How Israeli Defense Ministers Failed to Address Threat From Below

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A Palestinian in a tunnel in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip.Credit: AP

Forty-five years ago, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Eight years after President John F. Kennedy promised to send a man to the moon — and bring him back, a mission just as complex — he realized that goal. It’s true that no armed and hostile moon-men were lying in wait for Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s spaceship to arrive, nor was their landing disturbed by gunfire.

But the Apollo program overcame much greater challenges than the ones that are giving Israel a hard time in its war against Hamas. It is hard to believe that the human mind, and the Israeli intellect in particular, allowed the tunnel issue to swell from a weakness to a monstrous threat in as long as it took to develop lunar travel. In the end, the problem is not the tunnel, but the wall — the one inside the Israeli security agencies and the minds of those who run them.

Determination to create an underground network of tunnels is not a Hamas invention. Incarcerated criminals and prisoners of war all over the world have escaped through tunnels they dug under the noses of their guards and captors. We saw a reminder of that this week with the death of actor James Garner, one of whose films was “The Great Escape.”

Members of the prestate underground militias, Haganah and Etzel, dug tunnels for attack and for escape (here and in Eritrea, where some were incarcerated by the British). The Ayalon Institute near Rehovot, which was run by the group that established Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, operated an underground munitions plant that was vital to the war effort. After all, that is the nature of an underground organization — it exists in hiding, beneath the surface.

But there is a significant difference between a retailer and a wholesaler, between a terrorist group’s basic ability to hijack an aircraft and the next stage of hijacking four of them simultaneously to fly them to Jordan to bargain for a prisoner exchange — and the more advanced stage of crashing fuel-laden aircraft into office towers and a defense headquarters.

To see how Israel allowed the tunnels to endanger it so much that it was finally drawn, against all rational thought, into a bloody conflict, and how a military operation of aerial attack and rocket interception with no casualties turned into a lethal confrontation of a scope that approaches the Battle of Karameh in 1968 and Operation Litani a decade later, the state comptroller will not be enough.

Irrational decision making

Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Beinhorn, the defense establishment comptroller, is the brother of Brig. Gen. (res.) Shmuel Keren, who was the head of the Defense R & D Directorate during most of the time that this failure took place. An unbiased, professional investigative committee is essential. Maybe it should be staffed, for a change, only with scientists — Nobel Prize laureates Aaron Ciechanover, Ada Yonath, Dan Shechtman and, above all, Daniel Kahneman, who is an expert in irrational decision making.

The committee’s adviser must be Col. (res.) Yossi Langotsky, an intelligence and special operations officer, geologist and technologist, an expert in offshore and on-shore drilling — and one who insists on drilling into the minds of military officials and politicians, even though he comes up against layers of rock that make Israel’s Operation Protective Edge look like cotton candy.

Langotsky will bring two kilograms of paper to the committee — a volume of his warnings, recommendations and various other assertions and ideas regarding the tunnels over the past decade.

In 2004, the Southern Command suffered from Hamas’ success in detonating explosive tunnels at army outposts and patrols along the Philadelphi Corridor in the southern Gaza Strip (the Gaza-Egypt border). Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Drori, former deputy chief of staff and a geographer by training, contacted Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon with a recommendation that he consult with Langotsky.

Drori, who served as the commander of the Northern Command during the first Lebanon war, had been impressed with Langotsky’s ability, initiative, cleverness and performance during the siege of western Beirut in 1982.

Ya’alon knew Langotsky superficially, from meetings of the old-time staff of the Intelligence Directorate’s special-operations department. He accepted Drori’s recommendation and appointed Langotsky as his adviser on tunnel affairs on a volunteer basis.

Although Ya’alon was referring only to the Philadelphi Corridor, as a temporary measure, Langotsky disregarded the borders of the sector and set out to find a solution to the problem as a whole.

He submitted his report in January 2005. It was intended mainly for Ya’alon, his deputy and eventual successor Dan Halutz, and Central Command head Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, today director general of the Defense Ministry, under Ya’alon.

Strategic threat

Langotsky warned then, nine and a half years ago, that the tunnels were a strategic threat because they were “multilayered, long-range, multisector and made of various kinds of rock; at this stage in Gaza and on the Lebanese border, at a depth of up to 25 meters and a length of hundreds of meters, even kilometers, the vertical and horizontal maneuvering ability of the tunnel-diggers is great, and they are capable of evading the checkpoints placed on the roads by descending and then ascending.” Langotsky said further that a dedicated administration was vital for fighting the tunnels effectively.

Langotsky’s report raised even thicker dust than Bobcat excavators do. When Haaretz ran an expose on the report in April 2005, the conventional opposition by the establishment to creative ideas from outside turned into active hostility. Langotsky was marked; the tunnels were not.

Chief of Staff Ya’alon marked out the path, and his successors followed it. So did defense ministers Shaul Mofaz and Amir Peretz — who did not care as much about the tunnels as he did about Iron Dome — along with Ehud Barak, and finally Ya’alon. Langotsky could not penetrate the wall around the commander of the Southern Command at the time, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant.

The only senior official who took him seriously and took the time to listen to his recommendations was Benny Gantz, who as the head of the Northern Command and later as chief of staff, wished to prepare for the threat of Hezbollah tunnels deep into the Galilee. Langotsky warned that a battalion or brigade might use a tunnel to conquer a community.

The portrayal of Israel as the land of the prophets is a bit outdated, at 2,000 to 3,000 years old. Nowadays the more relevant expression is “a prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” This refers to the new Langotskys, who have sprung up and who suddenly — and disastrously late in the game — are respected and courted by senior officers (in secret) and scientists. There are also false prophets who cannot see farther than their own noses.

Those who did not deal with the tunnels while there was still time played into Hamas’ hands. Their neglect enabled the infiltration of cells intent on staging attacks and kidnappings, and also drew our troops into battle on Gaza’s home turf.

Israel’s military and technological superiority takes the form of advanced systems and conservation of human life using UAVs, counter-weapons, cyber warfare and intelligence. The “maneuvering” and “friction” render the Israeli advantage superficial and are a drain on our blood and spirit.

How did Israel, of its own free will, end up in such an inferior position? That needs to be investigated.

Entrance to tunnel connecting between Israel and Gaza, October 2013.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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