TEL AVIV – A few months before the outbreak of Israel’s summertime war with Hamas, I was invited to join Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel Defense Force (IDF) chief of staff, for on-site briefings from Gaza sector commanders.
As the only reporter in a field of brass, I reluctantly agreed to demands that the mid-March day trip remain off the record.
Restrictions were only recently rescinded as the IDF seeks billions of dollars to cover costs and invest in new capabilities that found lacking during the 50-day Gaza war.
Our first stop was across from Khan Yunis, near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, where just days earlier, the IDF announced the discovery of a tunnel extending some 300 meters beyond the border fence.
At the time, the area was strictly off limits to the press. Gantz had not yet glimpsed the find.
It became immediately clear: The IDF had grossly misrepresented the severity of the underground breach, which extended perilously close to the kibbutz perimeter.
That tunnel didn’t penetrate “a few hundred meters” into Israeli territory – as the military spokesman publicly claimed – but a kilometer beyond the border fence.
Brig. Gen. Micky Edelstein, Gaza Division commander, took my hand as we descended several meters to the exposed opening. We didn’t have to traverse far inside to realize the sophistication of the freshly built structure.
Like at least three, albeit much shorter, tunnels discovered since Israel’s 2012 Pillar of Defense air campaign, this one was fully wired with electrical lines and communications cables. At some two meters high and one meter wide, a gear-laden fighter could walk or run through it unimpeded.
Edelstein said that particular “terror tunnel” was supported by more than 500 tons of cement arches and represented the easternmost subterranean threat exposed thus far.
“You can see how they’ve prepared this advanced infrastructure for purposes of attacking our soldiers and citizens,” he said.
From the on-site inspections that followed and briefings by northern and southern sector brigade commanders, it was clear the tunnel threat was a high priority.
Col. Amos Hacohen, commander of the Gaza South Brigade, and Col. Yaron Finkleman, commander of Gaza North Brigade, detailed how their brigades were working to apply new technologies and techniques for detecting, mapping and ultimately destroying the tunnels.
But despite introduction of seismic, magnetic, radar and hyper-spectral sensors, combat engineering specialists said they continued to rely on low-tech methods, such as flooding suspected areas with millions of cubic meters of water to expose apertures and cause segments to collapse.
Both brigade commanders – politically savvy from respective stints as bureau chiefs to Gantz’ predecessors at the top of the IDF command chain – insisted that in parallel to ongoing operational activity, it was equally important not to undermine the sense of security in communities near the border.
“We’re managing the problem and constantly improving our ability to operate as necessary,” said Hacohen, who headed the bureau of former Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the IDF chief during Israel’s last ground war in Gaza.
“There’s no need to spark undue concern in neighboring communities,” he said.
To underscore upgraded capabilities, officers noted that just six months earlier, in October 3013, it took IDF specialists three months to map the entire route of a tunnel discovered near a neighboring kibbutz.
This time, officers told Gantz, it took only three days.
Gantz shared his concern about the tunnel threat.
“There’s a lot of things related to the tunnels from Gaza that worries me,” he said. While the phenomenon is not new, the IDF chief said the tunnels have become “very mature” based on years of experience acquired by Hamas and other militant groups since Israel’s late-2008 Cast Lead ground war in Gaza.
At the time, Gantz surmised that deterrence was still holding from the November 2012 air war in Gaza. Nevertheless, he said the other side was “improving this [tunnel-based] strategy… and challenging us to a point where it could be we will be dragged into another conflict.”
“In the end, what is this tunnel? It’s an operational tool; a tool that, if activated operationally, could bring them strategic achievements,” Gantz said. “And we must deny them this tool. We must take it away from them.”
When asked to rate IDF readiness regarding the tunnel threat, he replied: “We’re doing not bad.”
About 100 days later, as Gantz surmised, Israel indeed got itself dragged into grueling ground war in Gaza.
In a Sept. 30 address at a Tel Aviv think tank, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon offered a candid account of how unplanned actions and reactions spiraled into a 74-day, high-intensity summer of war – 24 days in the West Bank followed by the 50-day Protective Edge campaign in Gaza.
It started with the mid-June kidnapping and murder of three Israeli youths, which precipitated an extensive IDF incursion targeting Hamas in the West Bank.
“Then, during our search [for the murderers of the three teens], there was escalation. Sporadic rockets were launched at us from proxies in Gaza. Not Hamas, but Hamas allowed these proxies to operate. And afterward, we rolled into Protective Edge,” Ya’alon said.
Four IDF soldiers were killed and scores wounded on the Israeli side of the border fending off Palestinian fighters who had penetrated via four separate assault tunnels.
Dozens more died in 17 days of nearly house-to-house maneuvering war against assault tunnels and subterranean command centers throughout the Gaza Strip.
Sources note that just days before the ground war began and after two and a half years of crash development, Israel’s Defense Ministry managed to deploy an anti-tunnel detection system along parts of the border with Gaza.
The effort remains classified, but defense and industry sources describe it as a sensor-fused network designed to function as a virtual fence against subterranean border breaches.
But despite hopes for a repeat of Israel’s widely acclaimed Iron Dome – which scored its first operational intercept less than a month after its initial fielding in March 2011 – the freshly deployed system proved insufficient to deal with the threat.
Israel’s MoD and a local industry consortium led by Elbit Systems are now poring over voluminous post-operational data aimed at upgrading the system for the next time around.
It is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of shekels when fully deployed.