Millions Down the Tunnel: How Israel Botched the Battle Against Hamas

The writing about the Hamas's network of tunnels was on the wall but nobody wanted to read it, says a geologist who set up Military Intelligence’s special-operations division.

IDF Spokesman's Office

In 2000, the Defense Ministry published a tender to find a technological answer to the tunnels that Hamas uses to infiltrate into Israel from Gaza.

Three parties contended: the government-controlled Geophysical Institute, a private company that defense electronics firm Elbit Systems wound up buying, and an unknown company named Hadas, which won.

After eight years, nothing came of the contract, but in the meantime millions of shekels had spiraled down the drain. Three years ago the challenge was handed to a consortium of private and public entities, but this group was too late to help the soldiers killed in recent days by Hamas militants popping up from tunnels.

Hadas’ former manager, Gil Pogozelich, told TheMarker his company’s work with the Defense Ministry hadn’t been a flop at all.

“Millions of shekels were invested just in proving the feasibility of the technology,” he says. “The investment in the system itself wasn’t completed. I think the decision not to continue investing in the system wasn’t about the technology.”

In other words, technology to tackle the tunnels was abandoned because of decisions about priorities?

“Possibly. Israel has plenty of talented engineers. You could put together a force and handle it quietly. This isn’t an unsolvable problem.”

Hadas’ controlling shareholder had been an American named David Anthony, but he died in 2010 and the company shut down, Pogozelich says. He denies that Hadas went bankrupt; in the previous decade it had won a contract to protect pipelines for companies like Brazilian giant Petrobras, he says. But in January 2010 Hadas sold most of its know-how to state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and its team moved on.

Why did the Defense Ministry choose your technology?

“All the technologies operate on the same principle: sensors and algorithms. The Geophysical Institute had no system and still doesn’t. What they had was seismic sensors that can discern subterranean motion. But that’s useless without an algorithm. With time and a budget they might have developed a system.”

What progress did you make in eight years?

“I can’t discuss it.”

One person happy to talk about the defense establishment’s waste of time is geologist Yossi Langotsky, a colonel in the reserves and the man behind Israel’s massive oil-and-gas discoveries under the Mediterranean. He also set up Military Intelligence’s special-operations division, back when he commanded its operational-technology unit. Langotsky and the unit won awards for developments he led.

The army should never have given intelligence the job of resolving the tunnel problem, Langotsky says, adding that three times defense officials relegated finding a solution to private enterprise — and all attempts failed, while the Geophysical Institute had been working on a volunteer basis.

A 2010 investigative report by Ronen Bergman in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth showed that as early as the 1990s, the Geophysical Institute sought to take advantage of its experience in mapping subterranean spaces to devise a solution to the tunnel problem.

The answer it presented to the Defense Ministry in 2001 was an underground seismic fence whose poles in the earth bore sensors to sense movements in the ground. The institute said a pilot project on the fence near Kerem Shalom — where a vast Hamas tunnel has just been discovered — detected the tunnel’s construction.

But the Defense Ministry opted for Hadas’ more-advanced solution.

In 2004, Langotsky began consulting on the tunnels for the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff at the time, Moshe Ya’alon, now the defense minister. A 2005 report slammed the tender process, but no defense official — or Knesset member — heeded the strategic threat.

“When I said dozens of tunnels had been dug in the Strip, Knesset members, encouraged by army officers, accused me of sowing panic for personal reasons,” Langotsky recalls. “Now we know there are hundreds.”

Low-tech tunnels are a strategic threat and the solution is geophysical, he insists. “This isn’t a mission for the IDF, and it isn’t rocket science. It’s geophysics.”

To Langotsky’s credit, he continued to harass Israel’s leaders about the tunnel threat — and he blames them all.

“The defense establishment was warned,” he says. “It had enough scientific powers, but for seven years the defense establishment avoided doing what could have been done in two.”