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Why Israel was Stunned by Discovery of the Tunnels in Gaza

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.

A Saba answers his Granddaughter’s Concerns about the Threats to Israel

Earlier today, my granddaughter, Elana Lipkin, wrote me about her concerns about the media’s treatment and threats to Israel in this latest rocket war with Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.  ‘Lana, as we call her, won a scholarship last summer from her local Jewish Federation to spend five weeks visiting concentration and death camps in the Czech Republic and Poland before  spending a month in Israel on a National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) program.  ‘Lana is very active at her family temple frequently serving as a cantorial assistant during Friday evening services given her beautiful singing voice recognized in her high school and regional choral assemblies. She is also a talented dancer. We are very proud of her achievements, a credit to her parents and grandparents.

Elana and a friend donned IDF fatigues and got a taste of what it’s like to train for the IDF at the Gadna training center.

Elana and a friend donned IDF fatigues and got a taste of what it’s like to train for the IDF at the Gadna training center, July 2013.

Last summer, we posted on her prize winning essay and poetry after climbing up the snake path to the top of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea.  (See thisConnecticut Jewish Ledger article “KOLOT-Passing the Torch”). While in Israel, ‘Lana put in a brief training stint in a GADNA (youth battalion) where she learned firsthand what para-military training Israeli youths go through before entering the IDF.  That stint included her familiarization of weapons on a firing range.

The following is an exchange of email between ‘Lana and her Saba (grandfather in Hebrew) that might be used by other concerned supporters of Israel, when their children or grandchildren ask them to explain why this rocket war is happening?   Further, it also illustrates what they can do to support Israeli civilians and IDF service personnel, as well as, keep informed of developments in Operation Preventive Edge.

What follows is the exchange of emails between 17 year old ‘Lana and her Saba.

Lana’s email to Saba:

Hi Saba!

I know it’s fairly early there, but I’m sure you’re up already. The situation in Israel these past few days has really been worrying me. I care about Israel so deeply and it pains me to see it in danger. I am also bothered by the lies the media spreads and the ignorance of those around me regarding what’s actually occurring. I was wondering if you could do two things for me, first of all, I’d love any information you could give to me on the Operation going on right now. Second of all, do you know of anything I could possibly do to help Israel right now?
Thank you so much!

I love you very much and miss you lots, I hope you’re doing well.

-Lana

shabat shalom terrorism will not stop usMy Email to Lana:

Like you I am pained by the bias shown in the media towards the plight of Israel under the daily onslaught of literally hundreds of rockets launched from Gaza by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). These are foreign terrorists groups designated by our State Department and Israel whose charters seek the destruction of the Jewish State of Israel.  Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza. The PIJ is backed by Iran.

As Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said:  “No other country lives under such a threat. Israel will not tolerate the firing of rockets on our cities and towns,” Prime Minister Benjamin Neyanyahu. We have therefore significantly expanded our operations against Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza.”

The IDF conducts daily air, naval and artillery attacks against hundreds of target in Gaza to destroy Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad rockets and launching sites while endeavoring to avoid civilian casualties.  Yesterday, cousins of mine and friends in Jerusalem were shocked by one of the longer range rockets that fell nearby in Ma’ale Adumim. Most disturbing were the two rockets fired from Lebanon by terrorist group Hezbollah that landed in northern Israel. That event may have caused Israelis in the north to seek safety in bomb shelters as they did during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.  Much of the Hamas and Hezbollah rockets used against Israel are supplied by Iran or manufactured locally. Your cousin’s United Synagogue Youth (USY) tour group may be prevented from traveling on to Israel from Europe as rockets are ranging on Ben Gurion Airport.

Yesterday, I posted an article on Operation Protective Edge– Is Iran Behind Rocket Blitz on Israel?– and will do more in the coming days. Israel may have to make the momentous decision to go into Gaza to destroy the rocket inventories, launching sites and command infrastructure.  This is a dangerous phase which could result in significant casualties to both civilians and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as well as IDF forces and even Israeli civilians.
During Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, we wrote extensively about the experience of Zach Rowen – Taylor, a young American lonesome soldier who hailed from California and was among the elite Givati Brigade units that entered urban areas in northern Gaza.  We wrote him in a January 4, 2009, Iconoclast post, “A Proud American Mother of an IDF Soldier”.  I know as a former US Army officer that fighting in urban areas is grueling, dangerous and unfortunate casualties may mount.  But, Israel may have no choice but to do what Zach Rowen-Taylor and his mates in the Givati Brigade had to do in Operation Cast Lead.  Perhaps if Israel had stayed in Gaza in 2009, notwithstanding the inauguration of President Obama, it might have achieved victory against these terrorist groups with their arsenal of rockets. However, the reality was that arsenal was replenished by Iran and terrorist groups in the Sinai using smuggling tunnels below the Egyptian Gaza frontier.

Those smuggling tunnels were only closed off when Egypt’s military overthrew its former President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and Hamas supporter, last year. He was replaced by former Defense Minister and now President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.  He plugged up those smuggling tunnels preventing more weapons from Iran reaching Hamas and the PIJ and possibly stopping the flight of terrorist leaders from Gaza in the current Israeli Operation Preventive Edge.

Still Hamas and the PIJ have an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Rockets including longer range rockets supplied by Iran before those tunnels were destroyed by Egypt. That means that this could be Israel’s longest war in Gaza, possibly exceeding the 22 days of Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and the eight days of Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, just 20 months ago. Hamas and the PIJ have positioned launching sites in schools, office buildings, and even residences using its civilians including children as human shields. Israel goes to great limits to avoid civilian causalities sent text message warnings on cells and even aerial missile “knocks” on roofs of suspected targets warning people to flee.  Fortunately, those dramatic Israel Iron Dome anti-rocket missile interceptions heading to strikes in population centers knock out terror rockets before they reach their targets. They have a 90% success rate.

Remember, Israel is America’s only reliable and democratic ally in the troubled Middle East. The vast majority of Americans support Israel because we share the same Judeo-Christian values.

For information on groups in Israel treating civilians, you might consult the website of American Friends of Magen David Adom.  One of the groups that provide social and other support for IDF soldiers is American Friends of LIBI. You might check out its Facebook page.   To keep abreast of developments in Operation Protective Edge, you might look at the Live blog at The Jerusalem Post.

Your commitment to Israel as a young Zionist is both heartfelt and refreshing among your generation of young American Jews.  You can act as a spokesperson in your community to provide the EMET- the truth about what Israel is facing.  Tonight at Kabbalat Shabbat services pray for the safety of Israel and its defenders the young men and women of the IDF on the frontlines defending this Jewish nation. You met them during your GADNA training last summer in Israel.

I thought the attached graphic sent to me by a colleague and intelligence expert, Ilana Freedman, whose son served in the IDF, might express the feelings of you and countless other Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, who are supporters of Israel -The Eagle and the Flag.  Israel. It is the most ancient of Hebrew Prayers, the priestly benediction, as you know it.

Kol Hakavod (Outstanding), Ahava (Much Love) v Shabbat shalom (peaceful sabbath).  Am Yisrael Chai! (The People Israel Lives!)

Saba

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.