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Two weeks ago officers from the Israel Defense Forces Engineering Corps knocked on the door of the Geophysics Institute which, among other work, researches subterranean phenomena related to security. The officers expressed concern at the possibility that in the area of the Sufa crossing between Israel and Gaza, tunnels are being dug from the Palestinian side in the direction of the border - both for immediate crossings into Israel and for future use. Experts at the institute were asked to assist in locating the tunnels, which Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi said the IDF had failed to find. The staff expressed an eagerness to help, but asked that an official request be made, as is customary. No such request arrived; instead a Palestinian commando attack took place yesterday there against IDF soldiers.

The fiasco in the handling of the Gaza Strip tunnels cost the lives of two soldiers yesterday, the abduction of another and injuries to others, and has led to an escalation in ground warfare in the Rafah area. The responsibility of the Hamas government for these developments does not free Israel of the need for a detailed evaluation of the failings of the army and the Defense Ministry in the tunnels affair. The Defense Research and Development Administration, the Ground Forces Command, the Southern Command, the Defense Ministry's administration and its minister, the General Staff - all share the responsibility, more or less, directly or indirectly. Only an authorized and independent investigation can determine the extent of that responsibility.

A year and a half ago, following repeated incidents along the Philadelphi Route that claimed many lives, then chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon appointed a special advisor on the issue of tunneling, Colonel (res.) Yossi Langotsky, a geologist and a veteran of special operations with experience dealing with technologies used by the Intelligence Corps. Langotsky investigated and presented Ya'alon with a very critical report on various aspects of the tunnels. He feared that just as in the case of the downing of the Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie - which he himself had warned about as one of the authors of a report on aviation security during the 1980s - his findings would once again be ignored.

The response from the upper echelons of the defense establishment to Langotsky's report was quick and to the point: It was directed not against the tunnels, or those responsible for the failings, but against the geologist himself. His assistance was apparently unwelcome, and those harmed by Langotsky's findings blamed him for being motivated by personal interests. Then defense minister Shaul Mofaz, who boasted in the Knesset about the successes in coping with the tunnel phenomenon, avoided a meeting with Langotsky. This was also the response of all the generals who were dealing with the issue - with the exception of Major General Benny Gantz who, as head of Northern Command, was worried that the Hezbollah was also secretly digging tunnels. What Gantz actually has done with respect to this problem, in his current role as head of the Ground Forces Command, which also includes the Engineering Corps, is something that needs to be clarified in the investigation.

The well-known method that brands a person who sounds the alarm as a fanatic who should be ignored, worked. The handling of the tunnels situation moved along slowly, and an official announcement declared it a problem with no solution. The Palestinians were convinced - and continued to dig. If Israel is a fenced-in state, they can try to pass over and under the fence: bypassing it from above with ballistic weapons and from below by using tunnels.

The IDF has two armies. There is one that fights day and night, to the best of its depleted ability; most of the time it succeeds, sometimes it fails. The second army works during office hours, from Sunday morning to Thursday afternoon, with no sense of urgency. The tunnels are being dug along the seam between the two armies.

If an investigative committee headed by retired judge Vardi Zeiler is set up to probe ties between police officers and criminals, and if to prove the IDF's innocence in the killing of Palestinians on a Gaza beach, a major general is appointed to head an inquiry - surely a public commission is necessary to probe the tunnels fiasco.

This year the state comptroller already examined the tunnels issue and focused on various aspects of development, intelligence and operations; a bleak draft of the findings is waiting for answers from those under scrutiny. During the past two years senior officials in the defense establishment have been involved in failures, and the system will find it difficult to rise above itself and act objectively against itself and its own. Only external elements, perhaps the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, have the power to appoint a "Zeiler equivalent," who will investigate the failures and help prevent the next foul-up.