Analysis: No easy solution to tunnels problem

Military experts caution that even the best technologies are unable to locate tunnels easily dug in sand.

idf jeeps gaza 224ap (photo credit: AP)
idf jeeps gaza 224ap
(photo credit: AP)
There are no magical solutions to prevent tunnel attacks emanating from Gaza, although extensive operations using new technologies in areas where tunnels are suspected can help uncover between 50 to 70 percent of them, said Brig.-Gen. (res) Shalom Harari, a former defense ministry adviser. Even while Israeli forces were operationally active uncovering smuggling tunnels along the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt, or the so-called Philadelphi route, not all were discovered and smuggling - whether for commercial profit, gunrunning, or both - continued, and military officials assumed there was always an average of three tunnels in operation at any one time. And despite a general warning of a pending attack in the area that saw the nearby Kerem Shalom border crossing closed since Tuesday, the IDF still failed to pinpoint the source of the attack beforehand - a tunnel that extended 300 meters from Gaza's border to emerge behind military positions. But when Israeli forces were operating along Philadelphi, they were often hampered due to humanitarian considerations in the built-up area and unable to find tunnels that ran underneath densely populated neighborhoods. Sunday's dawn attack occurred in an open agricultural area, which would have allowed military forces to operate with relative ease, Harari said. Harari would not elaborate on the workings of new hi-tech equipment designed to detect underground cavities, but said the equipment was not 100 percent successful. However, that equipment was being implemented more frequently in other countries, including for uses such as maintaining the integrity of airport boundaries and as a defensive tool against terror attacks on sensitive installations. To increase the chances of preventing a similar attack, the IDF could create a wider buffer zone along its Gaza border that would intrude inside Palestinian territory, said Harari, who is a senior researcher at the Institute of Counter-Terrorism at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. The IDF also needs to wrest control from Palestinian security forces that operate in the area, which Harari accused of often colluding with violent groups. Palestinian terrorists have used a similar tactic in the past, and a cross-border tunnel attack in the area was not a strategic precedent, he said, pointing out an attack on Gaza's Erez terminal in January 2005, where terrorists entered the sealed area via a tunnel dug underneath the compound. The sandy soil prevalent around Gaza means tunnels could always be easily dug, and Palestinian groups have highly developed procedures that allow them to extend a tunnel at the rapid rate of up to 100 meters a day, using motorized excavation tools and young children to provide cheap labor, Harari said. But that same sandy soil that makes tunneling easy also means they are prone to collapse, and death by suffocation in tunneling accidents is not uncommon. Col. (res) Shuki Rinsky, former deputy commander of the IDF's Gaza Brigade, said he warned the IDF Southern Command last year that a tunnel attack on outposts along the Gaza border was just a matter of time. Rinsky, who has since retired from the IDF, accused the army of negligence and said there were no plans instituted to deal with the risk of cross-border attacks. Rinsky said he had proposed a technological solution that would block underground tunnels up to 100 meters below ground at a cost less than that of an above-ground security fence, but the military was too preoccupied implementing the Gaza withdrawal and chose to ignore him. But no successful military solution to prevent any type of cross-border attacks existed while forces remained on only one side of a fence, Rinsky said, suggesting that within a year there would be Israeli military outposts inside Gaza. "An army that relies on a fence as its main defense against terror will find itself attacked by militant cells that will make it a joke," Rinsky said, adding that no single obstacle in military history ever held up against attack. Even if violent Palestinian groups were deterred from digging tunnels, he said, they would find other ways to get past the border fence. But due to the situation of anarchy among Palestinian rival groups in Gaza, each with its own agenda, there is no way to create a system of deterrence that would convince Palestinian groups not to attempt to carry out attacks, said Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shlomo Brom of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "With no central address that is sensitive to pain," the only way to try and prevent attacks would be intensive operations aimed at those planning attacks using air strikes and limited ground operations that would capture territory for short periods, Brom said. Terrorists must be made to feel threatened so that "they feel that at any moment a missile will hit them, or that the sound of a motor scooter passing by might be an aerial drone." An extensive ground operation inside Gaza would take Israel "back to square one," a situation the country had already decided against, he said.