An Intelligent Way to Look at the Hospital Bombing in Gaza

Good intelligence from a variety of sources can help us understand events but it cannot eliminate deep-seated biases and distrust

This piece first appeared in the Epoch Times Canada on October 27, 2023.

I am sure you have heard all the stock phrases before: truth is the first casualty of war; the fog of war; all warfare is based on deception (Sun Tzu – circa 500 BC!). What these all mean is that when it comes to war we need to be circumspect with regard to what we read and/or hear and what we think about it.  This is not an easy task.

It makes sense, of course, for those who are party to war to put out information that is favourable to their own interests.  Rarely do we hear a senior official say publicly, “Things are going badly for our boys over there.” The reasons are obvious and have to do with morale. One’s own troops need to believe that there is both a purpose to what they are fighting for and a real chance of success.

Why am I raising these here? To wit: the competing claims over what happened when an explosion occurred near/at a hospital in Gaza City on Oct. 17 killing a large number of civilians. No sooner had the news broke than partisans on both sides—Israeli and the Palestine/Hamas/Muslim world—traded accusations. The former claimed it was a malfunction of a rocket fired by the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) from the environs of the health facility (with understated questions as to why a terrorist group would use a hospital as a base to launch an attack). The latter said it was an Israeli air strike. 

Since that time the analysis has bounced back and forth as has the acrimony and finger-pointing. We may never—in fact we will never—get consensus on who was responsible for the strike but it may be useful to discuss what can contribute to a better understanding of whose views to consider.

First and foremost, I am not a military specialist. I worked alongside many such people during my time in Canadian intelligence, but I would never pretend to try to sell myself as an authority on missile technology. I did, however, come across various types of intelligence collection over 30 years in the “spy” business, and consequently here is what may have been used to determine who was behind the explosion.

Essentially, when it comes to which intelligence sources could provide some insight into the provenance of the missile, four are relevant: COMINT (communications intelligence), ELINT (electronic intelligence), HUMINT (human intelligence), and IMINT (imagery intelligence). Let us look at each in turn.

The Israelis (and undoubtedly others) may have intercepted conversations (COMINT) in which a Hamas or PIJ official said (or wrote in the instance of an email or text) that the explosion was caused by their own munitions. It is a fair assumption that Israel monitors most communications coming out of Gaza (the fact that all cellphone signals in the strip may go through Israeli infrastructure would facilitate collection).

Missiles have electronic “signatures” and these can be picked up by sophisticated collection platforms (ELINT). I would imagine that different types of artillery have different footprints, making it relatively simple to establish what kind of device was used (and whose side uses what).

That Israel runs human sources (HUMINT) within Hamas (and PIJ) is probably a given. Perhaps a highly placed source would have crucial information on what happened at the time of the explosion and have passed that on to intelligence agencies. Lastly, imagery (IMINT), whether by satellite or drone, would indicate the size of the crater associated with the missile attack and hence the exact type of military hardware used.

Even with all this intelligence there are drawbacks. Some will inevitably reject evidence on matters of principle (“if it comes from Israel it must be a lie”). Intelligence is never perfect and there are always gaps. Furthermore, with all this talk of “intelligence failure” on the part of Israel’s much vaunted security services, some may place less trust in their abilities and competencies.

Regardless, for many on both sides of this conflict there is probably nothing that can be said or provided to make them change their minds. They are dead set in their views and not open to information which could challenge those perspectives. The best intel in the world will not shake those beliefs.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.