Israel's Barrier Will Not Totally Neutralize Gaza Tunnel Threat, Israeli Army Official Says

Hamas would like nothing more than to fight the Israeli army on its own tunnel-filled turf, says senior Israeli officer

Construction of the anti-tunnel barrier near Gaza.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The underground barrier that Israel is building along the Gaza border to thwart tunnels that infiltrate Israel will not fully remove the tunnel threat, a senior officer in the army’s ground forces told Haaretz.

“The barrier very significantly blocks the Hamas tunnels that penetrate into Israeli territory...but we can’t delude ourselves. It is understood today that there is no barrier that can’t be breached. We will continue to look for tunnels after the construction of the barrier in Gaza,” added the Israel Defense Forces officer, whose comments contradict the claims heard in the last few months from other senior IDF officials.

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“Today in Gaza there is an entire world of tunnels underground,” says the senior ground forces officer, noting that Hamas is constantly upgrading. “This is not a tunnel like we know, one with an entrance and exit. Today in Gaza there is a very large network of tunnels whose entrances are inside a house, factory or public building that leads to different places, connects to various tunnels. This is really a network of tunnels more like the subways in different countries around the world,” he added.

The IDF is well aware of the voices in the political echelons calling for a military operation in Gaza. But the IDF views the need to complete the anti-tunnel barrier as more important at this stage than any military operation inside Gaza.

Officers in the army’s Southern Command believe that the IDF’s entry into the Gaza Strip to act against Hamas, even if it is a limited operation, will present new challenges. An IDF maneuver inside Gaza is exactly what Hamas wants, according to IDF assessments. “Hamas understands that the barrier presents a problem and is investing fewer resources today in building tunnels into Israeli territory, but it is continuing to strengthen its network of tunnels inside Gaza. Hamas will do anything so that in the next confrontation the IDF will be forced to enter the Gaza Strip. It understands that this is where its advantage is and so they are continuing to build tunnels inside their territory,” said the officer.

“If the IDF is required to maneuver inside Gaza, then without a doubt the issue of the tunnels will be the biggest challenge facing the forces,” he said. “This does not require us to enter every tunnel but the assessment is that there will be cases in which it will be necessary to act inside the tunnels and despite the difficulty, we will know how to do that,” said the officer.

In recent years, the IDF has established special units, trained elite forces and purchased special equipment for underground battles– all to counter the threat of the tunnels in Gaza.

In the last few months, the IDF has seen a rise in the number of explosive devices planted near the border fence, with the latest incident taking place on Thursday morning when Israeli troops dismantled such a device. Since the cease-fire after the latest round of fighting, the number of incendiary kites and balloons sent from Gaza into Israel has dropped dramatically. But the IDF is concerned that despite this, Hamas has realized the potential of this weapon, which is cheap, effective and causes a stir in the media and insecurity among the civilians living near the Gaza border. The army expects this weapon to be used by Hamas again in the future, and in different ways if the quiet does not continue in the region.

According to the IDF’s assessment, Hamas has the ability to use drones and model aircraft as flying bombs. As opposed to the balloons and kites, the unmanned aerial vehicles are much more accurate and can find targets within Israeli towns or IDF troops near the border in a much more effective manner. “We are continuing to prepare and learn the matter of explosive devices attached to balloons and kites. For now, these are simple means but the assessment is that Hamas realizes their potential,” said the officer.

He also noted that Hamas has significantly improved its capabilities in the area of explosive devices and bombs in recent years, including the quality of the explosives and the operating mechanisms of these devices. Evidence of this can be seen in the two cases in which such devices went off next to IDF soldiers. In the first incident, a powerful explosive device was placed on the pole of a Palestinian flag and was detonated by remote control, a blast that injured four soldiers. The second incident occurred in May when an explosive device was planted inside an implement for cutting the border fence, and in this case, too, the army was surprised by the force of the blast.

“Over the past year, Hamas significantly increased the quality of the bombs and explosive devices that it operates against IDF forces along the [border] fence,” said the senior officer. “They have more sophisticated operating mechanisms than in the past. If during Operation Cast Lead [in 2008 and 2009] Hamas’ devices were not detonated in real time against IDF soldiers, then during Operation Protective Edge [in 2014] it was already a completely different story; the explosive devices that Hamas prepared against IDF forces blew up and were certainly better devices than what we knew before. Since then, we can say with certainty that they have improved even more.”