Big Dig: Sensing Sounds and Spaces, Sight Unseen. IDF illustration.

The Wall Had Ears, But What’s Next?

The down-to-earth truth about tunnels

By Amir Oren

On June 25, 2006, a Hamas-led squad of several Palestinians sneaked into the Israeli Negev, adjacent to the Gaza Strip, surprised a Tank crew, killed two soldiers and carried a dazed one, Gilad Shalit, into captivity.

Less than three weeks later, a Hezbollah squad ambushed an Israel Defense Forces patrol in the Galillee, adjacent to Lebanon, and carried two barely consciousl soldiers, Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwaser, into captivity.

Regev and Goldwaser were most probably dead on arrival at the hiding place where they were kept until Israel relented and swapped prisoners for them, dead or alive (it found out only at the ceremony). For Shalit, ftom whom regards were periodically and teasingly sent, the wait took much longer. More than five years elapsed between his abduction and prisoner deal, which included some 1,000 Palestinians, among whom was Yahia Sinwar, soon to emerge as the new Hamas leader in Gaza.

Shalit’s kidnappers used a tunnel to cross over, but the tunnel was not to blame for the Israeli Army failure to act on intelligence and foil the attack. The tunnel was just a tool, to be used where there is an above ground obstacle, a fence. In the Galillee, with a terrain not conducive to observation of enemy squads lying in ambush, Hezbollah had no need for elaborate and clandestine earth removal efforts reminiscent of war movies such as “The Great Escape”, where prisoners dig tunnels to freedom under their guards’ noses.

So when the IDF proudly announced this week that a tunnel was discovered yet again inside Israeli territory, not too far from the Shalit tunnel of yesteryear, it was an important twist in the story but not its end.  It was a victory for Israeli ingenuity in building such a wall, under the ground as well as above it, armed with sensors alerting the military to existing cavities and to ongoing digging efforts, that a rational management on the other side of the fence would decide that it is no longer worth the investment in expensive cement and other materials in short supply in Gaza. Good as far as it goes, but partly self-defeating, because it would naturally go elsewhere.

It is the old human story of measure and counter-measure. Mad Magazine’s Spy Vs. Spy. Machine guns introduced during the US Civil War give rise to wire-fenced trench warfare in the First World War, which in turn herald the coming of the Tank, against which anti-tank weapons (Bazooka, etc.) are fielded, and so on. Bombers begat anti-aircraft artillery and missiles – anti-missiles defenses.

There are also civilian examples of this loop. In the late 1970’s, the Begin government decided to limit the consumption of expensive products import appliances, in order to stem the flight of foreign currency. Color TV sets, new to the market, were all the rage. The government installed an “eraser”, downgrading reception to black-and-white. Clever entrepreneurs immediately sprung into action, producing the “anti-eraser”. The government gave up and did not counter with an anti-anti-eraser.

Until 1995, there was no fence between Israel and occupied Gaza. The IDF has embraced an offensive doctrine for deterrence and maneuver campaigns, believing that pouring money into bunkers and fences will not only take it away from planes and tanks flexible enough to be shifted among fronts, but may also encourage enemies to misspprehend it as an invitation to cost-free attack. This was before the 1967 war. With the temporary yet decades long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the idea of internal fencing was deemed impractical and unnecessary, as all governments embraced Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s idea of an open economy of workers, goods and services, over-ruling Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir’s objections that this will result in annexation.

When Hamas started its terror activities, in the late 1980’s, it had no problems seizing targets of opportunity – mostly hitch-hiking soldiers – in Israel proper, luring them into vehicles and holding them for human ransom or killing them and hiding their bodies. Tunnels, known in the world of warfare since time immemorial, were sometimes dug in Gaza, but only under military outposts, in order to smuggle explosives and blow up the structure or patrols leaving it.

Once the Oslo process was on, with terror acts unabating and fences being put up, tunnels became a najor Palestinian undertaking. Not in the West Bank, because there are enough gaps left in the fence there in the Mount Hebron area, plus many thousands of settler targets near by constantly, but definitely in Gaza, where the smaller but even more militant Islamic Jihad started competing with Hamas.

There are two kinds of tunnels – defensive, an intricate system of Metro-like routes under urban areas IDF combat troops are expected to enter, and offensive, penetrating Israel for killing sprees or abduction. The latter is the threat against which Israel has put up (and down) its wits and apparently is right now ahead of the curve.

First by sheer logic or common sense, then by intelligence exploits, Israel looked for the same threat on its border with Lebanon. This was former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s  main lines of efforts, culminating in great success in late 2018, as Eisenkot’s term was winding up. Not only were half-dozen Hezbollah tunnels, out of which elite troops were to surprise Israel en masse and occupy a village, urban beighborhood or outpost to show the world an Iwo Jima-like flag raising picture, discovered and destroyed, but the entire operation, “Northern Shield”, went without a hitch, not triggering an attack by a frustrated Hassan Nasrallah.

An improved, sophisticated fence is now going up in this area, too, but Israel’s main anti-tunnel focus is still on Gaza, and because had it not been for casualties in the fight against Hamas squads coming out of tunnels in July 2004 there would not have been an Operation Protective Edge, the art and science of building an unbreachable wall became a major task for the Southern Command, the Gaza Division, Israel’s technological community and thousands of workers, many foreign labor, all under project manager Eran Ophir, a logistical wizard – The Minister of The Fence.

Officers, residents of nearby villages and other Israelis were jubilant at the news of the tunnel’s discovery by the wall’s sensors (if that was indeed the fact, rather than a cover story to conceal other sensitive sources). But a nagging feeling of anti-climax could not but set in.

The very nature of a tunnel is to serve as a bypass, in this case an underpass. There are also overpasses – rockets and missiles. And as Israel has upgraded its Iron Dome system and the other layers of missile defense, its enemies enhanced their work on other bypasses, from the sea (Naval Commandos, having to cross only a short distance to get to an Israeli shore) and from the air, by attack drones, in lieu of the Air Force they don’t have. Swarms of drones are now seen as the most significant new danger, tunnels in the sky.

This is not to belittle this week’s success, probably unprecedented anywhere in the world (and indicating why a simple Mexican-American wall would not do), just to point out that the war of wits between defense and offense will go on, morphing into other domains. Tunneling and counter-tunneling will always be here, though not necessarily under the surface.