Was There A Warning?

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One issue that is increasingly coming into focus is the claim that Egyptian intelligence warned Israel, specifically warned Prime Minister Netanyahu, that something big and bad was coming from Gaza. Just what kind of warning we’re talking about, the timing, details has been fuzzy over the last 24 hours. But at least the claim is coming into focus. Ynet is reporting that ten days before the attack the Director of the General Intelligence Directorate of Egypt, Abbas Kamel, called Netanyahu and warned “something fierce will happen from Gaza”. Netanyahu, according to this report, reacted in a nonchalant fashion and said the IDF had its hands full with events in the West Bank.

Needless to say, this claim is going to loom over everything that is unfolding. The Prime Minister’s office has officially denied the report. But I suspect a huge amount will turn on the specifics of just what is being alleged and denied. Is the PM’s office denying any conversation took place? Are they disputing the specifics of the warning? Even the quote I printed above must be one handed from Arabic to Hebrew and then into English. So we shouldn’t get too focused on the words in that quote.

On the other side, cooperating intelligence agencies give each other heads ups and warnings all the time. But there are warnings and there are warnings. To play the devil’s advocate, we should at least consider the possibility that the kind of heads up about a renewal of episodic rocket fire is now being inflated into a missed warning of the massive attack we’ve seen. One doesn’t even have to assume bad faith in a case like this. Warnings which don’t stand out in the clutter of the moment can look very different after a catastrophic attack.

This may seem like excuse-making. Let me be clear: I’m not making these arguments. I note them because a missed warning like the one being alleged is something with implications just impossible to overstate. So we should consider the full range of possibilities that may be behind them. The hard details will matter a lot.

There’s one part of the context that is very important. The claim is that Netanyahu ignored the warning in part because they were focusing on the West Bank. There’s no question that that is where the Israeli government was focused. But there were reasons to be focused there. On its own that’s no more than restating the total strategic and tactical surprise. But Netanyahu’s current government is heavily dependent on the most violent and extreme elements of the settler community. And a lot of what the IDF was doing in the territories when this happened amounts to monitoring and picking up the pieces for the most extreme settlers’ wilding expeditions into Palestinian villages. There are reports that the government pulled a number of battalions out of the South to reinforce battalions in the West Bank shortly before the attack.

This may seem like just the details of getting caught totally off guard. But it plays almost like a morality play of Netanyahu’s government – that he was so focused on having the IDF coddle the misbehavior of his settler allies that he dropped the ball on the most foundational of the state’s responsibilities: protecting Israeli civilians from attack.

I’m not saying that happened. My point is that the specifics of what is being alleged here is not just a calamitous failure to heed warnings but one that fits almost lock in key with the political critique of Netanyahu’s extremist heavy government over the last year (and in a broader sense the last 15 years).

I’d keep an open mind on this part of the story as we learn more.

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