Hamas’ Terror Tunnels - a National Strategic Failure for Israel

When seeking a cease-fire, either the authorities were willing to let the enemy’s tunnels be, or they weren’t aware of them.

On Sunday evening, Lt. Col. Dolev Keidar, the commander of the infantry-cadet battalion at Israel’s officers’ school, met a friend from the army. They were at the memorial near Gaza to the fallen during Operation Black Arrow, a 1955 reprisal raid in the Strip. The cadets had been assigned to security duties in the Sderot area, and the friend asked Keidar about his plans for the night.

“I’m staying to sleep in the field,” replied Keidar. The number of infiltrations through tunnels under the border was worrying him. “I have a feeling we’re going to have a terror attack here,” he said.

On Monday morning, more than 10 members of a Hamas special force came out of a tunnel that emerged in Israeli territory, only a few hundred meters from the memorial. The tunnel’s exit was located in the fields of Kibbutz Nir Am, a two- to three-minute walk from the kibbutz and the western edge of the city of Sderot.

From the observation post the Hamas men looked like Israeli soldiers; they had camouflage on their helmets, uniforms, protective vests and moved in military formation. In those first moments, the commanders in the field weren’t sure whether these men were the enemy or soldiers from one of the many forces that had been sent to the area.

So they were afraid to fire. In the end, photographs taken by a drone made it clear that they were Hamas men; they were armed with Kalashnikovs, which are not used by the Israel Defense Forces.

Keidar rushed to the scene in his jeep, which was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The vehicle caught fire, killing Keidar and the three members of his command unit on the spot. It was another loss of a senior commander after a Golani Brigade commander was lightly wounded, two of his battalion commanders were seriously wounded and a deputy battalion commander was killed.

Keidar, a pleasant man who was liked and admired by everyone in the IDF who knew him, did exactly what was expected of a combat officer. He and his fighters surged to the perimeter fence to protect civilian lives. The rest of the forces stormed the terrorists and killed most or all of them.

This was the fourth terror attack since Thursday carried out through emerging in Israeli territory. Two were foiled near Kibbutz Sufa and Kibbutz Nirim. Two, near Kibbutz Be’eri Saturday and near Kibbutz Nir Am Monday, cost the lives of six soldiers and officers.

Battalion commanders and their men die in action so that families can sleep safely; this is the price of the current conflict, which has long ceased to be a routine security operation. As of Monday night, Operation Protective Edge has taken the lives of 28 Israelis, 26 of them soldiers, and of nearly 500 Palestinians, more than one-third of them armed operatives.

Still, what we’ve learned about the terror tunnels in recent days is nothing less than a national strategic failure. After four days of ground operations in Gaza, the IDF has located 13 attack tunnels whose eastern sections abut into Israel. More than half have been destroyed, but even with the IDF on the ground in Gaza, armed men have made their way under the fence and approached nearby Israeli communities.

A frightening gap

A week ago, Israel announced its willingness to accept a cease-fire in Gaza. On Thursday, after Egypt’s efforts to get Hamas on board failed, the cabinet instructed the IDF to enter Gaza in an operation focused on exposing and destroying tunnels whose exits into Israeli had not been previously spotted.

This means one of two things. Either the ministers and generals were willing last week to let these tunnels, every one a ticking bomb, tick softly under kibbutz dining rooms until the next escalation, or they weren’t aware of the seriousness of the risk. So either they were taking a calculated risk of unusual dimensions, or they didn’t have enough intelligence before the operation (which doesn’t quite square with a senior officer’s claim last week that “never before has the army had such quality intelligence before an operation”).

Either way, we’re talking about an operational gap that may eventually cost civilian lives, too. Israel has been dealing with Gaza tunnels since the beginning of the last decade; first it was smuggling tunnels from Egypt, then tunnels for explosives in Gaza, and in recent years dozens of attack tunnels. Last year, intelligence and technology improved Israel’s ability to handle the threat, but this threat wasn’t addressed the way Israel addressed other problems see the Iron Dome rocket-interception system.

Defense officials say the tunnel problem was defined as an “emergency project,” and in recent years millions of shekels and much effort have been invested in solving it. Previous technology, starting in 2005, had been tried and failed. But in recent months the first models of new systems have been tried in the field. The tunnel issue is in many ways more complicated than intercepting rockets and has no parallel anywhere in the world.

Still, the question arises why defense officials didn’t assign a project manager to coordinate all aspects of the battle against the tunnels, which are turning into one of Hamas’ flagship projects. The organization is investing all its efforts on assaults via the tunnels that remain, even though the IDF is attacking them with full force. In the long term, Hamas might find it hard to revive this project if Israel counters it broadly and forcefully.

The tunnels on the border are being portrayed as a small and deadly version of the tunnels dug from North Korea to the south in the 1950s. It seems that only the resourcefulness of the soldiers and officers in the field has prevented greater casualties.

Hamas has switched over to fighting a subterranean war, and Israel has been surprised by the group’s sophistication and determination. We can no longer say that all of Hamas’ efforts to attack civilians have been foiled. We’ve received a very expensive wake-up call.

Where do we go now from here?

Once again the Israeli cabinet is facing a critical dilemma. Hamas seems intoxicated by its achievements in recent days: the damage inflicted on Golani fighters in the battle in Shujaiyeh, the killing of the officers and the infiltrations via the tunnels. The organization appears undeterred by its extensive losses and the damage to the Palestinian population. A myth of heroism is already being woven around Shujaiyeh (“the Heroes’ Neighborhood,” named after a 13th-century battle against the Crusaders).

Israel has to decide how it will proceed from here on: whether to content itself with the original aim of dealing with the attack tunnels and then withdraw from the Gaza Strip or to expand the operation in the hope of achieving more. In the public realm, the government has a problem: The number of IDF losses is not large relative to the fighting in a built-up area but this is probably not what the citizenry expected. The battle in Gaza is frustrating precisely because the IDF is immeasurably stronger than Hamas. The Palestinian organization is taking the fighting to the places that suit it, underground and in the heart of its civilian population. The army, under the circumstances, is proceeding cautiously and slowly.

There are achievements, and as always, the commanders and the soldiers are fighting bravely and with self-sacrifice. At the same time, it is beginning to become clear that from the IDF's perspective in general, and that of the ground forces in particular, there is a constitutive event unfolding here. In the longer term, it could presage an extensive change in the way the army prepares the ground forces for war. After the failure on the ground in the second Lebanon war, the IDF went back to training more energetically and talked about going back to basics - but during this past year training slowed down again. The surprises Hamas prepared and some of the events on the ground suggest there is a broader problem here: of the ground forces not keeping up with the improvement processes in the air force and military intelligence during those years.

Annually, about NIS 50 billion in Israeli taxpayers’ money (along with $3 billion in American taxpayers’ money) are directed to the defense budget. In the IDF they will now say the fighting proves that more is needed. The question is whether the IDF is able to win a war not only against an enemy army (apparently it is) but also against a guerilla force dug into tunnels. Interception systems have provided an impressive answer to the threat of the rockets from Gaza but on the agenda now is dealing with an attack by means of maneuvers in a built-up area.

A ground maneuver in an urban area is costly in terms of human lives and in no way is it sterile. In Shujaiyeh, 15 IDF soldiers were killed in a single night. How many losses would there be in a more extensive move, say the occupation of all of Gaza, and what would that aim to achieve? Israel is not sure it is prepared for this, in light of the cost - but this is hard to explain in the tumult of the television studios, where they want the IDF to win and to leave Gaza without losses smelling of roses.

IDF Spokesman's Office