Egyptian intelligence repeatedly told Israel that the situation in the Gaza Strip could “explode”, warnings that went unheeded before the deadly Hamas assault on the Jewish state, according to two officials familiar with the matter.
The warnings were not hard intelligence about a specific attack, they said. Egypt instead relayed concerns that “matters could explode because of the political and humanitarian situation in Gaza”, one of the people said. The other called it a “general warning”.
Israel has denied that it received a specific warning of Saturday’s attack, which killed at least 1,200 Israelis and sparked war with Hamas militants who carried out the multipronged assault. Palestinian authorities say more than 1,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Saturday.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described reports that he received a specific Egyptian warning ahead of the attack as “absolutely false” and “totally fake news”.
Egypt shares a border with Gaza in its North Sinai region, where it has over the past decade fought a counterinsurgency against Isis militants. The fear among Egyptian officials is that fallout from the conflict will spill over the border, in particular by driving Palestinian refugees into Sinai.
Egypt is in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis as it prepares to elect President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for another term in December.
“It’s a regional 9/11,” said one of those familiar with the matter, comparing it to the al-Qaeda attack on the US in 2001, adding that the ramifications on the wider region “could topple governments”.
Egypt has in past wars between Hamas and Israel acted as a mediator in ceasefire talks and evacuated and treated wounded Palestinians. It was the first Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel, in 1979, and has intelligence-sharing links with the Jewish state.
It also permits Hamas to have a tightly monitored political office in Cairo, although the Egyptian government remains deeply suspicious of the Islamist militants who are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood organisation.
One of the people familiar with the warnings given to Israel suggested that its leadership may have become complacent with its assessment that Hamas, which seized control of Gaza from rival Fatah in 2007 after Israel withdrew, was mainly interested in securing its grip on the coastal territory.
In its previous wars with the Jewish state, Israel’s assessment was that Hamas instigated the fighting to draw concessions, whether on releasing prisoners or easing a crippling blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt.
Israeli security sources last month maintained that Gaza was relatively stable and that Hamas leaders, far from seeking war, prioritised issues of governance and economic development.
In the weeks leading up to Hamas’s assault, in which squads of gunmen mowed down men and women across southern Israel while kidnapping dozens of Israelis including children, Qatar had been mediating talks to increase aid to Gaza and allow more Gaza residents to work in Israel.
Yet Hamas was simultaneously plotting an assault that threatened to create turmoil in a region where several Arab countries have signed normalisation deals with Israel in recent years.
While Hamas’s motivations remain unclear, the attack appeared to be calculated to draw Israel into a prolonged war, spark another uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and possibly draw in allied militant factions in neighbouring Lebanon and beyond.
In conversations between senior Egyptian and European officials, Cairo said it was “very worried” that Hizbollah, the Lebanese militia group, would be drawn into the fighting, according to people briefed on those conversations. The assessment was the Hizbollah had close to 100,000 missiles in its arsenal.
“Hamas put on a front that it was rational and not interested in war over two years,” said Ali Baraka, a leader of the militant group. “We made them think Hamas was busy governing Gaza . . . that it has abandoned resistance altogether.”
“All the while, Hamas was covertly preparing for this operation,” he said in an interview with an Arabic television station.
Additional reporting by Andrew England in London, Henry Foy in Brussels and Neri Zilber in Tel Aviv