The Western Wall Tunnel, which then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boastfully opened in 1996, wasn’t the first tunnel in Israel’s history. In November 1953, Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett recorded an idea by the Finance Ministry’s then-director general, David Horowitz, soon to become the first governor of the Bank of Israel: offering to let Egypt dig a tunnel near Eilat to restore its land link with Jordan.
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When Israel captured the Negev in the 1948 War of Independence, this severed the Arab world’s territorial contiguity. The Eilat tunnel was supposed to restore this contiguity from below.
A Jewish-American jurist later informed Sharett that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had approved the plan — which was news to Sharett. But the jurist correctly predicted that “this tiny concession isn’t likely to impress Egypt.”
In recent months, Israel has been trying to cope with a different kind of tunnel: cross-border tunnels from the Gaza Strip. The tunnels can be compared to submarines, which go undetected until they strike. But no tunnel has yet won a battle. The main danger they pose is their ability to cause escalation — something neither Israel nor, apparently, Hamas wants.
Though tunnels are essentially tactical, they can have strategic implications, depending on the context. When Hamas fighters emerged form a tunnel near Kerem Shalom in June 2006 and killed two soldiers, that was no different from any other military operation. The difference stemmed from Israel’s reaction to the abduction of a third soldier, Gilad Shalit.
Similarly, in July 2014, it was Hamas’ use of a tunnel near Sufa that spurred Netanyahu to launch a ground operation in Gaza, which he had previously opposed.
The tunnels pose both an offensive problem (if the Israel Defense Forces entered Gaza, they would encounter a network of tunnels there) and a defensive one. The latter problem has two parts: locating the tunnel and destroying it.
What gave birth to the tunnels was the fence between Israel and Gaza; absent the fence, tunnels are unnecessary. Thus Palestinians don’t yet need to tunnel under the separation fence between Israel and the West Bank, because that fence still has plenty of holes, ranging in size from half a meter to dozens of kilometers. Why bother digging when you can just walk through?
The Gazan tunnels began near Rafah, on the Gaza-Egypt border, as a way to circumvent the border fence. They were used for both smuggling and anti-Israel attacks. Next came tunnels that emerged under IDF outposts and patrols. The information was all there, for anyone who bothered to look; even 13 years ago, the army knew how much it didn’t know.
In November 2003, the IDF Command and Staff College held a conference on “combat doctrine in a limited conflict.” The lectures were later printed as a book.
One lecture seemed marginal at the time, perhaps because the lecturer, Maj. Moshe Huli, who worked for the IDF’s operations directorate in Gaza, wasn’t a high-ranking officer. But had the IDF learned from Huli’s research then, Israeli soldiers, civilians and cabinet ministers would have been spared much woe.
Huli studied the use of tunnels in other wars, including the Sino-Japanese War, the wars in Vietnam, Chechnya and Afghanistan, and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (where a network of tunnels and bunkers allowed the revolt to survive “for a relatively long time”). His lecture dealt with how these tunnels were used; their dimensions; technological and intelligence responses; combat operations against the tunnels; and how each side exploited terrain features.
Huli chose this topic because of his familiarity with the war on tunnels in Gaza; in 2003, the IDF had devoted months to trying to destroy the tunnels around Rafah. The IDF, he said, began with “no experience” on this issue, and the experience amassed since was concentrated in certain units.
The above-ground fighting near Rafah was “only the tip of the iceberg,” he warned. “In areas near the border, efforts will continue to dig tunnels and exploit existing underground infrastructure to smuggle arms and bring in attackers. ... In built-up areas, the Palestinians will turn the underground space into their principle combat dimension against the IDF.”
Moreover, he warned, should Israel ever launch another operation in the West Bank like the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield, “The underground cities in Nablus and Hebron could be used for combat according to the Vietnam model.”
When Huli delivered his lecture — two and a half years before Shalit’s abduction and over a decade before the 2014 Gaza war — the IDF’s casualties from Palestinian tunnels amounted to one soldier killed and four wounded. Seven more soldiers were killed the following year.
But after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas seized control of the strip in 2007, the tunnels became a weapon that the enemy could deploy at will.
According to Col. (res.) Yossi Langotsky, one of the first to warn about the tunnel threat, 26 Israelis have been killed directly by tunnels. But the indirect costs, like the 2014 war and the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners freed in exchange for Shalit in 2011, have been much higher. One person freed in the Shalit deal, Yahya Sinwar, is now a senior figure in Hamas’ military wing.
Why did it take the IDF so long to recognize the problem, even when its own officers warned about it? The reason apparently stems from a personal and organizational culture of getting drunk on successes without simultaneously planning for the enemy’s next move, and of working serially rather than by parallel processing.
When the IDF won aerial and tank battles, Arab armies shifted to relying on missiles. The IDF saw the rain but didn’t recognize the flood. The same happened with Israel’s success in building fences. A single rocket or tunnel is mere lip service, but dozens form a critical mass. Yet Israel has tarried in preparing a supertanker against the tunnels.
In another two years, perhaps Israel will have perfected its response to the tunnels. But Hamas’ real asset doesn’t lie underground; it lies in Israel’s desire to preserve a responsible governmental actor in Gaza, someone it can talk to — because either chaos or a return to Israeli military rule would be worse.