Security and defense: Tunnel vision

The IDF is digging deeper into developing methods for detecting massive underground construction in Gaza.

By
October 30, 2008 19:18
Security and defense: Tunnel vision

smuggling tunnel 224.88. (photo credit: AP)

 
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On September 21, IDF troops and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) agents apprehended Jamal Abu Duabeh, after he tried infiltrating the country via the porous Egyptian border. During his subsequent interrogation, Abu Duabeh, 21, from the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, revealed that he had been recruited into a Hamas terror cell that was plotting to lure IDF soldiers to the Egyptian border, with an offer of a drug deal. There, he told his interrogators, his job was to drug the soldiers, smuggle them across the border into Egypt and finally, via one of the 400 tunnels believed to run under the Philadelphi Corridor, arrive in Gaza. While Abu Duabeh's plot was foiled, it demonstrates Hamas's reliance on the tunnels, not only for weapons and smuggling, but also - as the use of a tunnel in the Gilad Schalit kidnapping at Kerem Shalom in 2006 demonstrated - as an indispensable tool in its terror campaign. Though a look at the Gaza skyline doesn't reveal it, there is a building boom inside the Strip - or, to be more exact, underneath it. Nor is this construction restricted to the Philadelphi Corridor. Now there are tunnels throughout Gaza, and in some of the densely-populated refugee camps. "Gaza is turning into Vietnam," a senior security official said, "and I am not sure that the IDF will know how to fight in such an environment." At the moment, intelligence estimates indicate that dozens of kilometers of Vietcong-style tunnels are being dug. They will be used by Hamas operatives to move quickly and covertly between positions, in the event of an IDF ground assault. Anti-tank crews will also have positions inside the tunnels, from which they will be able to fire the advanced anti-tank missiles recently smuggled into Gaza. Tunnels are also becoming part of the scene in the West Bank, where IDF soldiers earlier this month found and destroyed a 150-meter-long tunnel underneath downtown Hebron. Last year, similar tunnel systems were discovered in the Nablus casbah. Hamas is also digging pits in the middle of main access roads to cities and refugee camps in Gaza, which it plans to fill with explosives and detonate under IDF tanks. Such an explosion occurred on July 12, 2006, when just minutes after Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were kidnapped by Hizbullah, a tank entered Lebanon and rolled over a massive bomb which blew it to pieces, killing its four crew members. This is not the only lesson Hamas has learned from Hizbullah. The "nature reserves" that the IDF encountered in southern Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War, in which Hizbullah guerrillas had deployed their Katyusha rocket launchers, are now becoming a familiar sight in the sand dunes of Gaza. BEFORE THE cease-fire went into effect in June, troops from the Golani Brigade's elite Egoz unit discovered an underground missile "silo" for Kassam rockets. The launchers were all connected to a timer, allowing operators to program them to go off and flee the area. Assessments are that dozens more of these silos are currently being created. Recently, Hamas allowed reporters from the British papers The Independent and The Guardian to enter the tunnels, interview the mayor of Rafah and write about the industry. The purpose of this was to convey that due to the blockade of Gaza, Hamas is left with no choice but to smuggle in supplies through tunnels. The IDF claims to have a pretty good idea of where most of the tunnels are located, even though it is collecting most of its intelligence from the air. But, as the top security official stressed, until the military encounters the tunnels, it won't know if it has sufficiently prepared for this new type of combat. The combat doctrine is only one of the many problems these tunnels create. Though the Engineering Corps has a world-leading tunnel unit called Samur, technology for detecting tunnels that are dug deep underground is limited. The IDF uses a number of different technologies, from seismic sensors to sonars, that the American military is teaching the Egyptians how to use along the Philidelphi Corridor, with limited success. In addition, say experts, each technology has its limits in range and accuracy. THE IDF has faced the tunnel threat in Gaza for years. In a May 2007 report, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss accused the military of dragging its feet in development and procurement to counter it. The audit found that the military only began formulating a concrete systematic plan for confronting the tunnel threat in December 2004, after a number of tunnels had been used in deadly attacks against outposts in Gaza. The General Staff, the report claimed, mismanaged the process by failing to create a doctrine for dealing with the tunnels. The staff work done at the time was incomplete, the comptroller wrote, accusing the IDF, and particularly the General Staff, of failing properly to integrate the field work being run by Chief Engineering Officer Brig.-Gen. Shimon Daniel with Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet. In January 2005, a former officer appointed by chief of General Staff Moshe Ya'alon submitted a report recommending that the IDF establish a "tunnel administration" responsible for synchronizing and coordinating among all the various defense branches involved in combating the threat. The administration was never established. The Defense Ministry's Research and Development Directorate (Mafat) was also slammed by the comptroller for dragging its feet in the development of technology that could be used to locate tunnels. According to the report, in 1990, Mafat asked local defense companies to present ideas, and one system was even being examined up until 1997. The comptroller found, however, that from 1997-2001, no progress was made. Over the past year - particularly since the cease-fire went into effect in June, and the tunneling in Gaza gained momentum - the IDF, led by Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel, has again been emphasizing the development of an effective detection technology. At the moment, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his deputy Matan Vilna'i are in favor of extending the cease-fire - which with isolated exceptions has held fairly well - by another three-to-six months. Both explain that their main consideration is the quiet in the Negev and that while Hamas is amassing weapons and building up its military, the pace is not much different from what it was before the truce began. The tunneling in Gaza, a senior defense official explained, is indicative of a Hamas understanding that, though it cannot defeat the IDF, it can try to prevent a decisive victory, the way Hizbullah did during the Second Lebanon War. "Hamas knows it is not stronger than us," the official explained. "But with Hizbullah-style guerrilla tactics, it will try to prevent a victory from us like in 2006. Our job is to make sure that doesn't happen."

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