Israel's Obstacles to Building an Underground Gaza Barrier

Israel has proven ability to erect barriers and fences. What’s missing at the moment is synchronization of the plan, the objective, the timetable and the resources.

An Israeli army post in front of a Hamas post on the Gaza border, June 2016.
Eliahu Hershkovitz

Exactly six months ago, on February 9, army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot gave a speech at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. In the weeks preceding the speech, Haaretz reported a number of times on the work Hamas was doing to rebuild its network of military tunnels near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.

Israelis from communities in the border area, some of them several kilometers from the fence, were interviewed on television saying they heard unusual noises at night and feared that Hamas was digging underneath their homes. Eisenkot sought to reassure them. The army is putting enormous effort into locating the so-called offensive tunnels, he said. Around 100 heavy equipment vehicles were deployed along the border fence to search for the tunnels and address the threat, which is one of the army’s top priorities, Eisenkot said.

Since that speech, the Israel Defense Forces has announced the discovery of two offensive tunnels that were dug under the border and into Israeli territory. Although the continued use of heavy equipment to search for the tunnels has put the Palestinians on alert, Hamas has refrained from any direct clash with Israel. In mid-April, after one of the tunnels was uncovered, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel “has achieved a global breakthrough in the ability to locate tunnels,” saying “the government is investing considerable capital in countering the tunnel threat.” He added: “This is an ongoing effort that will not end overnight. We are investing in this and will continue to do so with determination.”

Although nearly four months have passed since then, and although Israel frequently describes the tunnels as its top concern on the Gaza border, two things have yet to happen: Funds have not been allocated for defensive arrangements along the border, and the project is not yet fully operational. The delays have sparked in-fighting in the defense establishment. Some individuals involved in the project say the construction of a planned barrier system must begin and that it could be completed in a little over a year.

The full details of the barrier system have not been made public, and the defense establishment is doing its best to keep them under wraps. It core is a wall along the border that extends deep underground in order to prevent the digging of tunnels. Sensors will be installed and a portion of the border fence will be rebuilt. (It was most recently renovated in 2005-06, after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.) Observation and monitoring systems will also be enhanced.

In January, senior defense officials told Haaretz that the project is estimated to cost 2.7 billion shekels ($970 million). In talks in November between Finance Ministry Director General Shai Babad and his counterpart in the Defense Ministry at the time, Dan Harel, over the five-year defense budget, it was agreed that most of the funds for the system would come from external sources, not the defense budget.

The funding issues remain unresolved. Some 600 million shekels, split roughly in half between the army and the Defense Ministry, have been earmarked for the project. The cabinet is expected to approve the draft of the biennial national budget next week before sending it to the Knesset. For all the declarations by Eisenkot, Netanyauhu and other top officials about the critical importance of the barrier, it is still not known whether the treasury and the Defense Ministry are in sync on the project.

The Israeli military is not expecting a military confrontation in the Gaza Strip before the end of the summer. The assumption is that Hamas wants to avoid starting another war, in part because the Strip is still recovering from Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

The scenario that Israel fears most is militants crossing into Israel using a tunnel and trying to kill or abduct civilians or military personnel in a community or army position near the border. That being the case, completion of the defensive project should be the top priority. Various estimates say that, if worked on at top speed, the project could be completed in a year to a year and a half. Experts say it could offer the first really effective defense against the tunnels.

Completing the barrier would make it much harder for Hamas to make use of its prime offensive asset, comparable in a way to the success of Iron Dome in reducing the damage from Palestinian rockets. For now, the IDF and the defense establishment are mostly busy searching for needles in haystacks — trying to locate and destroy tunnels with a method that does not ensure that the tunnels will be permanently put out of commission.

Israel has proven ability to erect barriers and fences, as the construction of the Egypt border fence shows. In principle, the intention to allocate the necessary budget for the project is there. What’s missing at the moment is synchronization of the plan, the objective, the timetable and the resources — in other words, a political decision that will then be backed up by determined action from the Defense Ministry to complete the project. Until then, in the absence of a clear decision to get moving on the project on a full scale, the underground breach in the defenses around Gaza will continue to beckon to the Hamas military wing.