Israel's Lack of Preparedness on Gaza Tunnels a 'Wake Up Call,' Watchdog Says

Citing 'urgency of the tunnel issue on all fronts,' the state comptroller submits draft report prior to completion of full report on 2014 war in Gaza.

 Members of Hamas' armed wing stand inside an underground tunnel in Gaza. August 18, 2014.
Reuters

The "apparent urgency of the tunnel issue on all fronts," prompted State Comptroller Joseph Shapira to submit a draft report on the threat posed by tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israel prior to completion of his full report on 2014's Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

The draft report on Israel’s preparedness for dealing with attack tunnels was submitted to the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of general staff for their comments on Thursday.

The comptroller’s investigation found deficiencies and gaps, some described as serious, in the country's preparedness.

The draft is part of a wider report dealing with various aspects of Operation Protective Edge, but Shapira submitted it early because of what he said was “the apparent urgency of the tunnel issue on all fronts.” The comptroller’s office regards the draft’s findings and conclusions as being a wake-up call for the political and defense echelons.

The comptroller’s expects to receive responses from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot by the second half of March. Copies of the draft report will apparently also go to the Shin Bet security service and senior Israel Defense Forces officers dealing with attack tunnels.

An unclassified version of the full report is expected to be published a few weeks after the responses are received. But the discussions of the draft report might take longer than the comptroller expects. Senior political and military officials have conducted lengthy struggles, at times in court, against the wording of past comptroller’s draft reports. It is quite possible that will happen this time as well.

The draft submitted on Thursday included a letter about the urgent need to deal with the tunnel threat, which has been back in the news over the past few weeks. At least nine Hamas operatives were killed in a single week when tunnels being dug in the Gaza Strip collapsed; at the same time, senior Hamas officials have boasted that the tunnels constitute a strategic future weapon against Israel. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has threatened harsh military reprisals in the event of a tunnel attack being attempted and there has been considerable IDF engineering activity along the Gaza border in an effort to locate tunnels that may have penetrated Israeli territory.

The comptroller’s examination of the broader aspects of the Gaza operation started in September 2014, less than a month after the fighting ended. However, in February 2014, months before the hostilities began, the comptroller’s office launched an investigation into the tunnel issue, which it had previously examined a decade earlier. The draft report on the tunnels deals with aspects of intelligence, the training and equipping of the anti-tunnel forces and how they were deployed.

The comptroller’s announcement Thursday said, “The draft report points to gaps and deficiencies, some of them serious, in the preparedness for the tunnel threat and the response to it. It refers to the years that preceded Operation Protective Edge and during it, including the security components in the [Gaza border] communities.”

The comptroller’s office said that it would shortly forward for comment another section of the report that focuses on the decision-making process in the security cabinet, its performance, and the interaction between the cabinet and the military echelons regarding the tunnels, as well as other issues. Political observers believe that the report’s conclusions will be the basis for a prolonged skirmish between the government and the opposition, even though the Yesh Atid party and Hatnuah, now part of the Zionist Union, were members of the previous Netanyahu government that conducted the war.

The report is expected to examine the question of why the government delayed formulating a plan and utilizing available technology against the tunnels for over a decade; whether the potential threat of attack tunnels from Gaza was properly understood after the withdrawal from the Strip in 2005; what steps have been taken to evaluate such a threat on other fronts, like along the northern border; and how much time the security cabinet and the full cabinet devoted to discussing the tunnel issue before the 2014 military operation (actually, the security cabinet conducted barely one serious discussion).

There is a precedent for the state comptroller asking that discussions of his conclusions be expedited due to real-time security developments. In March 2007, seven months after the end of the Second Lebanon War, the previous state comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, sought to publish his harsh draft report regarding the readiness of the home front during that war. He made this decision at a time when there were renewed tensions along the northern border and fears – unfounded, as it turned out - that another conflict might break out.

After a legal battle with those who were criticized in the report, the High Court of Justice blocked the draft’s release. Despite that, Lindenstrauss succeeded in sparking a public and media debate over the gaps in the country’s home front defenses against rockets and missiles in the era before the Iron Dome rocket interceptor system was developed.