What were the reasons for the IDF’s terrible and tragic failures before, on and after October 7th?
This is a segment from The “IDF: Inspiring Despite Failing?” Edition.
And now it’s time for our first discussion.
So Allison, what went wrong with the IDF? – So the facts are by now so well-known that we shouldn’t probably have to repeat them, but they’re pretty astonishing, so maybe we do.
At 6.30 a.m. in the morning on October 7th, Hamas used drones, shoulder-launched missiles, and explosives it had set in place over prior days to disable almost entirely the IDF’s remote surveillance system at the fence separating Gaza from Israel.
After that, explosives and bulldozers ripped holes in the fence in 30-odd spots, and through the gaps, cars, vans, pickups, and motorcycles streamed into Israel.
Propeller-aided hang gliders followed the same path in the air above them, and on the sea, dinghies made their way north up the coast from Gaza.
3,000 Gazans, most of them armed with automatic rifles and many with grenades and shoulder-launched missiles, crossed into Israel.
Before an hour had passed, two IDF bases, one at Nachal Oz and the other outside Re’im, had been mostly conquered by Gazans, and murderous rampages were underway in area towns Kibbutzim and Moshevim that eventually took the lives of more than 1,200 people.
Throughout the course of the morning, about 250 Israelis were captured and taken alive into Gaza, some in the vehicles the Gazans had come in, others in vehicles they commandeered from Israel.
The remarkable thing about all this was, in those first hours, the near total absence of the IDF.
The first combat helicopters to reach the area arrived from the north of the country almost an hour and a half into the attack.
A third helicopter arrived from nearby Mitzpe Ramon two hours in.
By this time, many of the hostages were already in Gaza, and the Air Force could not attack those vehicles on their way back to Gaza because doing so would likely kill hostages.
Hours passed before reinforcement infantry, tank and artillery soldiers began to stream into the area around Gaza, including a great many reservists, some who had made their way south before receiving formal orders and without equipment.
Throughout most of the first day, disorganization ruled.
The day produced many accounts of great heroism born of remarkable personal initiative on the part of soldiers and police officers, but the performance of the army was spotty, haphazard, chaotic, and disorderly.
Indeed, three days passed before the last of the Gazan attackers on Israeli soil was captured or killed by defense forces.
It has been said often that October 7th was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.
It was also the worst day in the history of the IDF, surpassing the army’s hapless performance at the start of the Yom Kippur War on October 6th, 1973, exactly 50 years and one day earlier.
What’s Up chains from the morning of the 7th of October have been published, and in all of them, the message that repeats over and over like a refrain is, where is the army?
In one exchange from Kibbutz Berri, exactly those words repeat at 7.25 a.m., then 7.36 a.m., 7.42, 9.50, and 10.24 a.m., during which time some of the people in that group were killed.
At 10.42, the last message published was, is there an army?
Where are they?
That feeling of astonishment that the army was nowhere to be seen was expressed everywhere over the course of the day.
People just couldn’t believe that the IDF wasn’t there saving their lives.
That’s easy to understand.
After all, the first job of the army is to protect us at our borders, and on October 7th, the IDF failed spectacularly to do this most fundamental job.
Last week, IDF Chief of Staff Herzl Ha’alevi angered some ministers when he appointed a committee to investigate the failure, chaired by the former IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mufaz.
This week, the man who held that job until Ha’alevi replaced him a year ago, Aviv Kochavi, said he had some responsibility for the failure too, and that the decisions he made while he headed the army should also be investigated.
Months will pass before we hear the results of these investigations, if they’re made public at all.
But months have passed since October 7th, and in that time, there has been a testy public debate about what could possibly account for the army’s poor showing on October 7th.
That is the question we’re asking today.
Linda, we’ll start with you.
Where was the IDF when we needed it most, and why? – So I think it’s a combination of a few different factors.
First of all, I think, and this is true about almost anything, people believe what they wanna believe.
And the idea was that Hamas did not want a war, that Hamas was deterred, that Hamas knew that the Israeli response to any kind of attack would be so strong that it would wipe it out of existence.
So there was this conception of what Hamas wanted, and there was an idea that Hamas leaders, like Yahya Sinwar, are rational actors, and it doesn’t make sense to launch an attack when you know that launching that attack means you will eventually be killed, and Gaza will be destroyed, which is what we kind of see happening.
So, and it’s possible that Hamas changed its mind at some point.
There’s an interesting article in Haaretz today by Mekhaim Rabu-Sadeh, who’s a professor of political science in Gaza, who’s since left and is now in Cairo.
I interviewed him also a couple of weeks ago, and he met Yahya Sinwar a few years ago, and he talked about his impressions of Yahya Sinwar then, and Sinwar considered himself, he was in an Israeli jail for 22 years.
He was released in the Gilad Shalit exchange for the one Israeli soldier, and he learned Hebrew and considers himself an expert on Israeli society.
So that’s one thing, that people believe what they thought, and they thought that Hamas did not want a war, and Hamas had been deterred.
Secondly, the barrier, this very expensive barrier that Israel built between Israel and Gaza that was supposed to stop tunnels being built and was supposed to stop any kind of infiltration into Israel, well, it just didn’t work.
I mean, it was a ton of money.
It was constantly being upgraded, and it simply failed.
The fact that they were able to, as you said, put holes in so many places.
And the third thing, I think, is a question of timing.
I mean, it was Simchat Torah, as we all remember, and on Jewish holidays, a lot of soldiers are sent home, and there’s kind of just a skeleton crew.
And so, I think that the timing of it was very carefully chosen on Hamas’s point of view, and just one more thing is that in a lot of these yeshuvim, in a lot of these Jewish communities along the border with Gaza, they did not, the what’s called the ketot kodanot, the squads that are meant to respond, did not have guns because there had been a lot of theft of stuff by Bedouins and others.
So the guns were taken out of people’s houses and locked up someplace so that the people who were in their houses couldn’t get to their guns.
So there was a decision made that there was more of a threat of these guns being stolen than there was a chance that they would need to be used. – Yeah, I think that you’re right about on all counts, though a lot of questions obviously come up.
One thing about the conception, which is what everyone’s talking about, it’s a callback to the results of investigations into the failure in the Yom Kippur War, where the failure of the Yom Kippur War was attributed to a conception that a certain form of defense was going to be adequate to protect against the Egyptians, and then the idea was wrong.
And so the way that the army was organized was wrong.
The Bar Lev line fell right away.
It was thought to be impregnable, just like the Titanic was thought to be unsinkable.
And so now people are saying, okay, well, once again, we had this view of things, and like you said, it was that Hamas is not going to attack.
They have no interest in attacking.
It’s something that will harm them more than help them to attack, and all the rest.
But it does raise questions.
The army’s most fundamental job is, like you said, Allison, is to protect people’s lives.
And so it seems odd that the army would come to the conclusion that they don’t need a belt for those suspenders once they’re quite sure that Hamas is not going to attack, then they don’t need to be ready just in case.
That’s an oddity that requires some explanation.
But to all the true things that you said, Linda, I would just like to add that I think a bigger thing than you might think is the degree to which the IDF, like all of Israeli society, believes deeply in technology, that technology will work, and that it is technology that divides us culturally and politically and financially and monetarily from the Palestinians and the other more, less advanced, quote unquote, societies that we live around in the jungle that surrounds the villa, as Ehud Barak once lamentably put this.
And I think that a big part of what happened is a belief that you just don’t need very many human beings with guns if you have good technology.
And we believe in, like, Israelis’ belief in technology is so profound.
I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else in the world.
Like, we believe that our economy will be saved by technology.
We believe that the environmental problems we face can be saved by or fixed by technology.
And we believe that the safety of the people who live near Gaza and all the rest of us could be protected by technology.
And that just over and over again in the history of humanity has proven to not be true.
It is worth saying a lot of the things that the IDF does with technology are spectacularly successful.
And even, like, Linda, you mentioned the tunnels.
No Gazans came in tunnels because that one bit of protecting against the tunnels, actually, that did work.
But this belief that some combination of drones and sensors and computer screens are all we need as if sometimes the electricity doesn’t go out, as if that is a kind of craziness.
It’s worth saying, having mentioned Ayyub Barak, that he was the first author of this when he was the chief of staff of the IDF.
He devised this policy of making the IDF into what he called a small and smart army of doing away with soldiers with boots on the ground and replacing them wherever possible with technology.
And we’ve now been doing that for 25 years.
And this is one of the results.
Allison, what do you think?
Well, that technology to a certain extent worked.
And then we decided on a human level of hubris and arrogance and dare I say sexism to ignore the results of that technology because we do have these female field spotters examining the fence all the time, sitting in front of their screens for these long, exhausting shifts.
It’s not a really popular position for women in the IDF.
And there were women who were spotting Hamas training for this stuff, practicing, they had good information on the fact that something was up and it did not go up the chain of command of the IDF that they were dismissed.
They were told that they’re just supposed to look, they’re not supposed to interpret and they were warning.
And there’s, when this future investigation takes place, I guess we’ll understand the extent to which it took place, but we certainly have read a lot of press accounts of it.
So, hey, that technology was supposed to have worked.
They were supposed to have warmed up the chain of command that Hamas was planning some sort of infiltration on this level and therefore we should have been prepared for it and we should have been ready for it.
So it was also just, I think a hubris issue, a failure of imagination.
When you say concept, I keep hearing conceptia ’cause that’s what the Israelis call it, conceptia.
But a failure of imagination and again, arrogance that they have this rag tag terrorist army and we have this big, gigantic, sophisticated army that can prevent or smash them at every turn.
And I think the images in people’s minds were, remember the demonstrations that took place across the border fence where they’re burning tires and these single people are trying to cross, like that’s kind of the image, that’s all they’re capable of.
Again, even the most basic intelligence, I can’t believe they didn’t have better intelligence about their capabilities.
But again, a failure of imagination and an arrogance of they would never dare to do such a thing.
And again, the technology were so absurd that we were so protected underneath the ground that when we were first, the first time I forgot which year it was that we were surprised by the tunnels and people popping up in Israeli territory out of nowhere, oh my God, there are tunnels.
Then all of a sudden we addressed that threat by building basically underground walls.
Oh look, we’re protected, the tunnels can’t get through to Israel.
Of course, we had no idea how extensive the tunnel network was inside Gaza, but they can’t get through in the tunnels into Israel.
Therefore, we don’t have to pay attention to the possibility that they could burst through these barriers the way they did and get through.
So every time, whether it’s tunnels, whether it’s drones, and now this horrible attack, we don’t really seem to be able to learn the lesson of not to be surprised until we actually are surprised.
One more thing, which is that the army is kind of a big bureaucracy, and it took a while to kind of get moving.
And the army is, on one hand, they do some things extremely well, but it really took them quite a long time to get moving to answer it.
And also the fact that people just jumped in their cars, including senior army officials, and there was some incredible heroism going on, but the fact that that was people doing it themselves, and I’ve read some accounts of soldiers at roadblocks trying to stop high-ranking army officials from getting past and just arguing over this, and then the senior army guys just kind of kept going and managed to save people, but it just took the army a while to get its act together. – And there are reports of groups of soldiers outside some of the kibbutzim who were waiting for orders to go in, and they weren’t given the orders to go in while some of the massacres inside the kibbutzim were taking place.