Haaretz Probe: IDF Lacked Training, Equipment to Tackle Tunnels in Gaza War

Despite knowing about Hamas' attack tunnels, the Israel cabinet was still caught unawares by events this summer - one of Haaretz's findings in a major investigation into Operation Protective Edge.

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An Israeli army officer gives journalists a tour, Friday, July 25, 2014, of a tunnel allegedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks, at the Israel-Gaza Border.
An Israeli army officer gives journalists a tour, Friday, July 25, 2014, of a tunnel allegedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks, at the Israel-Gaza Border. Credit: AP

The Israel Defense Forces’ ability to destroy Hamas’ attack tunnels during Operation Protective Edge this summer in Gaza was impeded by large gaps in training and a lack of appropriate equipment, a Haaretz investigation shows.

During the fighting, the IDF occupied an area about two kilometers wide on the outskirts of the built-up Palestinian area, along the length of the Gaza Strip from the north to the south, in order to destroy 32 attack tunnels located by the various branches of Israeli intelligence.

However, these gaps, along with sketchy operational plans that were updated and completed only at the last minute, led to the prolongation of the ground operation well beyond the security establishment’s original estimate. The delays also stemmed from the fact that the security cabinet vacillated at length over whether to approve the action against the tunnels, due to reservations on the part of the security establishment itself.

Paradoxically, a preliminary aerial attack on the tunnel shafts in Gaza made the work of the forces on the ground more difficult from the moment they entered the Strip, because it interfered with identifying the path of the tunnels they were supposed to blow up. The ground forces lacked the appropriate means to blow up the tunnels, once they were located.

Various aspects of the tunnels affair were published here during the war and immediately after it ended. The current investigation is based on conversations with some 20 key players involved in the operation and its authorization – ministers who are members of the security cabinet, senior IDF officers, intelligence personnel – as well as officers and soldiers who participated in the tunnels’ destruction. When the extent of the threat posed by the tunnels became clear, the public discourse focused on the continuing difficulty in finding a technological solution for detecting them and what the intelligence organizations had known in advance.

The current picture reveals gaps in a number of areas. The way the tunnels were dealt with, and the preparedness to handle them, must be thoroughly investigated by the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

The strategic project

The Palestinians in Gaza first used an attack tunnel for the operation in which Gilad Shalit was captured, in June 2006. Between the end of Operation Cast Lead (January 2009) and Operation Pillar of Defense (November 2012), Hamas stepped up the excavation of its system of tunnels and underground bunkers throughout the Gaza Strip. In the first phase, these focused on defensive aims. A few days before Operation Pillar of Defense, a booby-trapped tunnel was blown up adjacent to an IDF detachment that was engaged in searches to the west of the boundary fence, in the center of the Gaza Strip. An armored vehicle was blown into the air by the force of the explosion, but the soldiers who had been riding in it had exited the vehicle a few minutes earlier and therefore there were no casualties.

At that time, the Hamas operational plan was shifting into a higher gear. Mohammed Deif had returned to the leadership of the organization’s military wing after Israel assassinated Ahmed Jabari at the start of the operation. Along with the strengthening of Hamas’ rocketry capabilities, Deif decided to invest special effort in advancing the digging of the attack tunnels, which he saw as a strategic project. By the summer of 2014, more than 30 attack tunnels had been dug, at a total cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet security service together succeeded in finding 32 tunnels, but they disagreed as to the question of how many tunnels had already been excavated under Israeli territory (the estimates ranged from three to half the total number).

In the year and a half prior to Operation Protective Edge, the IDF exposed three tunnel openings on the eastern side of the fence, inside Israeli territory. In November 2013, when a military force crossed through the fence into Palestinian territory in order to destroy one of the tunnels, an explosive charge laid beneath the tunnel was detonated, wounding six IDF officers and soldiers.

An engineering officer engaged in locating the tunnels told Haaretz that the exposure of the three tunnels “gave us the right proportions. In the past we had known of narrow smuggling and explosives tunnels, inside of which you had to walk bent over. But the tunnels we uncovered last year made clear to us that we were facing something entirely different: These were wide tunnels, with internal communication systems that had been dug deep beneath the surface and the sides were reinforced with layers of concrete. You could walk upright in them without any difficulty. That’s the stage at which we understood it was no longer a matter of a localized tactical threat to IDF forces along the fence, but rather part of something bigger and more dangerous. Suddenly, you’re envisioning an attack planned deep into our territory – 300 meters or more. You go into a tunnel and realize it hadn’t been planned for capturing a soldier from near the fence, but rather was able, in a short time, to bring a sizable enemy force onto our home front and attack there.”

And so the realization dawned: Deif was planning a larger move at some point. The attack tunnels were capable of serving Hamas in a coordinated attack on a number of targets as the opening blow in a round of fighting against the IDF. Or, alternatively, for a surprise attack on the rear of the IDF forces after they were already attacking inside the Gaza Strip. At that time, intelligence and operational attention focused on understanding the tunnels project.

From the beginning of 2013 on, Military Intelligence had produced a monthly report to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and the heads of the branches of the military. The report contained a review of all known attack tunnels and the known route of each of them. At that time, the GOC Southern Command was allocated many resources – materiel, intelligence-gathering systems and manpower – for the purpose of dealing with the tunnels.

“We were under pressure to take care of this. They told us: ‘Do what you can, just get through this business safely,’” relates an officer who served in the Gaza Division. “It became the division’s top priority.”

But the activity against the tunnels did not extend much beyond Southern Command or Intelligence. The series of technological solutions for locating tunnels that was examined by the R&D division (known by its Hebrew acronym Mafat) at the Defense Ministry did not produce any answer that would enable systematic identification of the tunnel shafts on the Israeli side.

At the same time, the policy dictated by the top echelons of government and the General Staff ruled out preventive attacks by the IDF on the Palestinian side of the border. Israel did not carry out aerial bombardments of the tunnel routes it had identified in Gaza; nor did it send ground forces in to deal with them, out of the apparently well-founded concern that a preliminary move on its part would ignite a military confrontation with Hamas.

Preparation and training problems

What was understood within GOC Southern Command, the Gaza Division and Military Intelligence was not sufficiently translated into action in the rest of the IDF. At GOC Central Command, they had begun talking about subterranean warfare, in bunkers and tunnels, back after the Second Lebanon War of 2006. But on the ground, the army contented itself with constructing relatively short tunnels at three command training bases – those of the North, Central and Southern commands. A visit to one of them about a year ago did not create a favorable impression: It looked like an ordinary fighting trench, with a roof over it, not a complex combat area.

Most of the regular infantry battalions and special units experienced the tunnels only via brief training maneuvers that were almost devoid of real content. “We shimmied down a rope into the opening of an area that resembled a nature reserve, a Hezbollah outpost in an open area. That was the whole extent of our acquaintance with subterranean combat,” relate soldiers from an infantry brigade scouting unit.

And the preparations in the reserve units – even the combat engineering battalions – were superficial or nonexistent. Reserve officers and soldiers from engineering battalions said the training they underwent once a year, or every two years, was suited to the force’s older roles, like clearing paths through minefields. There was no talk of tunnels, not even in a few reserve battalions that were assigned in advance to possible action in an operation to occupy the Gaza Strip. When the soldiers told their commanders the contents of the training weren’t relevant to the operational challenges they might face, they were told there was awareness of the problem.

Before the war broke out, the Givati Brigade – which by virtue of its assignment to the Southern Command a priori played an important part in preparations for fighting in Gaza – engaged in developing a doctrine for subterranean combat, upon orders of the GOC. The brigade was scheduled to lead a command-wide training course for other units in the middle of July. This was cancelled because the war had already broken out.

Cabinet out of the picture

The discovery of the attack tunnels last year gave rise to many photo opportunities. The defense minister and IDF brass toured them, and had photos taken at their openings. GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman was interviewed on Channel 2 beside a tunnel, and described the tunnels as the main threat which the command would have to confront.

There was one forum where no serious discussion of the tunnel threat took place during that period: the security (or inner) cabinet. Most of its members, according to their own testimony, were not aware of the extent of the problem. Half its members had only taken up their positions after the January 2013 election. They spent most of their time discussing the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program and developments on the borders with Syria and Lebanon. The Gazan tunnel problem appeared, at best, only as “item number 17 in the assessment of the situation,” cabinet member Naftali Bennett said about a month ago.

The monthly intelligence report received by Netanyahu and Ya’alon was unknown to the other members of the cabinet. The prime minister did appoint the national security adviser at the time, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, to head up a team that would examine the problem of the tunnels. But Amidror himself admitted at the beginning of this month, in an Army Radio interview, that there is a difference between knowing about the existence of the tunnels and internalizing the full gravity of the threat.

We didn’t have enough information, said Amidror, in retrospect, and compared the threat to the surprise caused by the firing of the Egyptian AT3 “Sagger” missiles on IDF tanks in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Even at Military Intelligence, they now admit, in retrospect there was a greater need to make the tunnels question much more pointed in the cabinet.

In the meantime, from April 2014 on, it gradually became clear that Hamas was preparing for the possibility of carrying out a large terror attack by means of a tunnel in the Kibbutz Kerem Shalom area, at the southern edge of the Gaza Strip. The Shin Bet issued a warning to the effect that Hamas was liable to try to capture soldiers and civilians by means of the tunnel, with the aim of obtaining an end to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade on Gaza. The General Command, Southern Command and the intelligence branches made feverish efforts to locate the tunnel. The Gaza Division devoted more than 30 earthmoving vehicles – an extraordinarily large number – to the attempt to uncover the exit shaft in Israeli territory and put up barriers aimed at delaying access from the field near the fence to Kibbutz Kerem Shalom. When the searches on the Israeli side came to nothing, the army was given permission to attack. The Israel Air Force dropped about 30 JDAM precision bombs on the Palestinian side of the border, with the aim of cutting off the tunnel’s route. Nevertheless, on July 6 seven fighters from Hamas’ special Nukba force entered the tunnel and were killed by a landslide caused by one of the bombardments.

The incident at Kerem Shalom was the final trigger for the outbreak of war. Hamas reacted to the killing of its men with heavy rocket barrages, at increasingly distant targets. On the night between July 7 and July 8, the Israeli cabinet decided on Operation Protective Edge – and that is how the fighting that lasted for 50 days began.

The escalation in Gaza had already begun in parallel with the end of Operation Brother’s Keeper in the West Bank. On June 30, the IDF found the bodies of the three teens – Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah – who had been abducted two and a half weeks earlier in the Etzion Bloc. According to statements by Bennett to the media about a month ago, he said he was the first to bring up the urgent need to deal with the threat posed by the tunnels, basing his view on an extensive network of relations with IDF brigade commanders. From them he learned about the gravity of the threat and also heard about the concentrated effort to locate the tunnel at Kerem Shalom.

Bennett brought up his demand for the first time on June 30, in a one-on-one meeting with Netanyahu, and immediately thereafter at the cabinet meeting. An attack action against the tunnels, he said, would be a suitable response to the murder of the three Israeli teens and at the same time would remove a real threat to the Gaza border communities. In the following days, the cabinet convened for daily meetings, at which it was brought up-to-date on tensions in the West Bank and among Israeli Arabs, and on the continued searches for the tunnel at Kerem Shalom.

According to his version of events, Bennett repeatedly brought up the demand to deal comprehensively with the tunnels. Ya’alon – and with him top IDF and Shin Bet staffers – expressed reservations. At first, they said Hamas’ preparations at Kerem Shalom were for a “shelf attack” and there was no certainty as to when it would be implemented. Then they believed it would suffice to pursue a policy of containment, threats and warnings – like the air force dropping flares over the Gaza Strip – in order to send a message to Hamas that the IDF had caught onto its plans. Later, they agreed to stronger measures by means of the JDAM-equipped bombs. But the general approach was to impede, not thwart: It was enough, according to the heads of the defense establishment, to undertake defensive measures aimed at preventing a terror attack. There was no justification for an extensive operation.

At every discussion Bennett kept hammering away “like a little Cato [the Roman orator],” but found himself in the minority. His partner on the hawkish side of the cabinet, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, was all for occupying the Gaza Strip, or part of it, and was less interested in the problem of the tunnels. The rest of the cabinet ministers were attentive to the army’s concerns about the quicksands of Gaza: Once you go in, there is no knowing whether you will be able to get out of there safely.

At that time the front against a ground operation was unified and broad. Although now and then the prime minister posed questions to the army, he did not stray from the majority opinion in the cabinet. The received wisdom held that Hamas did not intend to use the attack tunnels, even though at that time the organization was already sending its naval commandoes into the attack that failed at Zikkim Beach near Ashkelon.

The argument continued even after the killing of Hamas militants at Kerem Shalom and the outbreak of the war. The goals defined by the IDF were a harsh blow to Hamas and the restoration of quiet in the south. Between July 8 and July 15, Israel stuck to attacks from a distance, in response to the rocket fire from the Strip onto the south and center of the country – heavy bombardments from the air, backed up by artillery fire at Hamas command positions, weapon-production systems and its rocket-launching sites. The IDF concentrated infantry and armored forces on the Gaza border, but not a single soldier crossed into Palestinian territory.

Gradually, the full gravity of the threat posed by the tunnels was revealed to the cabinet: Attack tunnels numbering in the double-digits all along the front, close to IDF outposts and kibbutzim. And still, members of the forum insisted that they identified a lack of desire, even foot-dragging, on the part of the security establishment in dealing with the threat. Some of the cabinet ministers complained that officers were fogging their statements intentionally, so as not to present the full picture to the cabinet. The attack action against the tunnels boiled down to aerial bombardment of some shafts on the Palestinian side, a measure that would cause the IDF no end of problems later.

Ya’alon’s version is completely different. In an interview published in Haaretz on Wednesday, the defense minister said “the threat posed by the tunnels, and the IDF’s defensive preparedness, were presented to the cabinet several times, and in greater detail in the week that preceded the ground operation. When we realized that Hamas was looking for an achievement by means of a tunnel attack on Kerem Shalom, we thwarted it.”

Bennett’s information-gathering from the brigade commanders really annoyed him. “Is it legitimate for a politician to make direct contact with officers and on that basis manipulate against the chief of staff in the cabinet, defining him as a lazy horse in contrast to the officers in the field, the galloping horses? This is anarchy, not democracy. Bennett didn’t invent the action against the tunnels and he wasn’t needed to push it forward. Was it he who prepared the forces? Did he invent the drill? Who is responsible for the army’s fighting spirit – the chief of staff or some political party or other?

Bennett’s bureau, in response, has accused Ya’alon of being “the father of a concept that collapsed – to the effect that Hamas was deterred and therefore would not use the tunnels.” The bureau stated that Bennett will demand an examination of the cabinet meetings’ minutes in order to prove him right in this argument.

On July 15, the cabinet, with “nay” votes from Bennett and Lieberman, decided to approve the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire with Hamas. The Egyptian effort collapsed after Hamas rejected the proposal, the wording of which had been coordinated in advance between Cairo and Jerusalem. But even if Netanyahu had assessed in advance that Hamas was expected to refuse, it is hard to ignore the significance that accompanied the decision: The Israeli leadership, all of which was by that time fully aware of the extent of the attack tunnel project, was prepared to stop the fighting at the end of seven days of combat, without doing the slightest bit of damage to the main Hamas card.

Ya’alon answers these arguments: “We had an answer to the threat – in air attacks and the reinforcement of the defense, while continuing the searches for the shafts in our territory. We accepted the Egyptian initiative also in order to create international legitimacy for our next moves. As long as we were trying to reach a cease-fire at that stage, there wasn’t any place yet for a ground operation, which was justified but ultimately cost the lives of 66 soldiers.”

Unsuitable plans

The key turning-point in the battle was two days later, on the morning of July 17. Thirteen armed terrorists, from Hamas’ tunnel force, emerged through an attack shaft in Israeli territory, a few hundred meters from Kibbutz Sufa. An IDF drone filmed their emergence and the cell was attacked from the air. The broadcast of the image, distributed by the IDF spokesman, profoundly shocked the public and the political leadership. The regional council heads in the border communities, who had previously stressed mainly the threat posed by mortar and rocket fire, changed their tune. Eshkol Regional Council head Haim Yellin, usually a moderate man, demanded in television interviews that the government order the IDF to act immediately to destroy all the tunnels.

In a series of consultations held by Netanyahu and Ya’alon with the defense establishment and members of the cabinet in the next few hours, it was decided to act. Late in the evening, the army was instructed to enter the Gaza Strip and deal with the tunnels. Yellin was not the only one agitated by the images of terrorists emerging from the tunnel. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, too, admitted later in private conversations, “The incident at Sufa made the penny drop for us.”

But the operational plans at the IDF’s disposal for a ground operation were far from complete. The original Southern Command plans hardly touched upon the tunnels. They included a number of “levels” of taking increasing control of areas in the Gaza Strip. They were based on the idea of striking at Hamas whilst taking assets away from it, deterring it and hitting its rocket-launching sites with the aim of partially suppressing the firing on the Israeli home front.

One of the possibilities also dealt with destroying a few attack tunnels that had been identified relatively close to Israeli communities, but not as a top priority. The operation in the Gaza Strip now focused only on the tunnels. No fewer than three divisions were dispatched to it, under which, in a relatively small zone, 10 brigade-level battle teams operated – among them infantry, armored and engineering battalions. The new plans were formulated very quickly and entailed big changes.

Division 162 was put in charge of the operation in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. Division commander Brig. Gen. Nadav Padan has told Haaretz that the plans underwent “gradual adjustment” for dealing with the tunnels, between the moment his division began preparing for a possible operation in Gaza at the beginning of July until they went in. On about July 10, he testified, “We are going into this world of the tunnels.”

In a way that echoes the words of Amidror and Gantz, Padan said he understood the full gravity of the problem only when his forces found tunnels inside the Gaza Strip. “We were familiar with the tunnels mainly in theory. We didn’t have operational experience. There is something in the friction, in the experience, that accelerates understanding. We internalized it all only while dealing with the tunnels.”

The forces did not go deep into Palestinian territory, but rather entered the Gaza Strip to a maximum width of about two kilometers west of the fence. From there they started to operate in the reverse direction to locate and destroy the tunnels. The Golani Brigade operation in the Shujaiyeh neighborhood, in eastern Gaza City, was postponed for two days until Saturday evening, July 19. Hamas’ position in the neighborhood was considered to be stronger. This was also the most densely built-up area the IDF encountered.

The Golani operation lacked essential elements of surprise and trickery. The Golani soldiers, who attacked frontally, encountered extraordinarily stiff resistance from Hamas. During the first 24 hours, 16 brigade soldiers were killed; the brigade commander and two battalion commanders were wounded (another battalion commander was seriously wounded later that week). It took heroic fighting by the Golani soldiers, accompanied by massive aerial attacks and heavy artillery bombardments, to break Hamas’ resistance.

On this front, as on most of the other fronts, the ground operation focused on the tunnels alone. The forces did not receive orders to maneuver more deeply in the territory and hit Hamas’ systems. In the few places where they did so – the Nahal Brigade and Armored Brigade 401 in Beit Hanun; Givati in Rafah after the capture of 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin – the commanders were surprised by the relative ease with which they penetrated the enemy’s systems.

Destruction of the tunnels

And so, without a detailed and sufficiently drilled combat doctrine, and with minimal practical knowledge, a patchwork operational plan and insufficient means for destroying the tunnels, the forces entered the Gaza Strip. The gaps were covered – almost as usual in the IDF – by the ability to improvise, battle spirit and a great determination on the part of the commanders and the soldiers in particular. But the difficulties stretched the operation beyond the amount of time that had initially been assumed.

On July 20, near the start of the ground operation, Ya’alon said that destroying the tunnels would take another two or three days. In actuality, another two and a half weeks elapsed. The army’s estimates to the cabinet also proved overly optimistic. Completion of the operation was also delayed by the failure of the cease-fire on Friday August 1 (in the context of Goldin’s capture). The decision to move the units more deeply into the built-up area did spare more casualties, but to some extent it “invited” attacks by Hamas cells on the forces engaged in locating the tunnels.

While the soldiers were energetically searching for tunnels to the west of the fence, on the Palestinian side Deif managed to dispatch three more cells through tunnels to its eastern side, inside Israeli territory. The cells killed 11 IDF soldiers – from the headquarters of the Brigade 188 commander; the forward command headquarters of a battalion commander at the officers’ training school; and the guard force of the squad commanders’ school who were surprised at the tower near Nahal Oz. The commanders watched with frustration the blows Hamas rained down on their rear flank.

During the weeks before the operation, Military Intelligence achieved something of a breakthrough in identifying the tunnel shafts on the Palestinian side of the border. However, when the escalation began on July 8, the air force systematically bombed the shafts for fear that Hamas would quickly use the tunnels. Apparently, the attacks from the air did not succeed in making the tunnels entirely unusable. “We gained time in interfering with Hamas’ attacks – but then we lost it when we went in, because the bombardments made it hard for us to identify the route of the tunnel on the Palestinian side and finish blowing it up,” admits Gantz.

One officer also talks about an intelligence gap: “Intelligence did excellent work,” he says, but adds that this doesn’t mean there were precise coordinates for the routes of every tunnel. The soldiers who operated in the Gaza Strip were surprised by the number of shafts and subbranches of each tunnel, which necessitated lengthy searches. The bottleneck, say division and brigade commanders who participated in the ground operation, was felt in two places: The speed of locating the complete routes of the tunnels; and the speed of blowing them up. “We had only moderate readiness for dealing with the tunnels,” says Brig. Gen. Padan. Soldiers in the infantry brigades, in various zones, describe energetic activity to locate the entry shafts and then a long wait, sometimes a week or more, until the completion of the engineering people’s mission.

The army did not have enough earthmoving equipment to deal simultaneously with such a large number of tunnels. “Each brigade team started with two tunnels and then went to deal with the third tunnel in its zone,” says a senior engineering officer. “Because of the equipment constraints, we worked in tune instead of in parallel. There was a significant gap in the means. There were not sufficient means for the number of teams and an operation of this volume. We do not have the capacity to deal with 32 tunnels.”

During the fighting, the IDF had to resort to emergency conscription of bulldozers and huge drills from the private sector. Somewhat ironically, a large proportion of the civilian equipment belongs to contracting companies owned by Israeli Arabs. The chief of staff confirms: “We do not have 32 excavators and 32 drillers in the IDF. This is part of the bottleneck that developed.”

The greatest difficulty concerned the blowing up of the tunnels themselves. The methods and means at the IDF’s disposal were suited to the days when tunnels were shorter and closer to the surface. During the past decade, the IDF purchased a system called Emulsion for destroying tunnels. The system, which is operated on top of a truck, enables the injection of a large quantity of explosive material by means of a sleeve into the earth and does not require soldiers to enter the tunnel.

The problem? The IDF had only two such systems when the fighting began. As a substitute, the army used nearly half a million land mines and other explosives. The land mines were strung together in chains that were lowered into the shafts. In most cases, the destruction of the tunnel was therefore only partial, even though in the Engineering Corps they stress that the destruction of most of a tunnel is required for the officer to “sign” on it as destroyed and unusable.

Reservists have related that the first time they ever experienced blowing up a tunnel was in the field, when they were charged with the task. “We learned while in motion. We received brief instruction from the Yahalom unit (the elite engineering corps unit for special operations), and we blew up the tunnels with the help of chains of land mines,” they said. “Our only experience had been accumulated blowing up buildings in Lebanon and Gaza, and that didn’t resemble blowing up a tunnel.”

A reserve officer in the corps says, “No one knew, and no one had planned in advance, how to deal with the tunnels. Nearly everything was done in a spontaneous way in the field.”

A reserve battalion that had already blown up a tunnel in combat was recalled to Israel, for a training course given by Yahalom people at the Tse’elim base. “At the end of the briefing, the company commander took us aside and said: ‘So that’s how you really do it,’” relates one fighter.

A few of the reservists said they went into the Gaza Strip at a low level of operational preparedness, without having had the opportunity to practice on a shooting range with their weapons, and that some of their company’s matériel was damaged or missing. Despite the difficulties, the reservists are proud of their operation in Gaza. Some of them showed us videos they shot documenting the explosion of the tunnels. Chief Engineering Officer Brig. Gen. Yossi Morali says, “The operation in Gaza was the silverheads’ finest moment (Engineering Brigade soldiers wear gray berets). There was crazy determination on the part of the commanders and the soldiers to carry out the task. We paid a high price: Six soldiers from the corps were killed.”

The feverish effort to deal with the tunnels was so comprehensive that many of the special operations units were also recruited for it. The riflemen on the ground were impressed by the contribution of the elite Sayeret Matkal commandos, “who dug into the ground with their bare hands, like everyone.” During the course of the war, it emerged that the means and methods at the disposal of the special ops unit are especially suited to locating and blowing up tunnels. The unit contributed to the IDF’s main effort in the Gaza Strip, but putting it to work on the tunnels apparently came at the expense of its unique operations. The army did not deploy special forces much inside Gaza during the war.

Excavators and drillers

Chief Engineering Officer Morali confirms that after the war, Yahalom has expanded – a conclusion the army had already reached, according to him, even before the latest conflict with Hamas. Officers in the corps say it will be necessary to consider more significant measures, like establishing a new battalion that will specialize in subterranean warfare. The land branch is currently preparing to deepen the process of training for tunnel combat, and to acquire a great deal of new equipment.

“Did we have enough engineering forces, enough drillers?” asks Chief of Staff Gantz. “Those are good questions, but I wouldn’t say we met anything in Gaza that hit us with a shock. We will always have bottlenecks. Also if in the future we go into fighting in Lebanon.”

Other officers put it this way: Hamas had one surprising bullet in its magazine – the attack tunnels. This bullet has been removed in the wake of Protective Edge, though at a heavy price paid by Israel, but hence the positive sense that the war ended with an achievement.

Among the soldiers who, having participated in the fighting, do not belittle that accomplishment, there are those who see things differently. "During the war, I was shocked," said one soldier from Yahalom. "There were so many instances of pure luck. There was a kind of Israeli dereliction pervading, one that maybe was born out of a bit of smugness and inattention, and was compounded by a shortage of funds and arms. What will happen against Hezbollah, in Lebanon? The pattern may repeat itself."

One of the men we interviewed for this article sent us a quote taken from the book "Why Don't We Learn from History?" by the British historian Basil Henry Liddell Hart. In it, Liddell Hart recounts an episode from the First World War in which French soldiers were punished by their commanders after they complained to French ministers about neglect suffered by the fortifications at Verdun. The men were reprimanded for bypassing military hierarchy and hurting morale. Every government office, wrote Liddell Hart, would do well to frame and hang that reprimand on the walls of its offices.

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