Can a $830 Million Construction Project Stop Hamas on the Israel-Gaza Border?

Chinese and French companies active in Israel in civilian projects decline involvement due to political sensitivity ■ 'Underground barriers for preventing tunnels aren’t effective except for a short time,' top IDF official says

Work proceeding on the underground barrier on the Gaza border, with the Palestinian town of Bani Suheila in the background.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Anyone traveling down Route 34 toward the Negev town of Netivot can get a view of the biggest construction project you’ll never see.

On the right side of the highway, bulldozers are moving back and forth. Elsewhere are cranes, drills and giant trench cutters called hydromills. A little further up the road is a concrete factory, but try driving down the dirt road to the facility and soldiers will block your way.

What the motorists is witnessing – but mostly not seeing – is the construction of a massive barrier to prevent Hamas fighters from infiltrating Israel from the Gaza Strip.

The installation, which will eventually be 65 kilometers (40 miles) long, will have a 6-meter-high wall equipped with sensors. But the main part of the barrier will be under the surface, reaching deep underground to thwart Hamas tunnels that presented such a threat during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.

The barrier is a 3 billion shekel ($830 million) project, making it one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Israel today. The barrier is making huge demands on the Israeli construction industry and presenting formidable engineering challenges – so formidable that some sources told TheMarker the bill for the barrier is going to be more than the army forecast.

Construction, which is just getting underway, will require massive amounts of cement. Sources said local producers should be able to meet demand, but they can’t produce enough aggregate (crushed stone) and Israel may end up importing it.

Construction will require 10 to 14 hydromills – i.e., all of the machines currently present in Israel. The machinery is a relatively new technology and was only brought into Israel in the last two years. The barrier is already hogging Israel’s supply of concrete mixers.

“Every concrete mixer operator I approached for work we needed doing told me, ‘Forget me – we’re in a general mobilization for the barriers,’” said one contractor working in the northern Negev.

Israeli construction companies working on the underground barrier on the Gaza border, August 14, 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The first tender for the barrier, for a 400-meter pilot stretch, was awarded to the Israeli builder Solel Boneh. Last week, four other tenders for additional lengths went out, valued at as much as 800 million shekels.

Workers from Spain and Moldova, as well as African asylum seekers and Israelis, are working on the barrier in round-the-clock shifts. Israel would have liked overseas construction companies to bid on the work as a way of lowering costs, but the political sensitivity of the barrier has so far deterred them – including Chinese and French companies active in Israel in civilian projects like the Tel Aviv Light Rail.

The underground part of the barrier is the one that could end up busting the budget, say experts. Depending on local conditions and other factors, the barrier could in many places reach several tens of meters underground, presenting unprecedented engineering challenges and risking ballooning costs along the way.

As it is, the Defense Ministry’s initial estimates were that the barrier would cost a little more than 2 billion shekels. However, when the first bidding for contracts was put out at the end of 2016, the eight companies that submitted offers all estimated the costs at considerably higher than officials had estimated. The ministry revised the figure.

The Defense Ministry says it wasn’t taken aback by the high bids. “At the conclusion of the bidding, the ministry’s engineering and construction division, and the director of borders and the seam line, drew conclusions, as is the norm in similar bids, after which it was decided to adjust the requirements and publish a repeat bidding process, open to all those who had bid the first time,” explained a spokesman.

Yaki Baranes, head of strategic consulting in Israel for the U.S.-based accounting and consulting firm Baker Tilly, isn’t surprised. His firm conducted an analysis of the electronic barrier the United States erected on the Mexican border from 1998 and deemed it a failure, despite the $1.5 billion spent on it.

Despite all the high-tech electronics the U.S. invested, the most effective means of monitoring borders remains human patrolling, Baranes said. In any case, Israel has a much more serious challenge trying to stop Hamas tunnels than the United States has deterring migrants.

“The creation of an underground barrier is a uniquely Israeli need. Only Israel and South Korea are considering the possible course of excavations, and the sums of money that can be raised in the project can grow,” Baranes added.

When U.S. President Donald Trump announced the construction of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, the cost of construction was estimated at $10 billion; now it is $30 billion to $40 billion.

“In the case of the project in Israel, my view is positive,” said Baranes. “I don’t think they missed anything in terms of possible solutions. I believe they thought through the issues and did the best possible planning,” he added.

In the past, though, officials in the Israel Defense Forces and some outside it criticized the idea of the barrier. Among them is Col. (res.) Yossi Langotsky, who previously served as adviser to the chief of staff on the tunnel threat and was one of the geologists behind the discovery of the Tamar natural gas field.

“Underground barriers for preventing tunnels aren’t effective except for a short time. That was the opinion I gave the defense establishment already back in 2005,” he said last week.

“Even if breaking through the new barrier into Israel isn’t easy, a smart and determined enemy like Hamas will find a way to do it,” Langotsky said.

Instead, he told the army back then that, in coordination with the Israel Geological Society, it should erect underground seismographic detectors along the Gaza border, which would have cost just 100 million shekels.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that had the proposal been implemented, we would have succeeded in locating the tunnels trying to penetrate our territory, and then Operation Protective Edge would have been very different,” he said.