The Spies of Hamas

Relatives and friends of those kidnapped during the Oct. 7 Hamas bloody cross-border attack in Israel hold photos of their loved ones during a protest calling for their return outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem.
Relatives and friends of those kidnapped during the Oct. 7 Hamas bloody cross-border attack in Israel hold photos of their loved ones during a protest calling for their return outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. (Leo Correa/AP Photo)

There was a time many years ago that I'd drive past a soccer stadium in South Vietnam looking for a chalk scratch on the wall. Horizontal meant that my net of spies had reports for me. Posing as farmers, rice peddlers and the like, my spies eyeballed and engaged communist soldiers and units and reported back the essentials: names, numbers, weapons, uniforms, morale and so forth.

This was old-timey military espionage for sure, a legacy of the OSS and its allied spy services in World War II, who depended on agents in the French underground and elsewhere to track and subvert the Nazis. By the end of the century, though, advances in technology had eclipsed much of battlefield HUMINT, as human-based spying efforts are called. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. field commanders increasingly came to favor electronic intercepts and "overhead" -- eavesdropping spy planes, satellites and eventually drones -- to locate the enemy and suss out its plans. HUMINT was just too hard, too time-consuming and too unreliable against the likes of al-Qaida, ISIS and the Taliban. Better to just trace the insurgents' cellphone calls.

Two weeks ago, however, Hamas put old-timey intelligence methods to good use against the Israelis. Documents taken from the bodies of its savage raiders showed they had carried "detailed maps of the towns and military bases that they targeted. Some also carried tactical guides identifying weak spots on Israeli army armored vehicles," the Wall Street Journal reported.

Other captured documents showed that "Hamas had been systematically gathering intelligence on each kibbutz bordering Gaza and creating specific plans of attack for each village that included the intentional targeting of women and children," according to NBC News. "The dental office, the supermarket, the dining hall," an amazed Israel Defense Forces source told NBC. "The level of specificity would cause anyone in the intelligence field's jaw to drop."

That source had to have been born yesterday, so to speak -- and/or arrogant to the point of incompetence, evidently unable to comprehend that the benighted Palestinian militants couldn't possibly mount the kind of spy ops that Israeli intelligence had practiced against them for decades.

Back to the Future

As it turns out, Hamas had advanced intelligence capabilities that have generally gone unrecognized. Years ago it had "established electronic warfare units that sought to neutralize Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system and disrupt IDF communications," an Israeli think tank reported in 2021. To that end, it had a "server farm" of "hundreds or thousands of computers" running around the clock, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs reported.

Brigadier Gen. Nati Cohen, former chief of the IDF's C4I (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence) unit, was quoted as saying that "Hamas sought to disrupt the IDF's cybernetic superiority and established elite units for that purpose." In May 2021, the IDF targeted at least 10 Hamas C4I and electronic warfare targets, the center said. It didn't say whether it was able to obliterate the "server farms." Whatever, Hamas engineers have not been able to neutralize Israeli air defenses.

But none of that explains how Hamas was able to equip its fighters with detailed maps, right down to the layouts and manpower of Israeli police stations and the location of safe rooms in kibbutzim homes.

That could only come from old fashioned HUMINT -- eyes and ears (and cellphone cameras, no doubt) inside those settlements. Israel's sophisticated surveillance cameras along the Gaza border were useless in detecting them.

Worker Spies

In 2022, Jerusalem authorities issued some 17,000 permits for Palestinians in Gaza to work in Israel, The Guardian reported last January. "Most were given to married men over the age of 25 to work in agriculture and construction," it said. The permits, of course, provided Hamas with a potential army of spies to float in and around the Jewish settlements, not to mention IDF units and tanks.

No doubt a number of Palestinians were eager to enlist in the espionage corps, but many others, including -- or particularly -- those who had forged friendships with their more ecumenically minded Jewish hosts could well have been threatened with harm to their families if they refused.

At the end of their work shifts in Israel their Hamas case officers would have debriefed them, extracting details on their targets: names, numbers, weapons, uniforms, morale and so forth, just like I had in Vietnam decades back. The reports I provided U.S. Marine units in my area enabled them to disrupt communist attacks. Israeli counterterrorism units, likewise, have planted many a spy in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

Still, Hamas shocked Israel with the depth and expertise of its murderous campaign. Likewise, despite ubiquitous and overlapping U.S. intelligence efforts, the Vietnamese communists surprised U.S. commanders again and again, no more so than in January 1968, when they unleashed their legendary Tết holiday attacks on Saigon and provincial capitals across South Vietnam. In the end, Tết was a tactical disaster for the communists -- U.S. and Saigon troops decimated the insurgents -- but a monumental psychological victory, which served to bely the American command's stated optimism about the war's progress and cratering fragile U.S. domestic support for it.

It remains to be seen whether Hamas is having its own Tết. U.S. backing for Israel is rock solid, President Biden has said again and again. "So, in this moment, we must be crystal clear," he said at the White House on Oct. 10, three days after the attacks. "We stand with Israel. We stand with Israel And we will make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself, and respond to this attack."

And that stance is reflected in U.S. opinion polls -- with caveats.

"At this point, more Americans, but not a majority, think Israel's response has been appropriate, though an overwhelming number of respondents are worried the war will spill over into a broader regional conflict," NPR reported last weekend, citing the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Hamas is no Viet Cong, which is to say, it enjoys a fraction of the respect, even enthusiasm, that many Western elites showered on the Vietnamese revolutionaries over their decades of struggle to oust the French and then the U.S., which had propped up a succession of corrupt Saigon regimes with ruthless free-fire zones, napalm and carpet bombing.

Following its barbaric slaughter of Israeli innocents, Hamas has even less claim on the West's sympathy, even on the hearts of those who have supported Palestinian rights to statehood. Pro-Hamas protests here have largely been confined to liberal universities.

Shifting Sands

But Israel's next steps could dramatically alter that equation. Already, Arab capitals are beset by seething popular support for Hamas, no matter -- or even because of -- its slaughter of Jews. Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon are no doubt sorely tempted to intervene, especially if an Israeli invasion of Gaza gets bogged down while killing thousands of innocent Palestinians. There is mounting fear that Muslim militants in Europe, Africa and the U.S. may well join the fray with more terrorist attacks on local Jewish targets. Innocent Muslims here, too, have been victimized. Mutual fears and loathing are ascendant.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ultra-nationalist regime, meanwhile, was already held in contempt by the majority of Israelis, not to mention much of the world, before the Hamas attacks. Its pathetically weak response to the Oct. 7 attacks and beyond has served only to deepen popular disdain for the regime. Support for its national unity government is fragile, and could deteriorate, depending on what happens next.

The Middle East is wobbling on its axis. And for that, Hamas' old-fashioned spymasters can take credit.

This article by Jeff Stein originally appeared on

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