Hamas’ Use of Deception in Gaza

On 7 October, Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel with the firing of hundreds of rockets.  Between 1,000 and 1,500 militants crossed into Israel from the Gaza Strip through 30 fence breaches.  The extent of the mayhem and the subsequent Israeli response has been well reported.  We are here interested in the intelligence implications of the initial attack and in particular how Hamas used deception to lull the Israelis into a false sense of security. 


Hamas' use of deception in Gaza

Lulling the Israelis into a false sense of security?

On 10 October, the New York Times reported that they had spoken off-record to four Israeli security officials about what went wrong.  One of them stated that, while intercepting private communication channels the Israelis had heard Gazan military officials stating that Hamas was not preparing for battle.  We don’t know how often this occurred and under what conditions, but the reporting clearly stood out in the mind of the security official.  These may have been Gazan officials genuinely unaware that plans were afoot; the more likely assessment, however, is that Hamas knew these private channels were being intercepted and were using them to spread disinformation about their intentions.  It is possible that HUMINT sources were also being used to deceive the Israelis.

The intelligence from intercepted communications appears to have been supported by events on the ground.  It has been reported that Hamas had been adhering to a ceasefire since 2021, passively accepting their fate.  Had they been lulling the Israelis into a false sense of security?

The Data

The following data has been taken from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to collating incidents of political violence and conflict around the world.  From January to early October 2023 (up to 7 October) a total of 8,288 incidents had been recorded by ACLED in Israel and Palestine including both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  Only 8.5% of these incidents occurred in Gaza.    

Of the 708 incidents reported within Gaza during that time, only three were attributed to the Hamas Movement with the majority of the remainder (501 incidents) attributed to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).  The balance being mainly Palestinian riots and protests.  The chart below shows the attribution of all incidents in Israel and Palestine during this reporting period, with those in Gaza shown in dark blue.  The data shows Gaza had been a side show with the only peak in activity attributed to the IDF.

Data courtesy ACLED

Data courtesy ACLED

Hamas’ Focus on the West Bank

So, what had Hamas been doing?  They had not been as quiet as the data suggests.  They were attacking the Israelis but almost all their attacks had been in the West Bank.  Incidents in January to early October where they have been the protagonist are shown in red on the map below.  This is compared to Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) a smaller Gaza based faction whose attributed incidents for the reporting period are shown in blue.  While Hamas had been more active in the West Bank, the number of incidents attributed to them was still very small.

Data courtesy ACLED

Data courtesy ACLED

Israel’s Policy of Divide and Rule

Incidents in Gaza had been broadly consistent in the reporting period.  Total incidents in Israel and Palestine are shown in light blue, incidents in Gaza are shown in dark blue on the graph below.  There was a notable rise in incidents in May.  On 2 May, a senior PIJ leader died while on hunger strike in Israel.  In response, PIJ launched hundreds of rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip.  The IDF retaliated with Operation Shield and Arrow.  This was specifically focused on targeting the PIJ and avoided Hamas targets.  Hamas reciprocated by staying out of the conflict.  Indeed, IDF targeting of PIJ seemed to have been part of a plan to seed division and resentment between the two Gaza based Palestinian organisations.

A rise in incidents in the Gaza Strip in September was attributed to a rise in riots by Palestinian youths on the border with Israel.  Israeli press reported that Hamas had endorsed the riots.  The two weeks of riots ended following an agreement brokered by Middle Eastern Partners.

Data courtesy ACLED

Data courtesy ACLED

Riots in Gaza and the West Bank

Gaza is in stark contrast to the West Bank where tensions remained high through the first 10 months of the year; particularly with an enduring level of rioting.  The graph below shows total types of incidents in Israel and Palestine in 2023 up to 7 October, with incidents in the West Bank in dark blue.  Riots in the Gaza Strip are insignificant compared with those in the West Bank.

Data courtesy ACLED


It is therefore not surprising that on 1 October, just a few days before the attack, Tzachi Hanegbi the Israeli National Security Advisor stated in a radio interview “Hamas is very, very restrained and understands the implications of further defiance.”

It would be easy to claim that Israel had developed a blind spot with Hamas.  This may be the case.  There were intercepted communications indicating that Hamas was not interested in fighting.  Without further information it is not clear if this was deception; it probably affected Israeli thinking.  

It is likely that Israel had a plan to separate and isolate Hamas from PIJ. They would have been looking for intelligence to confirm that this plan was working.  It is possible that confirmation bias set in at this point, they were looking for the clues that would show their plan was working.  

Hamas’ principal tool to deceive the Israelis had been its consistent refusal to engage in conflict in or from the Gaza Strip.  Hamas did not fight the Israelis, even when the Gaza strip was attacked in May.  If Israel was looking for threats, the data was clear, it was not coming from within the Gaza strip and what threat did come from the Gaza Strip, came from the PIJ and not Hamas.  Analysts can only work on the intelligence provided to them.  Israel is unlikely to have reduced its surveillance on Hamas but the group’s apparent stance along with the distractions of PIJ and the activity in the West Bank probably reduced its priority within the Israeli intelligence community and created a blind spot.  It is difficult to believe that this is coincidence and not by Hamas design.

Data can provide clarity in analysis

The data for this report was provided by ACLED.  It was analysed on Microsoft Power BI.  Data is often free or very cheap and the basic tools to analyse it are easy to master.  IMSL will develop your skills in obtaining appropriate data in our Level 3 Award in Open Source Intelligence and allow you to understand the data in our Level 3 Award in Intelligence Analysis.

If you would like to find out more, please do contact us.

The author is one of our senior intelligence instructors.  He is a former military intelligence analyst with 35 years’ experience