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How Israel’s Military Bureaucracy Bungled the Terror Tunnel Threat

Israel’s Operation Protective Edge is now in its ninth cease fire with Hamas. How long this five day truce will last is anyone’s guess. Each of the prior truces was breached by Hamas, and its terrorist partner, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, even before the ceasefire was scheduled to end. The eighth truce was broken on August 13th when rockets were fired fully 2 hours and nine minutes ahead the deadline. Then, just as hurriedly, a ninth truce was declared, this time supposedly for five days.  Hamas’ demands, aired during the discussions in Cairo, were aimed at eliminating the seven year blockade by Israel, and the more recent one by Egypt, under President El-Sisi.

Both blockades were created to eradicate the threats of subversion from Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas has demanded a seaport and the re-opening of an international airport, the better to facilitate weapons deliveries, no doubt.  Israel’s counter offer was to increase Gaza fishing rights in the Mediterranean and the number of daily humanitarian truck deliveries of food, construction materials and medicine.

The latest break in the conflict, which is now verging on two months, has led to rising demands in Israel for a commission to investigate why the IDF hadn’t detected and mapped the network of cross-border terror tunnels from Gaza that posed such a great threat to Israel.  By enabling Hamas terrorists to move about unseen and emerge on the Israeli side of the border, equipped to kidnap both soldiers and civilians, Israel had much to lose by not treating the tunnels as credible and imminent threats.  The all-too-real experience during Operation Protective Edge was reminiscent of the five year long captivity of Galid Schalit, abducted in 2006 and held for five years until he was exchanged for 1,037 Palestinian prisoners.

Missteps  occurred during the October War of 1973 and the 34 day Second War with Lebanon in 2006. The Agranat  and Winograd Commissions were convened by Israel’s Knesset to investigate intelligence failures and military operational problems resulting in recommendations for corrective actions. What is apparent during the current Operation Protective Edge in Gaza is that bureaucratic bungling in Israel’s intelligence and planning echelons may have contributed to the IDF casualty toll in Gaza from attacks by Hamas commandos using the terror tunnels.

We have drawn attention to the terror tunnel threat in NER/Iconoclast  articles, <Qatar’s Cyberwarfare Support of Hamas in the War with Israel.  In these articles, we noted the lack of effort by the IDF to detect and map the intricate network of tunnels and underground armories. That was coupled with the discovery that Qatar had joined Iran in funding the Hamas resurgence, including the construction of the tunnels, and equipping Hamas with cyberwarfare capabilities.

Just this past Monday, August 11th, the Jerusalem Post reported this announcement:

Is this IDF announcement a matter of too little, too late?  Could a successful tunnel detection system have been developed earlier?

The Chronicle of IDF Tunnel Detection Missteps

Dr.  Ronen Bergman is the intelligence columnist at Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronoth (YA) (See our January 2013 NER interview with him on the Iran nuclear threat.)  He revealed the chronology of IDF military bureaucracy missteps in an August 6, 2014 YA Magazine article, “The Battle of the Gaza Tunnels”.  Bergman noted how early their investigation had zeroed in on the tunnel threat:

In July 2010, YA planned to publish a comprehensive investigative report warning of a serious military problem, of which only a handful of experts were aware at the time: Hamas’ terror tunnels.

[…]

The Defense Ministry and the IDF went to great efforts at the time to convince us that the tunnel threat was not so serious and that they were taking steps against the tunnels. Additional and even better measures, they said, would be used in no time.

We eventually decided that it was an important and fundamental issue, and published the investigative report.

Bergman observed:

The bottom line was that IDF posts and communities in the Gaza vicinity (as well as on the Lebanon border, facing Hezbollah) are exposed to terror attacks or abductions through tunnels. Further,  the defense establishment has no efficient measures against them. This despite the fact that the Defense Ministry had received proposals for tunnel-locating systems since the early 2000s.

Bergman noted this comment from IDF Col. Ilan Sabag, Engineering officer in the Southern Command:

The Southern Command is aware of the existence of Hamas infiltration tunnels reaching into our territory. As far as the Southern Command knows, these tunnels are meant to be used in due course to kidnap soldiers. The Southern Command estimates that Hamas will decide when to use the tunnels in light of considerations related to the Shalit deal, etc.

He added that the Southern Command lacked any efficient means to locate the tunnels (apart from intelligence), and that the measures deployed along the route surrounding the Gaza border were no longer in use, as they were unsuccessful.

Bergman chronicled the missteps and bungling by the IDF bureaucracy in tackling the tunnel threat.  As early as 2001, during the Second Intifada, the IDF knew that Hamas and the PIJ were bringing weapons into Gaza through smuggling tunnels. The development of tunnel detection began in earnest when Tzahal turned to the Geophysical Institute of Israel (GII) for assistance. The GII had designed a “seismic fence” composed of a network of geophones placed several meters underground to detect tunnel digging. The geophones were connected to a central computer to alert IDF intelligence of suspicious tunnel activity. These successful tests were conducted near the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza and reported to Tzahal.  Bergman contends that if Tzahal had pursued the development of the seismic fence proposed by the GII 13 years ago, then perhaps by 2014, they might have detected the network of Hamas tunnels, which could have enabled IDF military planners to prepare operational plans to enter and destroy them.

Bergman points out tha following a terrorist attack from tunnels in the Philadelphi corridor which Israel controlled along the Gaza Egypt frontier, the Ministry of National Infrastructure  (MNI) in 2004 wrote to Tzahal, reminding them:

“Following an initial inquiry, I am under the impression that there is the technological ability to deal with the problem, in the immediate timeframe, through active and passive means,” he said optimistically. “We are talking about available equipment which could be purchased and activated immediately”.

According to Bergman’s investigation, Tzahal basically told the MNI that they believed they were working on something better with two civilian contractors.

The IDF Ground Commander in 2004, Maj. Gen Yiftah Ron-Tal, undertook a WWII expedient.  According to Bergman, Aluf Ron-Tal sent aides to Texas to procurea machine called the Trencher capable of penetrating tunnels dug 25 meters below. Despite repeated efforts in 2005 and 2006, not much of a priority was given to development of alternatives by Tzahal to the original GII seismic fence proposal.

Bergman reports a conversation with a senior officer in Israel’s Ministry of Defense who indicated that a think tank effort on the tunnel threat had been convened. The think tank included the GII, and had been given funding to come up with viable options, following the 2010 YA investigative report.  Bergman cites a Tzahal source currently saying:

This field is relatively new and we do not have that kind of experience in it, nor is it clear in which direction we should be going or which direction will be successful. We turned to sources worldwide, and realized that no country has an effective solution to this issue.

To which Bergman counters:

Nonetheless, if you take into account the years of related activity since 2000, it’s been 14 years already. How much longer will it take?

Bergman and concerned Israelis got their answer with the Jerusalem Post report which suggested that a successful test indicated that a system could be implemented beginning in 2015.  Again, that system development is too little, too late for Operation Protective Edge. Israel’s well-known ability to develop leading edge technology in record time was ignored by the very people who would have benefited from it the most.

Is There a Hezbollah Tunnel Threat in Israel’s north as well?

Also on Monday, August 11th, the Jerusalem Post reported this statement:

The IDF does not know of any infiltration tunnels crossing from Lebanon into Israel, head of Northern Command, Major General Yair Golan, said Sunday.

Speaking to a forum of front line communities in Kfar Vradim in the North, Golan said that tunnels do not pose a strategic threat on the northern border, but that the IDF was prepared to handle the issue, despite being unable to confirm that any tunnels exist.

Notwithstanding Gen. Golan’s comments, we drew attention to intelligence as far back as 2010 that a significant tunnel threat to Israel existed under its northern frontier with Lebanon.  We noted:

he massive network of tunnels under Gaza mirrors the system of tunnels that criss-crosses southern Lebanon, which were built to avoid Israeli drone surveillance of Hezbollah’s movement of missiles across Lebanon from Syria. The IDF was warned about these Hezbollah tunnels as early as April 2010, and was also given information about cross-border tunnels that were being built at the time with assistance from the IRGC, using North Korean tunnel-building technology. Eye witness accounts reported the construction of a large tunnel that was being built to run from southern Lebanon to central Haifa, and a number of small bore tunnels that were being built, to emerge within 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.

Corroboration of that came in an Israel National News (INN) article, “Expert Says Terror Tunnels a Threat in the Galilee.  The editors at INN suggest that “Hezbollah could be building Gaza-esque tunnels into Israel”.  Hezbollah, as we reported, was already deeply engaged in building their complex tunnel network. At the time the INN article appeared, their network was far along in its construction. When their tunnel to Haifa, originally designed to accommodate trucks, became unusable because its air-handling system could not cope with the exhaust fumes in the 25 mile run, the tunnel was retrofitted for trains rather than trucks. The massive underground network extended northeast to the Syrian border, and honeycombed throughout southern Lebanon. It  providing storage for large missiles, ammunition, and military vehicles, as well as covert routes for the transport of materiel and men.

At the time this report was received by Israeli military intelligence in 2010, the Hezbollah network was already well-developed and was an ongoing, complex project with the deep involvement of the IRGC. The threat at the time was already credible and, from all accounts, was being taken seriously. However, the development of the technology that could have detected the construction of a tunnel 100 feet underground was apparently not available.  Its development had not been put on a fast track, as it should have been.

Here are some of the observations of the Israeli expert:

Geologist Col. Yossi Langotsky (res.) for five years was a Commander of Operational Intelligence and won the Israel Security Prize twice. Despite his expertise, however, his warnings about terror tunnels were apparently ignored.

“For nine years I raised hell, and said [terrorists are] digging tunnels into Israeli territory, and the state security system is not organized with enough seriousness required to deal with the intensity of the threat,” he recounted. This operation, he noted, is the result.

[…]

“It’s amazing to me that, less than a year ago, the Army removed the guards posted near several Gaza belt communities,” referring to a controversial IDF decision earlier this year. “It indicates that they have not internalized the real danger.”

Langotsky then turned to the threat from Hezbollah on the Lebanon frontier based on the North Korean tunnels that crossed the DMZ into South Korea.

He noted the ability of Hezbollah to build tunnels threatening the Galilee:

Geologically, the ground in the Galilee is softer and easier to dig compared to the earth in the Koreas, and added that the close relationship between Hezbollah and North Korea is already well-known. North Korea has reportedly played an important role in helping Hamas dig its own tunnels from Gaza, as well as providing them with rockets.

Langotsky concluded:

But action must be taken now, he said, before the situation in Lebanon mirrors that in Gaza.

“The facts were known,” he said, regarding terror tunnels in the Gaza belt. “The system went to sleep for a few years and did not do what needed to be done.”

One wonders whether the warnings about the vulnerability on Israel’s northern frontier might have prodded Tzahal to correct its threat reduction priorities on several fronts; tunnel detection, mapping and strategies for destroying those in existence  and those yet to come, under both frontiers. Four years later, we wonder why it didn’t.

Israel’s military faces sobering facts about weaknesses in its defense plans that must be overcome so it can faithfully protect its citizens. Langotsky told us that he had warned current IDF Chief of Staff General Benny Gantz about the threats. But sadly, something fell into the bureaucratic cracks, ignored or overlooked by the decision-makers of Tzahal in Tel Aviv.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review. The featured image is of an IDF soldier in Gaza tunnel during Protective Edge.  Source:  AP Photo.