Israel Ignoring Threat of Gaza Tunnels

Tunnel detection efforts being neglected while defense establishment invests in anti-missile projects.

This week the Geophysical Institute of Israel, the governmental body that coordinates mapping and monitoring of the country's subsurface, received a letter from the Defense Ministry's research and development directorate, which deals with means of combat and technological infrastructure. The letter noted that for working year 2010, there are no plans for cooperation between the two bodies in regard to locating tunnels.

"This doesn't surprise us," said one researcher at the institute, who asked to remain anonymous. "After trying for a few years to help the defense establishment develop a system to detect tunnels, the subject has totally faded away in the past two years, and the directorate is simply not interested in our input on it."

This week a festive atmosphere prevailed in Defense Ministry corridors, particularly in the R&D directorate, after a series of successful tests of the Iron Dome. The chiefs of the defense establishment had been roundly criticized by successive officials and experts for halting the development of this laser-based, missile-intercept system.

"Everyone who vilified us in the past two years will be apologizing now, after we developed such a successful system in just two and a half years," one official said.

Iron Dome's ability to protect Israeli communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip from missile attacks will be put to the real test after it is deployed, in about five months. In the meantime, the recent news about it resonated loudly on the Arab side as well: The film of the test was broadcast repeatedly by Al Jazeera and other Arab television stations, and Hamas and Hezbollah spokesmen mentioned the Iron Dome while promising to find additional ways to hurt Israel.

A large number of particularly serious terrorist attacks by Palestinian militant organizations in recent years - including the one in which two Armored Corps soldiers were killed and Gilad Shalit was abducted - involved use of tunnels to infiltrate the Israeli border or digging of passageways under Israel Defense Forces positions and detonating powerful bombs inside. Just last week the Israel Air Force destroyed two tunnels dug from the middle of the Gaza Strip and leading toward Israel. In the past year, since the end of Operation Cast Lead, a number of similar tunnels were obliterated.

During that operation, the IDF thwarted an attempt to blow up the fuel depot at the Kerem Shalom border using an explosives-filled tunnel. Had it succeeded, the explosion would have caused many casualties and enormous damage. Early this week the IDF air-dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets, warning Gazans who live near the border fence not to allow the terrorist organizations to dig tunnels from their basements. In such cases, people were warned, their houses would become an IDF target.

Concern about tunnels is not confined to the Gaza area. Even though the ground in the north of the country is rocky and less amenable to digging than the sandy south, officers in the Northern Command are convinced that Hezbollah has built a subterranean network that will be used for terror attacks when the organization's military confrontation with Israel resumes. In the short period in which the IDF was in control of southern Lebanon in the fall of 2006, after the Second Lebanon War, the army discovered a large number of tunnel entrances. Out of fear that they could be mined, the IDF settled for blowing up the openings instead of exploring inside. One officer in the 91st Division, which is responsible for the border with Lebanon, said recently, "We are constantly trying to check if Hezbollah is tunneling under the border."

But despite the recent increase in IDF operations against the tunnels, many experts, including senior reserve officers, believe the technological aspect of the threat they pose has been woefully neglected. Rather, they charge, the defense establishment has preferred to invest most of its resources in antimissile projects, leaving tunnel-detection efforts mainly to the sphere of intelligence.

Geological warnings

Colonel (res.) Yossi Langotsky is an internationally recognized geologist responsible for a number of offshore oil and natural gas discoveries in Israel. He was awarded a medal for distinguished service for his exploits as commander of the Jerusalem Brigade reconnaissance unit in the Six-Day War. He commanded a special operations unit and later headed the intelligence division's technological unit (for which he was awarded two Israel Security Prizes, one personal and the other as part of the unit).

Langotsky is deeply concerned that the warnings he is voicing now about neglecting the tunnels are liable to become part of the testimony he will give to a future commission of inquiry. Such a commission, he asserts, will be established after "intelligence misses just one tunnel, through which an IDF stronghold will be infiltrated and another Gilad Shalit will be abducted, or maybe five or six Gilad Shalits."

Until five years ago Langotsky was a voluntary consultant to then-IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon on dealing with the tunnel threat. Working with civilian and military experts, Langotsky tried to develop technological means to detect passageways dug underground from Gaza. He left the project due to disputes with senior officials in the R&D directorate, which controls most defense spending for combat methods. Since then he has relentlessly repeated warnings in the defense community about the threat posed by the tunnels.

"As a geophysicist," he said this week, "I constantly remind them that there are systems available 'off the shelf' throughout the world, particularly in the petroleum industry, with detectors that can locate tunnels. It beggars belief that the IDF has been dealing with this for 11 years and doesn't yet have such a system. With our good intelligence, we can prevent perhaps 90 percent of attempts, but it's enough for Hamas to maintain field security, elude our intelligence efforts and abduct a few soldiers a single time. You can imagine what would happen then from looking at the impact of Gilad Shalit's abduction."

"We demonstrated to the IDF a system we thought could solve the problem, and it interested the army approximately up to the rank of captain," Dr. Yair Rotstein, former director of the Geophysical Institute, recently related. He said the technology exists for creating a system to detect the excavation of tunnels. "It's not clear to me why they aren't going ahead with it," Rotstein added.

Said one geophysicist who owns a consulting firm and did not want to be identified: "I tried to push for a detection system that many experts believed could work, but it just didn't move ahead within the R&D directorate."

In early 2005 then-deputy chief of staff Dan Halutz authorized a test of a prototype for a system proposed by the Geophysical Institute, but there was no follow-up. Four years ago a tender to create a system of detectors was finally awarded - to a private company - and cooperation over its installation was initiated with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. In the end, however, detectors at only a small number of points along the border fence were authorized - and even those have not been activated, despite having been installed more than two years ago.

"Geophone detectors now exist that can be installed in a chain to pick up whatever happens in the ground between them, like an underground electric fence," Langotsky says. "But that wasn't good enough for the R&D Directorate. They wanted detectors that could sense things much deeper underground."

A figure in the Defense Ministry scoffed at Langotsky's claim. "What nonsense. Today there are detectors that can pick up big things like earthquakes. When it comes to smaller things, it's impossible to differentiate between a mouse digging a tunnel and a terrorist tunnel. You can't install a system that will put the whole sector on alert for every mouse," he said.

In the past few years the focus has been on the tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt into the Strip, under the Philadelphi Route. In the past 18 months the focus has turned to combating the smuggling by attempting to block the arms transfers long before they reach Philadelphi. Israel Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan summarized this philosophy a year ago when he referred to the tunnels as "merely the nozzle of the toothpaste tube." Now the emphasis is slowly returning to the tunnels used for terror attacks.

A top-ranking figure in the defense establishment, who has been very closely involved in the tunnel issue, said this week: "Currently the main avenue for combating [the tunnels] is through intelligence, but we are putting significant resources into developing sensor systems. Nowhere in the world has anyone succeeded in finding an answer to this type of threat, but every idea that is brought to us is examined; there is a group in the R&D directorate that is dedicated to this. There is a technology gap we haven't been able to bridge. No one has succeeded in developing a system that can distinguish between a mouse underground and the digging of a tunnel. We have to take care not to spend billions on a system that won't produce results. Every time someone proposed an idea we check it out," the source said.

The IDF Spokesman stated in response: "For years the IDF, in cooperation with the Defense Ministry, has been occupied with the threat of the subterranean sphere. All existing technological options are constantly being examined. The IDF has made, and will continue to make, every technological and operational effort to solve this problem."