The War of Tunnels: Israeli Intelligence and Technology Misaligned

The ground incursion by the IDF into Gaza that began on July 16th was triggered by the emergence of 13 Hamas commandos from a tunnel underneath the Gaza Israel frontier. They were detected by an armed IAF drone and quickly dispatched by a missile strike scattering both survivors and equipment near the opening of the tunnel.

17 days into the tough slog of the ground phase with 423 IDF soldiers fallen, including two Americans, more than 35 tunnels have been uncovered. A number of these were found to have entrances in homes, schools, apartment buildings and Mosques.  The Givati brigade has been assigned the dangerous tasks of inspecting these tunnels.   After sending in small tactical robots detecting booby traps, the tunnels are destroyed.

However, the obvious question is why was the IDF caught flat-footed by the enormity of the Hamas tunnel network when there were means available to map them?  Despite their being excavated more than 25 meters below the surface, Israel should have been able to anticipate the extent of the tunnel construction.

Sheera Frenkel, Buzzfeed’s correspondent in Israel reported this comment:

Israeli military officers described an “underground city” in Shujayeh, made up of a labyrinth of tunnels in which Israeli soldiers clashed with Hamas fighters.

“Even with the intelligence the Israeli military keeps on Gaza, they were caught by surprise at the extent of what they found below ground,” said Amir Bohbot, a military affairs correspondent with Walla, a news site. “There were traps, explosives everywhere. There is no way for them to continue their operation without taking the risks of even heavier casualties.”

A source in Jerusalem told us this week that the IDF was surprised.  But should they have been?  A noted Israel geologist was cited in a Daily Telegraph U.K. article complaining that the tunnel threat had been overlooked by the Israeli Ministry of Defense:

“For 10 years I’ve been crying and screaming to the highest possible levels – to the Defense Ministry, the chief of staff, the commanding officers of southern and northern command,” Dr Joseph Langotsky, an Israeli geologist who has long advocated greater attention to the issue of the tunnels, said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post.

“Although the tunnels are a low-tech option, they might be a strategic threat to our security,” said Dr Langotsky.

The Hezbollah Tunnels in Lebanon    The heavily fortified areas of southern Lebanon that the IDF encountered in the 2006 Lebanon War should have raised alarm bells. Hezbollah with the alleged technical assistance of Iranian Quds Force engineers had prepared tunnels connecting command and control centers in villages, rocket launching areas, armories and firing positions.

By the end of the 2006 Lebanese war, Hezbollah was, according to reliable intelligence from Lebanon, only two weeks away from total defeat. But strong intervention by the US ended the war before Israel was able to secure that victory, and Hezbollah took full advantage of its reprieve. With strong support from Iran and sacks of Iranian super-C notes (counterfeit $100 bill) which Hezbollah distributed freely to the Lebanese people for reparations and reconstruction, Hezbollah began an aggressive program of tunnel-building, both throughout southern Lebanon and under the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The IDF was warned about the Hezbollah tunnels as early as 2010.  They were warned about the massive network of tunnels that were being built throughout southern Lebanon. According to intelligence sources reporting from Lebanon, the construction was carried out under the direction of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers, and with the technical expertise of North Korea, whose tunnel-building expertise has been widely known for many years. The tunnels were built to accommodate the clandestine transport and storage of large missiles from Iran (via Syria).

The IDF also received eye-witness accounts about the building of tunnels under the border that Lebanon shares with Israel. These reports included information about a large tunnel under construction that began in southern Lebanon and would end in central Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. The diameter of that tunnel was reported to be wide enough for a large truck to be driven through it. There were also eye witness accounts describing a number of small bore tunnels that were being constructed deep under the Lebanese-Israeli border, to emerge in northern Israeli towns and kibbutzim. These were designed for Hezbollah’s child warriors, some as young as seven, who would be sent heavily armed and would be instructed to fire on everyone they see once they emerge in these towns.

The maze of tunnels that were built under Lebanon by Hezbollah after 2006 were mirrored in Gaza, also under the watchful eye of Teheran, and although many of the Gaza tunnels have now been destroyed, the network is huge – a city underneath a city – and those tunnels that remain still represents a substantial threat to Israel.

The tunnels uncovered by Golani and Givati brigades in the current conflict were built with reinforced concrete, and equipped with lighting and ventilation.  Some were large enough to accommodate trucks.  The longest one discovered so far was over 2.5 kilometers in length. The average cost of the tunnels was estimated at $1 million each.  It appears that the Hamas tunnel networks in Gaza may have expertly planned and executed using the Hezbollah playbook, possibly with both Hezbollah and Quds Force assistance.

When the eight day Operation Pillar of Defense ended on November 21, 2012, a cease fire was brokered by the former Egyptian President Morsi, a supporter of Hamas. The Obama Administration pressured the Netanyahu government to permit the delivery of cement and steel for the reconstruction of Gaza .   Jerusalem had objected to the demands of Washington, suspecting that the delivery of the materials to Gaza would be used for military purposes.  Given what has most recently been discovered, those suspicions have been confirmed.

Qatar put up more than $405 million for the alleged reconstruction of destroyed areas of Gaza.  Those funds may have been substantially diverted for purchase of equipment and materials to construct the tunnel network.

Solutions Ignored   The Daily Telegraph U.K article disclosed that the Israeli Ministry of Defense was working on the tunnel problem.  However, the means of detecting them would not be available until after the current conflict, “Israel tests hi-tech tunnel detection system to fight threat from underground”.  The report noted:

In a bid to find a solution, the IDF’s elite Talpiot unit has been working on developing a tunnel detection system which was tested in Tel Aviv. Its costs are estimated to be $59 million.

“The high-tech system, which uses special sensors and transmitters, is still in its R&D phase, and if all goes well, should be operational within a year”, notes a report on Israel’s I-24 news.

The most common type of technology for tracking down tunnels is focused on listening for sounds of digging, notes Inbal Orpaz in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

Another Israeli company, Magna, already provides defense systems for the Israel-Egypt border. It proposed digging a 70-km tunnel along the Israel-Gaza border, equipped with a sensitive alert system.

This “will provide real-time alerts of any tunnel digging that crosses our tunnel, whether above or below it. The IDF will know exactly where the attack tunnel is and how many people are in it, and can monitor the progress of digging it in real time, and decide how to respond to the threat,” the company’s founder and CEO Haim Siboni told Israel’s Globes publication.

An interview with a Canadian expert in Start–Up Israel reveals that Israel may have already had the means of mapping the tunnels, IDF ‘didn’t follow up’ on MRI-style, below-surface technology to find tunnels”

Paul Bauman, a Canadian who is one of the world’s foremost experts on discovering underground tunnels and voids, insists that the technology exists and has been used in the US, Canada, Korea, and other places. “We actually did some work with the IDF some years ago, showing them how the technology we’ve developed works,” Bauman told The Times of Israel in an interview. “They were interested, but there was no follow-up. Why, I couldn’t say.”


Had the army worked with Bauman, using the sophisticated methods he has developed and successfully employed over the past decade, things might have been different. While there is no foolproof, single tech solution to discovering tunnels, a combination of several techniques — radar, tomography, and seismic measuring — could give Israel a technological advantage over Hamas, creating a map of what is happening under the surface, and making it much easier to find tunnels and the terrorists who dig them.

Bauman noted the off the shelf technology that might have been used for detection and mapping of the tunnels:

It was on one of his exploration trips to Israel that Bauman showed the IDF some of the techniques it could use to discover underground tunnels. At the time, after another Gaza flare-up, Operation Cast Lead in 2009, a Technion team led by researchers Dr. Raphael Linker and Dr. Assaf Klar were developing a system that uses a fiber optic cable buried one or two meters beneath the surface to detect underground movement. The system builds what is essentially an underground fence using BOTDR (Brillouin optical time-domain reflectometry) technology, which measures the stress on the cable underground.

The amount of stress may be very small, the team said, and its research shows that even small levels of deformation can be detected, making the system perfect for keeping tabs on tunnel builders. The cable is cheap, and as much as 30 kilometers of the border can be monitored simultaneously using one device. It’s not clear if the IDF considered that system as well, and in an email this week, Linker said that the system is still under development.

Also considered was ground penetrating radar:

Much better, than an Israeli concept of building a moat around Gaza, polluting the ground aquifer, Bauman said, would be a technique like underground radar to find tunnels. “Israel has been very interested in this, and Israeli companies are working on underground radar systems,” said Bauman. “In an underground radar system, you aim the wave down below the ground, and when you get back a signal that is an anomaly — indicating that there is something different about the area you just checked than other areas — you know you’ve found something worth investigating.”

There are limitations to the system, though. “Depending on the frequency of the radar wave, you can have a system that can ‘see’ as far down as 100 meters, but at low resolution, or just 10 meters at a better resolution,” Bauman said. Radar could be very useful in discovering larger concrete tunnels, which have metal rebar in them — concrete and metal being much denser than the gypsum and salt-rich soil around the Gaza border — but not for the simpler, smaller wood-reinforced tunnels.

If the warnings and advice of Israeli geologist Dr. Langotsky and Canadian researcher Bauman had been heeded, could the surge in IDF casualties been avoided?  That is, unfortunately, history.  The issue before the IDF ground commanders now is how most efficiently to destroy those tunnels that are encountered.  Some experts have suggested use of Fuel Air Explosives (FAE).  Russia’s Putin authorized used of FAE weapons against Chechen Islamists extremists when the provincial capital of Grozny  was virtually flattened in 2002.  Others recall napalm used to clear out tunnels on the Island  of Iwo Jima, from which suicide Imperial Japanese forces would sally to inflict heavy casualties on US Marines and soldiers.  Perhaps this comment, in the Buzzfeed article from an Israeli Intelligence officer, best sums up the military campaign that the IDF is waging against another group of fortified fanatics, this time in Gaza:

‘“We are no longer looking at just dismantling the tunnel network [from Gaza to Israel]. The goals of Operation Defensive Edge are now to cripple Hamas so they will not be able to strike us again in a few years,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He also told Buzzfeed that Israel’s military was now preparing a timeline for its offensive in Gaza that could go on for “several weeks” and see the Israeli military create a “buffer zone” up to a mile into Gaza.

“We may suffer heavy losses doing this, but their losses will be heavier, I can assure you,” said the officer.

In the Lebanon War of 2006, Israel was taken by surprise and her troops were unprepared. The scandal that followed that war was about how poorly equipped the Israeli soldiers were, and how stores of supplies had been stolen prior to the outbreak of hostilities, forcing the troops to go to war without proper equipment and with inadequate supplies.

Operation Protective Edge provided a different kind of surprise. They did not have the technology they needed to detect the hundreds of tunnels weaving under Gaza, with many of them emerging in Israeli territory.  Once this war is over, one of the questions that will be asked is, “Why was that technology not available and ready?”

Israel is famous for the speed and efficiency of its research and development programs. Their national R&D program has produced a long list of breakthrough technologies that have transformed the lives of people around the world. But with over four years to develop the technology needed to detect tunnel-building and trafficking activity, they failed to do so. Considering that some of the tunnels are 100 feet deep, the challenge has been great, but not insurmountable. If there is one thing that Israel has shown the world, Israeli scientists and engineers are brilliant at solving many of the problems that have defeated others. The problem of the tunnels should have been no exception, but somehow it seems to have fallen through the cracks.

Israel now faces an enormous challenge, and cannot afford to do in Gaza what it did in Lebanon, retreat only weeks before victory. Israel’s technological advantage and the determination of the Israeli fighting force will be the deciding factors in this war. Despite the ongoing pressure from the West, and despite its lack of the technology it needs to detect these all of these tunnels before terrorists emerge from them, Israel needs to defeat Hamas, whose charter identifies the organization as the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine, and mandates the total destruction of Israel and the Jewish people.

Truce for Hamas is not an option. Their massive network of tunnels, whose only purpose was the spewing of death and destruction on the Jewish state, is their fundamental statement of purpose. This war may, therefore, go down in history as the War of the Tunnels.  Israel’s only option is to win it.

Jerry Gordon is Sr. Vice President of World Encounter Institute and Sr. Editor for New English Review. He is a former Army Intelligence officer who served during the Viet Nam era.

Ilana Freedman is a veteran intelligence analyst, specializing in terrorism emanating from the Middle East.

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