s “judicial overhaul” and other steps to weaken and erode the Israeli democracy created deep divides among the Israeli public. This fracture created an image of systemic weakness and a vulnerability to a multi-front assault (including by Hizballah and Iran, and forces in the West Bank), which will ultimately leave Israel devastated or defeated.

Netanyahu’s government, of course, will try (and already tries) to deflect the blame onto the mass protests against the government. Yet it is clear that the blame lies with Netanyahu, who initiated moves to change the state’s regime fundamentally and ignored the alerts of many senior officers in the Israeli security establishment.

High-ranking officers in the military, even including Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, tried to alert Netanyahu of the security threat that an eroding Israeli democracy posed. The prime minister refused to discuss the issue and even tried to fire Gallant after he aired the threat publicly. Netanyahu and his coalition partners are culpable for this blunder.

Neglecting Defense

In the Israel Defense Forces’ ethos, there is no such thing as defense. The “D” in the acronym for the Israeli army is long forgotten, in favor of “the best defense is a good offense.” Yes, Israel has invested heavily in defensive measures along the Gaza border in the last decades, including the Iron Dome missile defense system, measures blocking Hamas tunnels from entering Israeli territory, fortified rooms in private houses, and sheltered public spaces in the Gaza Envelope. Those measures have saved many lives over the years. Yet these defensive measures were perceived by the Israeli security apparatus as not a goal in and of itself. Rather, these were means to allow more time and freedom of action for the offense to operate without the pressure of mounting civilian casualties. And fewer casualties also enabled the government to evade diplomatic solutions. Furthermore, the defensive investment has been vastly reduced since the inception of the current Israeli government.

In the combat units of the Israel Defense Forces, the time, resources, and operational and tactical attention devoted to defense are negligible in comparison to those devoted to offense and conquest. Indeed, offense is operationally more complex than defense, but the government’s neglect of defense went beyond that. It was ideological. It is no wonder, then, that while the Kibbutzim and towns of the Western Negev were desperately waiting for hours for the military to save them from the brutal and massive assault from Hamas, the Israeli Air Force was elsewhere, already attacking targets in Gaza. To be clear, fighters and bombers are not tools with which to fight an invasion in your own territory. But it is still telling that within hours of the attack, only two attack helicopters (under the air force command in the Israel Defense Forces) were available to protect Israeli territory while a forceful bombardment of Gaza was already happening.

Shifting Operational Focus

The Israeli government during all of Netanyahu’s years as prime minister prioritized the West Bank over the border with the Gaza Strip. This trend has dramatically accelerated since the establishment of the current government in 2022, under which this priority is clearly expressed in resource allocation.

Slowly, investment in the Gaza Division and its defense of Western Negev has deteriorated. The civil emergency squads in the border villages were also perceived as a nuisance and not a defensive asset. As a result, they were deprived of weapons and training. The underground barrier that Israel built under the fence separating it from Gaza has increased the illusion of security provided by the military and the government. Many of these resources were redirected to the West Bank, where increasing settler provocations and attacks on Palestinians necessitated a larger force to prepare for an expected backlash. On Oct. 7, one weakened and neglected division stood unprepared in front of a large, well-armed, well-prepared, and flexible Hamas force. At the same time, settlements in the West Bank were safe and sound.

Fighting the Wrong War

One of the most crucial questions regarding Oct. 7 is “Where was the army?” Throughout this day, for very long hours, a hodgepodge group of people fought valiantly — the civil emergency squads in the Kibbutzim, police in the towns, security guards at the Nova music festival, and simple civilians. But the military was nowhere to be seen. Even given the blunder of shifting operational focus discussed above, Israel is geographically small, and whole regiments can get from one side of the country to the other in a few hours. They could certainly get from the West Bank to the Gaza border. Part of the explanation could be Hamas’ success in neutralizing the Gaza Division, which was supposed to coordinate such force movements and was damaged in the first act of the invasion.

Beyond that, much of the answer stems from the fact that the Israel Defense Forces, as well as the political leadership, planned for and expected a limited and pointed terror attack, rather than a massive strike along the entire front. Despite the information that was constantly streaming up from the battlefield, Israel’s senior decision-makers did not understand the severity of the situation until it was too late. The military fought the war for which it was prepared, not the one that was unfolding on the ground.

In case of a terror attack, the Israel Defense Forces’ doctrine called for a mission of special forces, who were trained and equipped accordingly. Such special forces indeed arrived relatively quickly in several instances. For example, Yamam, the police SWAT team, helped thwart a significant Hamas attack on Kibbutz Yad Mordechai and prevented terrorists from entering the Kibbutz. Fighters of the Shaldag unit fought against the Hamas assault on Kibbutz Beeri. But these are small units with light weapons that were not built for the scale of defense needed on Oct. 7. There was no effective and coordinated Israel Defense Forces extensive response to the attack simply because, as the New York Times investigation concluded, “The Israel Defense Forces did not even have a plan to respond to a large-scale Hamas attack on Israeli soil.”


Israel lost the war on its first day, Oct. 7. This was a devastating defeat that cost much blood and many hostages. Those who remain still face dire conditions, torture, and rape. Israeli citizens also lost confidence in their state, which is a crisis that will have long-term effects extending well beyond the villages and towns of the Western Negev.

The blunders did not end on that day. Systemic dysfunction of the Israeli state was evident in the days immediately following the attack: abandoning the hostages and going to war without clear political goals. Yet an initial analysis of such multi-layered and multi-systemic failures of Oct. 7 shows that Israel cannot wait until the end of the war to learn from these blunders. Many of the principal causes behind these blunders continue to erode the basic interests of the state. Israel should examine the core assumptions of its security establishment and completely overhaul its leadership. Continuing to stumble blindly forward will only cost more innocent lives.



Boaz Atzili is an associate professor at the foreign policy and global security department in American University’s School of International Service. He is an expert of territorial conflicts and international security, and his books include Good Fences Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict (University of Chicago Press, 2012) and Triadic Coercion: Israel’s Targeting of States that Host Nonstate Actors (Columbia University Press, 2018, with Wendy Pearlman).

Image: Matty Stern