October 18, 2023 | Tablet
Eyeless in Gaza
How the U.S. blinded Israeli intelligence gathering efforts on Hamas and other Palestinian groups inside Lebanon
October 18, 2023 | Tablet
Eyeless in Gaza
How the U.S. blinded Israeli intelligence gathering efforts on Hamas and other Palestinian groups inside Lebanon
“… Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza…”
—John Milton, Samson Agonistes
It will be a while before we’re able to piece together a more complete picture of how Israel, despite its vaunted intelligence-gathering capabilities, was blindsided by the massive Hamas terrorist onslaught on Oct. 7, which led to the biggest slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust. After the current Israeli operation in Gaza concludes, there will be inquiries, official and unofficial, in Israel and beyond, about what contributed to this intelligence failure. Where was Israel blinded, and how?
A key focal point for these inquiries will be Lebanon. Immediately following the Oct. 7 massacre, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing Hamas and Hezbollah sources, that the terrorist attack was planned by the Iranians and Hezbollah in Lebanon, where the Iranians had set up a joint operations room, the existence of which Hezbollah media had previously disclosed in 2021. The New York Times corroborated the Journal’s story a few days later, adding that training for the attack, including on paragliders which were used to slaughter Israelis and tourists at a music festival, also took place in Lebanon.
So how did Israel find itself blind and deaf in Lebanon? Why was it that, with all this activity taking place in Lebanon over several months, Israel was not able to pick up meaningful intelligence on a lethal adversary? To answer these questions, we must turn to the current security environment in Lebanon, which in turn shaped and constrained Israel’s intelligence gathering capabilities.
Since Israel’s last major war in Lebanon in 2006, the tiny county has come under American sponsorship, even as it remained under Iranian suzerainty via its local regent, Hezbollah. This U.S.-Iranian condominium, solidified during Barack Obama’s two terms in office, is being topped off by the construction of a brand-new, $1 billion U.S. Embassy in Beirut—a symbol of the U.S.’s commitment to underwriting the country’s existing Hezbollah-led order.
America’s most significant commitments to Iranian-dominated Lebanon involve underwriting the Lebanese security sector, especially its two largest organs: the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Internal Security Forces (ISF). The U.S. provides arms, training and equipment to these forces. Over the past year, American taxpayer dollars have also underwritten their salaries.
Right from the outset, the Lebanese security forces used American training and equipment to uncover Israeli spy cells gathering intelligence on Hezbollah. In 2009, the ISF detected an Israeli breach of Hezbollah’s ranks. The then-head of the ISF called the group’s intelligence chief and told him: “You’ve been infiltrated.” After Hezbollah and the ISF exchanged information, Hezbollah reportedly then took over the surveillance, apprehension, and interrogation of the spies. Following the assassination of Hezbollah senior commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus the previous year, the LAF gave Hezbollah a counterintelligence assist by snatching Israeli spies in eastern Lebanon.
It’s hard to argue with the notion that funding the security arm of an Iranian-backed pseudo-state run by a terror army that has murdered hundreds of Americans and targets America’s only useful military ally in the region is the furthest thing from a wise or sane investment. But the U.S. didn’t set out to fund Hezbollah’s auxiliary security services—not initially.
During the presidency of George W. Bush, Washington imagined that building and strengthening so-called state institutions in Lebanon would bolster a weak political coalition the U.S. was then backing, and help fend off a violent campaign sponsored by Syria and meant to eliminate the possibility of any kind of functioning Lebanese state. The ISF’s Intelligence Branch in particular was run by figures close to Saad Hariri, the son of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, whom Hezbollah had assassinated four years earlier. A U.N. commission, and then a special tribunal, were set up to investigate Hariri Sr.’s murder, and this loyalist ISF unit worked with the U.N. investigators. A small number of ISF officers spent their days analyzing the data of cellphone communications between members of the Hezbollah assassination unit that killed Hariri Sr. They were all targeted for assassination between 2006 and 2008.
Whatever the intentions of the Bush-era policy, to anyone familiar with Lebanese dynamics, it was as predictable as it was inevitable that the ISF would reach out to Hezbollah with an offer to provide it with counterintelligence services. With that offer, the ISF essentially was telling Hezbollah, “the assistance we are getting from the U.S. is not targeted against you. To the contrary, it can be of benefit to you. It is our duty, as a security organ of the state, to defend Lebanon and every Lebanese against all external threats, the Israeli enemy chief among them. So American assistance can be a boon to you as well.”
Guided by a combination of fear as well as a desire to curry favor, Lebanese security organs redirected the signal-detection equipment provided by the U.S. to fight Islamic militants, and used it against Israel instead. Under the terms of the arrangement with Hezbollah, the LAF and ISF are allowed, even encouraged, to use American support to Hezbollah’s advantage by focusing on Sunni Islamic groups (that is, those not already working or aligned with Hezbollah) and on Israel.
This cooperation did not eliminate Hezbollah’s red lines, however. It merely affirmed the terror group’s dominance. As such, when the head of the ISF Intelligence Branch was deemed a potential source of trouble in the early days of the uprising against the Assad regime, he was swiftly eliminated in an October 2012 car bombing.
It’s hard to argue with the notion that funding the security arm of an Iranian-backed pseudo-state run by a terror army that has murdered hundreds of Americans and targets America’s only useful military ally in the region is the furthest thing from a wise or sane investment.
The counterintelligence collaboration between Hezbollah and the security services has continued uninterrupted ever since. In recent years, LAF and ISF counterintelligence units have proved their worth to Hezbollah by uncovering Israeli agents, networks, and spying equipment.
The largest recent ISF counterintelligence operation occurred in the beginning of 2022, a few months after Hezbollah media disclosed the existence of the IRGC joint operations room in Beirut that oversaw the 2021 war in Gaza. The ISF uncovered multiple Israeli spy cells inside Lebanon, some of which had penetrated Hezbollah and others that were providing intelligence from Syria. Others, meanwhile, were collecting on Hamas. According to a report in the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar, the informants were asked to observe movements of Palestinian outsiders into the camps and to monitor locations that might have a military purpose.
Up until that point, Israel had been watching Hamas’ rising profile in the country quite closely. An unsourced December 2021 report in Yedioth Ahronoth claimed Hamas fighters in Lebanon were receiving training from the Iranians. The dismantling of the spy networks came before the public activity of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) leaders in Lebanon was set to increase. Senior leaders in both factions, including PIJ’s Ziad Nakhaleh, had either already relocated to Lebanon or were about to. With this process underway, it was necessary to blind the Israelis, using U.S.-trained-and-equipped Lebanese counterintelligence forces—who enjoyed the additional advantage of being immune to Israeli retaliation, as U.S.-trained-and-protected state actors.
In August 2022, a meeting between Nakhaleh, the Islamic Jihad leader, and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah was publicized by Hezbollah media. The meeting discussed the so-called “unity of fronts” against Israel, and “the roles all the parties in the Resistance Axis are expected to play in the next stage.” According to Iranian sources cited in the above-mentioned New York Times report, planning for the Hamas terrorist attack started around this time in 2022.
The Iranian-Hezbollah-Palestinian coordination effort went into high gear in 2023, specifically in Lebanon. In early April 2023, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani, arrived in Beirut to meet with the leaders of Hezbollah, Hamas, and PIJ at the Iranian Embassy. Prior to his Beirut stop, Ghaani’s itinerary reportedly included meetings with leaders of IRGC-commanded militias operating in Syria and Iran. In conjunction with Ghaani’s Beirut visit, Hezbollah orchestrated the firing of 34 rockets—the largest number to be fired from Lebanon since 2006. From April through September, Hamas and PIJ leaders held meetings with the Iranian leadership in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, and continued to consult regularly with Nasrallah in Beirut.
Ghaani reportedly returned to Beirut in early August. Right before the Quds Force commander’s second visit, clashes erupted in Ain el-Helweh, the largest Palestinian camp near Sidon, between Fatah and Islamist factions. The fighting began following a visit to Lebanon by Palestinian Authority intelligence chief Majed Faraj, and the subsequent assassination of one of his security officials in the camp, Abu Ashraf al-Armoushi.
Pro-Hezbollah media interpreted Faraj’s visit as intersecting with Israeli interests in an attempt to agitate against Hamas and PIJ, who had been leading the unrest in the West Bank. According to Al-Akhbar, Faraj wanted “to curb the Palestinian resistance factions which have grown capable of targeting Israeli settlements with rockets.” In addition, the paper claimed, Faraj offered cooperation with the Lebanese government on checking any uncontrolled armed presence in the camps, as well as handing in all wanted men to the authorities, “in return for Beirut to tighten the vise on Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s political and military activity” in Lebanon.
If that was indeed Faraj’s plan, it didn’t go anywhere. The initial fighting stopped a few days later in early August before breaking out again briefly the following month and ending in a ceasefire in mid-September 2023.
As these events unfolded in the period immediately preceding the Oct. 7 attack, the ISF uncovered and arrested another Hamas operative spying for Israel in Sidon. The ISF reportedly also confiscated his computers and was able to trace his various connections inside Hamas’ Qassam Brigades. According to Al-Akhbar, his tasks included monitoring Hamas members who had moved to Lebanon from the West Bank and Gaza.
The ISF’s bust led to their greater cooperation with Hamas to obtain further information. In turn, Al-Akhbar claimed, Hamas began its own investigation in Gaza to track everyone the operative had worked with or remained in contact with since coming to Lebanon from Turkey. That is, the ISF once again contributed to blinding Israel on behalf of Iranian assets. In doing so, it may well have directly aided and reinformed Hamas operational security in Gaza on the eve of the Oct. 7 attack.
U.S. policy in Lebanon, and its sponsorship of the Lebanese security sector, badly undermined Israel’s collection capabilities in the country. But what about America’s own intelligence gathering capabilities in Lebanon? Over the past decade, one of the justifications you’d hear from U.S. officials and bureaucrats for supporting the Lebanese military and security organs was that this deepening relationship gave America better visibility and human intelligence into what was going inside a terror hotbed. America’s Lebanese assets would also supplement our extensive capabilities monitoring terror groups throughout the region, including the IRGC, Hezbollah, and Hamas. And that’s in addition to what we collect in neighboring Syria, where the Iranian network has been active for years. By way of example, in 2017, following a chemical attack in northwestern Syria by the Assad regime, the U.S. government disclosed that signals intelligence had intercepted communications of the Syrian command leaving no doubt as to Assad’s responsibility for the attack.
And yet, despite countless meetings and high-level visits between Iranian officials, Hezbollah, and Hamas, coupled with intensified kinetic activity in the region, U.S. officials are saying that they “weren’t tracking” this operation. That answer is, to put it mildly, difficult to believe. But let’s ask another question: how come none of the U.S.-subsidized clients in the Lebanese military and security services—the ones who were busy busting Israeli cells all the way up to September—provided the U.S. any meaningful intelligence, even despite the fact that Hamas paragliders had been training in Lebanon? Hundreds of military-aged Palestinian hang gliders repeatedly soaring over any country seems like a difficult target for a major intelligence service to miss.
What seems clear is that, in exchange for the U.S. providing training and equipment, and paying everyone’s salaries, U.S. clients inside Lebanon managed exclusively to provide U.S.-subsidized counterintelligence support to Hezbollah and Hamas that contributed to blinding Israel, while failing entirely to provide the U.S. itself with any relevant information whatsoever. The U.S. government’s awesome signals intelligence capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant, Iraq, and the Gulf were also unable to pick up anything of interest, while the planning and the training was happening in the country where the Biden administration is completing a 43-acre embassy compound.
It would be bad enough that U.S. policy in Lebanon appears to have contributed to keeping Israel in the dark in the months before the Oct. 7 massacre. It did. But it also did more than that. As Hezbollah increased the tempo of cross border attacks and provocations from Lebanon, leading to the establishment of a military outpost in the Israeli Golan, the administration backed Hezbollah’s play and moved to distract Israel by tying it down in a land border demarcation process with the Lebanese, helping to keep Israel’s political echelon from noticing the actual threat brewing inside Lebanon.
Did the U.S. intend for any of this to happen? Not exactly. On the other hand, everything that did happen was the direct product of U.S. policy, which means that America must shoulder some part of the blame. And if the U.S. chooses to continue its deadly policies in Lebanon, it will hardly be able to plead ignorance the next time that the Iranian “axis of resistance” murderers Israelis—and Americans.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst. He is a research fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Lebanon, Hezbollah, Syria, and the geopolitics of the Levant. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.