The Dangers of Tunnel Vision

Tunnels need to be taken out while they’re still small, before they reach their full length, because not even Iron Dome has a ground equivalent.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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An Israeli soldier inside a tunnel uncovered in Gaza.
An Israeli soldier inside a tunnel uncovered in Gaza. Credit: Reuters
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

As I write this, a man named Mohammed, alias “Ahmed,” is digging a tunnel from his kitchen in Qalqilyah into the bedroom of Mrs. Rosenberg in Kfar Sava. She’s heard sounds, she’s sure. No, it wasn’t the neighbors. When she comes home at night and turns on the light, she half expects Ahmed to be waiting for her.

Tunnels are the hottest 2014 summer fashion. No self-respecting sector would admit to not having any. In the north, of course, Yossi Langotsky raised the possibility nine years ago. It was reported in the press. Two years ago, it was mentioned in a State Comptroller’s report, and last week it made television. Since then, people in northern Israel have been hearing the unmistakable sounds of digging.

The real digging, however, is in army offices throughout the country. Clerks are digging through records in order to find who said what to whom, and when. Yesterday a senior defense official said that 10 years ago a colleague told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee the tunnels could be a good way for the Gazans to bring in goods from Egypt. They could reduce pressure without endangering Israel.

One prominent, high-ranking officer in the Israel Defense Forces, speaking on condition of anonymity yesterday but sure to be identified soon, has refused to ride the wave of focusing on the tunnels, of searching for evidence to exonerate themselves and blame others.

The officer, who has been involved with the tunnels for around five years, in various assignments, says there is no guarantee that spending huge amounts on tunnel-detection technology will pay off.

And this, he says, is the good news. It could save the IDF from spending billions that would be better spent elsewhere. The estimated cost of a detection system is about 100 million shekels per kilometer, or 6.5 billion shekels ($1.9 billion) for the length of the 65-kilometer border.

In addition to eliminating the tunnel threat from the Gaza Strip, installing and paying for the system would have two additional consequences.

First, the appearance of tunnels in other areas: the Arava Desert, the Golan Heights, the Galilee — and Mrs. Rosenberg will eventually be attacked, because the Palestinians, the Lebanese and all the rest will become diggers.

Second, the enormous blow to the state budget. The IDF would be unable to purchase the same amount of offensive weapons to be used against future tunnels, should Hamas decide to dig longer and deeper, for the next four or five years. Every offensive weapon also has a defensive aspect, like the anti-missile system fitted on tanks and advanced armored personnel carriers. That renders the choice between offense and defense unclear.

That’s a brave statement. Today, in light of the tunnel threat that has dragged the IDF into Gaza and claimed the lives of 65 soldiers, it is popular to support a “Sami Turgeman Line,” named for GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, an underground version of the Bar-Lev line in Sinai in the War of Attrition. Turgeman himself doesn’t really care — he’ll be moving on in a year or two to another position, perhaps deputy chief of staff. It’ll be his successors’ budget.

But in fact this is an argument about the nature of the next war and how to plan for it, part of efforts to avoid getting caught up in disputes over responsibility for the mistakes of the previous war, which seems to be coming to a close. There is a precedent for furious arguments over the exorbitant sums spent on various defensive systems over the years.

In other words: Tunnels need to be taken out while they’re still small, before they reach their full length, because not even Iron Dome has a ground equivalent. And if this senior officer is more daring, he will tell donors to raise their eyes above the ground, and say “make peace — not (just) obstacles.”

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