While soldiers who operated in the Gaza Strip had been trained to fight in tunnels, they had never been trained to search for and destroy them, though this turned out to be their primary mission, soldiers and commanders who served in the Strip said.
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According to the IDF, 32 tunnels were “taken out of service” during the Gaza fighting, which involved three divisions and tens of thousands of soldiers who were in the Strip for more than two weeks.
Haaretz has learned that professional instructions from the Combat Engineering Corps on how to locate and destroy the tunnels was disseminated to the brigades only after the ground operation began. Until then, the forces had difficulty locating the tunnels, and the soldiers in the field had to improvise with whatever equipment they were carrying, though they managed to come up with several relatively simple techniques that helped them in their mission. They also ended up using a variety of methods to destroy those tunnels they had found.
"There were gaps in certain areas regarding the tunnels,” a senior Gaza Division officer admitted Wednesday.
For example, soldiers and commanders told Haaretz that while the forces had had training in tunnel warfare, the tunnels they had prepared for were not the ones found in Gaza, but simply underground battle areas of the type discovered during the Second Lebanon War as part of what were dubbed Hezbollah’s “nature reserves” (outposts made up of bunkers and underground channels).
“It was things that the fighters [first] encountered personally, face to face,” said one division commander who fought in the northern-central Strip. The division forces under his command eliminated 11 tunnels, some of which they became aware of through intelligence information.
The Combat Engineering Corps has a designated unit for dealing with special engineering missions and a company that specializes in underground missions, known as the Samur Company, an acronym from the Hebrew words for “arms caches and tunnels.” These soldiers are trained to fight inside tunnels, generally by sliding into them and sending robots ahead to ascertain if there is any underground activity.
The IDF has three locations for underground combat training based on the Hezbollah bunkers and channels. Two years ago, the unit demonstrated the unit’s activities to the media at a facility that had been built following Operation Cast Lead. The soldiers were training in a space between two underground stories that contained a control room and several air holes. The training tunnels were classified as “kidnapping tunnels,” “battle tunnels” that run between various structures and “terror tunnels” through which weapons could be smuggled.
The scope of the Gaza tunnels was not fully known to the forces until they got there. “When you find a tunnel that’s 40 meters deep, what do you do?” the officer asked. “There were things we weren’t prepared for.”
Much of the forces’ activity was focused not just on locating the tunnels, but on locating areas where they branched off, at depths ranging from 15 meters to 40 meters underground. Uncovering an entire tunnel with all its branches often took several days. The army compared it to a tree with numerous roots (the entrances) and branches (the exit holes within Israeli territory). Tunnels were found near Nir Oz, Ein Hashlosha and Nirim.
During the fighting, a number of methods were employed against the tunnels. Sometimes the tunnel was bombed from the air. In an effort to locate the route of a tunnel in the Kerem Shalom area, the IAF dropped 30 JDAM bombs, in a method dubbed “kinetic drilling.” In a tunnel that was aimed at Netiv Ha’asara, however, it was decided to use mass quantities of water to cause the tunnel’s collapse. In other instances, a liquid explosive was used to blow up the entire route of the tunnel.
A senior Gaza Division officer stressed that all the methods used to locate tunnels, except for one, had been used in the months that proceeded the operation, and that these had helped locate several tunnels in Israeli territory since November 2012's Operation Pillar of Defense. “If not for the past half year [in which the IDF searched for tunnels more vigorously], then we really would have been unprepared,” claimed the officer.
Another commander added that the battalions in the field needed time to learn how to deal with those tunnels that crossed the border into Israel, “There are things that until you come up against them, you don’t understand them,” he said.