The ground incursion by the IDF into Gaza that began on July 16th was triggered by the emergence of 13 Hamas commandos from a tunnel underneath the Gaza Israel frontier. They were detected by an armed IAF drone and quickly dispatched by a missile strike scattering both survivors and equipment near the opening of the tunnel. 17 days into the tough slog of the ground phase with 33 IDF soldiers fallen, including two Americans, more than 35 tunnels have been uncovered. A number of these were found to have entrances in homes, schools, apartment buildings and mosques. The Givati brigade has been assigned the dangerous tasks of inspecting these tunnels. After sending in small tactical robots detecting booby traps, the tunnels are destroyed.
However, the obvious question is why was the IDF caught flat footed by the enormity of the Hamas tunnel network when there were means available to map them? Despite their being excavated more than 25 meters below the surface.
Sheera Frenkel, Buzzfeed’s correspondent in Israel reported this comment:
Israeli military officers described an “underground city” in Shujayeh, made up of a labyrinth of tunnels in which Israeli soldiers clashed with Hamas fighters.
“Even with the intelligence the Israeli military keeps on Gaza, they were caught by surprise at the extent of what they found below ground,” said Amir Bohbot, a military affairs correspondent with Walla, a news site. “There were traps, explosives everywhere. There is no way for them to continue their operation without taking the risks of even heavier casualties.”
A source in Jerusalem told us this week that Tzahal was jarred by the extent of the tunnels under the Gaza Israel frontier, and the purpose. Dan Diker, Executive Producer for the Voice of Israel sent my colleague Lisa Benson this chilling email message:
The news here is that Hamas was planning a doomsday mega attack for Rosh Hashanah, Sending hundreds , HUNDREDS OF Hamas Suicide commandoes via the underground terror tunnel networks to conquer Israeli towns and cities. This was planned to be the equivalent of five 911’s .
That is the meaning of the tunnel threat. It is the most serious strategic threat Israel has faced since the 1973 war. The failed conception is also notable as there is a real question as to whether the intelligence echelons recognized the seriousness of the threat.
The Three Kidnapped and murdered teens saved Israel literally by mobilizing the IDF and public opinion to fight Hamas. We were saved by the skin of our teeth from strategic disaster.
But should Tzahal have been surprised by this news? A noted Israel geologist was cited in a Telegraph U.K. article complaining that the tunnel threat had been overlooked by the Israeli Ministry of Defense:
“For 10 years I’ve been crying and screaming to the highest possible levels – to the Defense Ministry, the chief of staff, the commanding officers of southern and northern command,” Dr Joseph Langotsky, an Israeli geologist who has long advocated greater attention to the issue of the tunnels, said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post.
“Although the tunnels are a low-tech option, they might be a strategic threat to our security,” said Dr Langotsky.
The heavily fortified areas of southern Lebanon that the IDF encountered in the 2006 Lebanon War should have raised alarm bells. Hezbollah with the alleged technical assistance of Iranian Quds Force engineers had prepared tunnels connecting command and control centers in villages, rocket launching areas, armories and firing positions. Moreover, there were rumors that Hezbollah with the aid of Iran and possibly North Korea had also dug tunnels underneath the northern frontier of Lebanon and Israel.
Ilana Freedman, veteran intelligence analys, raised the issue of the threat of tunnels crossing the Lebanon Israel frontier. The IDF was warned about the Hezbollah tunnels as early as April 2010, including a large tunnel which was being constructed from southern Lebanon to central Haifa. They were also informed of a number of small bore tunnels that were being built, to emerge in northern Israeli towns and kibbutzim. These were designed for Hezbollah’s child warriors who would be sent heavily armed and would be instructed to fire on anyone they see once they emerge in these towns. This information came from eye-witness sources in southern Lebanon.
When the Givati brigade went into Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, they also encountered tunnels. The tunnels uncovered by Golani and Givati brigades in the current Operation Protective Edge were well prepared with concrete, steel reinforced with lighting and ventilation. A few were even large enough to accommodate trucks. The longest one discovered was over 2.5 kilometers in length. The average cost of the tunnels was estimated at $1 million each. It appears that the Hamas tunnel networks in Gaza may have expertly planned and executed using the Hezbollah playbook, possibly with both Hezbollah and Quds Force assistance.
When the eight day Operation Pillar of Defense ended on November 21, 2012, a cease fire was brokered by the former Egyptian President Morsi, a supporter of Hamas. The Obama Administration pressured the Netanyahu government to permit the delivery of cement and steel for the reconstruction of Gaza. Jerusalem had objected to the demands of Washington suspecting that the delivery of the materials to Gaza would be used for military purposes. Given what has been uncovered, those suspicions have been confirmed. Qatar put up more than $405 million for the alleged reconstruction of destroyed areas of Gaza. Those funds may have been substantially diverted for purchase of equipment and materials to construct the tunnel network.
The Telegraph U.K, article disclosed that the Israeli Ministry of Defense was working on the tunnel problem. However, the means of detecting them would not be available until after the current conflict, “Israel tests hi-tech tunnel detection system to fight threat from underground.” The report noted:
In a bid to find a solution, the IDF’s elite Talpiot unit has been working on developing a tunnel detection system which was tested in Tel Aviv. Its costs are estimated to be $59 million.
“The high-tech system, which uses special sensors and transmitters, is still in its R&D phase, and if all goes well, should be operational within a year”, notes a report on Israel’s I-24 news.
The most common type of technology for tracking down tunnels is focused on listening for sounds of digging, notes Inbal Orpaz in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.
Another Israeli company, Magna, already provides defense systems for the Israel-Egypt border. It proposed digging a 70-km tunnel along the Israel-Gaza border, equipped with a sensitive alert system.
This “will provide real-time alerts of any tunnel digging that crosses our tunnel, whether above or below it. The IDF will know exactly where the attack tunnel is and how many people are in it, and can monitor the progress of digging it in real time, and decide how to respond to the threat,” the company’s founder and CEO Haim Siboni told Israel’s Globes publication.
An interview with a Canadian expert in Start –Up Israel reveals that Israel may have already had the means of mapping the tunnels, “IDF ‘didn’t follow up’ on MRI-style, below-surface technology to find tunnels”:
Paul Bauman, a Canadian who is one of the world’s foremost experts on discovering underground tunnels and voids, insists that the technology exists and has been used in the US, Canada, Korea, and other places. “We actually did some work with the IDF some years ago, showing them how the technology we’ve developed works,” Bauman told The Times of Israel in an interview. “They were interested, but there was no follow-up. Why, I couldn’t say.”
Had the army worked with Bauman, using the sophisticated methods he has developed and successfully employed over the past decade, things might have been different. While there is no foolproof, single tech solution to discovering tunnels, a combination of several techniques — radar, tomography, and seismic measuring — could give Israel a technological advantage over Hamas, creating a map of what is happening under the surface, and making it much easier to find tunnels and the terrorists who dig them.
Bauman noted the off the shelf technology that might have been used for detection and mapping of the tunnels:
It was on one of his exploration trips to Israel that Bauman showed the IDF some of the techniques it could use to discover underground tunnels. At the time, after another Gaza flare-up, Operation Cast Lead in 2009, a Teknion team led by researchers Dr. Raphael Linker and Dr. Assaf Klar were developing a system that uses a fiber optic cable buried one or two meters beneath the surface to detect underground movement. The system builds what is essentially an underground fence using BOTDR (Brillouin optical time-domain reflectometry) technology, which measures the stress on the cable underground.
The amount of stress may be very small, the team said, and its research shows that even small levels of deformation can be detected, making the system perfect for keeping tabs on tunnel builders. The cable is cheap, and as much as 30 kilometers of the border can be monitored simultaneously using one device. It’s not clear if the IDF considered that system as well, and in an email this week, Linker said that the system is still under development.
Also considered was ground penetrating radar:
Much better, than an Israeli concept of building a moat around Gaza, polluting the ground aquifer, Bauman said, would be a technique like underground radar to find tunnels. “Israel has been very interested in this, and Israeli companies are working on underground radar systems,” said Bauman. “In an underground radar system, you aim the wave down below the ground, and when you get back a signal that is an anomaly — indicating that there is something different about the area you just checked than other areas — you know you’ve found something worth investigating.”
There are limitations to the system, though. “Depending on the frequency of the radar wave, you can have a system that can ‘see’ as far down as 100 meters, but at low resolution, or just 10 meters at a better resolution,” Bauman said. Radar could be very useful in discovering larger concrete tunnels, which have metal rebar in them — concrete and metal being much denser than the gypsum and salt-rich soil around the Gaza border — but not for the simpler, smaller wood-reinforced tunnels.
If the warnings and advices of Israeli geologist Dr. Langotsky and Canadian researcher Bauman had been heeded then could the surge in IDF casualties been avoided? That is unfortunately past history. The issue before the IDF ground commanders is how most efficiently to destroy those tunnels that are encountered. Some experts have suggested use of Fuel Air Explosives (FAE). Russia’s Putin authorized used of FAE weapons against Chechen Islamists extremists when the provincial capital of Grozny (terrible in Russian) was virtually flattened in 2002. Others recall napalm used to clear out tunnels on the Island of Iwo Jima from which suicide Imperial Japanese forces would sally forth to inflict heavy casualties on US Marines and soldiers. Perhaps this comment in the Buzzfeed article from an Israel Intelligence officer best sums up the military campaign that the IDF is waging against another group of fortified fanatics this time in Gaza:
‘“We are no longer looking at just dismantling the tunnel network [from Gaza to Israel]. The goals of Operation Defensive Edge are now to cripple Hamas so they will not be able to strike us again in a few years,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He also told Buzzfeed that Israel’s military was now preparing a timeline for its offensive in Gaza that could go on for “several weeks” and see the Israeli military create a “buffer zone” up to a mile into Gaza.
“We may suffer heavy losses doing this, but their losses will be heavier, I can assure you,” said the officer.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on the New English Review. The featured photo is of an Israeli Givati Brigade Soldier at entrance of Hamas tunnel, July 23, 2014. Source: IDF Spokesperson/FLASH90.