If you’re looking to destroy Hamas attack tunnels before they’re used to kill Israeli civilians and soldiers, send in an accountant.
In civilian life, Maj. (res.) Noah Hershkovitz, 32, works as an accountant and attorney for Ernst & Young in Tel Aviv.
For the past 26 days, though, he’s been in places such as this pit of sand and dust less than a kilometer from the Gaza Strip, where combat engineers work to map and disable a Hamas tunnel discovered 10 days ago. He is head of engineering operations for the Nahal Brigade.
“When you’re here, you understand why you were sent [to the army]. You’re putting yourself directly in the place where your enemy is trying to hurt you,” Hershkovitz said on Wednesday, near the opening of a tunnel not far from Kibbutz Erez, on the northern border with Gaza.
Like other soldiers, (and CNN chief correspondent Wolf Blitzer), Hershkovitz has been inside the tunnels, which have become the focus of the IDF operation, and the sum of all fears for the Israeli public watching the fight from home.
The feeling below is “suffocating” and intimidating, and presents its own challenges, he said. The enemy knows that underground it can overcome many of the advantages the IDF has above ground, he said.
Hershkovitz was speaking to a handful of members of the press taking part in the latest of a number of IDF embedments for reporters on the Gaza border; there have been others for Israeli reporters inside the Strip. Speaking to the officer, it’s unclear if the scope or the sophistication of the tunnels came as a surprise to the troops, though it was obvious Hamas’s success in infiltration and killing soldiers has made a statement.
“When I got called up [for reserve duty] I didn’t think it would be to fight a war against tunnels, but I knew it’d be a war against Hamas. I don’t think we were surprised [by the tunnels], but the chutzpah and audacity of Hamas may have surprised us,” he said.
Hershkovitz started out as a soldier in the Engineering Corps, working against the smuggling tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor between the Gaza Strip and Sinai. Since then, Hamas has had years to become more sophisticated in its tunnel construction and what he’s seeing today is a different ballgame, he said.
Nevertheless, the tunnel shown to the press on Wednesday did not appear to be a massive, highly sophisticated undertaking.
Its walls were lined with thick wood, not concrete, and it looked cramped, not fit to send in a column of gunmen for an infiltration. Looks can be deceiving, and this particular tunnel was used 10 days ago in an infiltration, during which gunmen emerged and fired an anti-tank missile at an IDF patrol, killing Geffen Battalion commander Lt.- Col. Dolev Keidar and three of his men.
The area around the tunnel opening was a hive of activity, with or without the press contingent.
Dozens of soldiers in battle gear stood around waiting for orders, as more arrived in private cars, D-9 armored bulldozers and armored personnel carriers moved back and forth across the dusty expanse, and despite it being a military zone closed to the public, a haredi civilian was helping a soldier put on tefillin.
In the distance, a geyser, accidentally uncovered this week during the excavations hunting for tunnels, spouted warm water into the air, sending the stench of sulfur into the breeze as mortar and artillery shells echoed in the distance.
The tour was given a day after Hamas’s armed wing released a chilling first-person video filmed by one of its gunmen, a member of the cell that infiltrated Israel near Kibbutz Nahal Oz on Monday, killing five soldiers before sneaking back into Gaza by tunnel, losing only one member. In the video, they go unnoticed for what seems like hundreds of meters in broad daylight as they approach a seemingly unguarded IDF post, which looks like it may as well be in suburban Tel Aviv and not on the Gaza border in the middle of a war.
Next to the tunnel exit, Lt.-Col.
Manor Yinai, commander of the Engineering Corps 601 Battalion, described the painstaking task of dismantling the shafts, which takes patience and not merely setting up charges and then hitting a button after reaching daylight.
Once a tunnel is discovered on the Israeli side, soldiers must trail it back to its source on the Gaza side and then detonate it piece by piece, Yinai said. He said he believes this particular tunnel reaches as far as 1.5 km.
into Gaza, possibly into a home or some other building in Beit Hanun, on the northeast corner of the Strip. Ones that aren’t discovered due to an infiltration must be found on the Gaza side before terrorists use it to attack.
The message transmitted by the officer, and by others at the scene, was clear – if the IDF wants to locate and dismantle all of the tunnels, it must stay in Gaza for while.
Standing in this pit next to the exit, about 10 meters below ground, he spoke about the determination of his troops to destroy all the tunnels and prevent what could be a “mega terror attack.” That said, it was clear there was a bit of uncertainty if this is possible.
The soil surrounding the tunnel exit was so soft that bare hands could dig deep into it, and according to Yinai, anyone with a tool can do it and there’s no sensors that can be used from above ground to find the shafts.
Yinai, who has been in the reserves and away from his wife and six-year-old twins in Tel Aviv for 10 weeks, was nonetheless optimistic, even as he acknowledged that it is unclear if Military Intelligence knew the extent of the Hamas tunnel infrastructure before the war.
When asked the million-dollar question, whether he thinks the IDF can provide a military solution to eliminate the threat, he expressed confidence in technology, saying, “Jewish brains came up with the Iron Dome [anti-missile system] against rockets, I think we’ll find an answer to this too.”