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Israeli preparations to meet the Gaza tunnel threat

Mar 11, 2016

Israeli preparations to meet the Gaza tunnel threat

Update from AIJAC

March 11, 2016
Number 03/16 #03

This Update features three pieces on the reported rapid rebuilding by Hamas of tunnels from Gaza into Israeli communities, and especially about Israeli preparations to meet that threat. These pieces are especially relevant following yet another tunnel collapse in Gaza, the latest in a string of seven such collapses, and reports that rumours in Gaza that Israel has a method to collapse tunnels are causing Hamas activists to refuse to work in them.

We lead with a report from the Wall Street Journal about Israeli preparatory efforts to deal with the tunnel threat. These include training its soldiers in subterranean conflict in specially-built facilities, and also developing a largely secret detection system called “The Obstacle” – whose state of deployment and effectiveness is currently unclear. The article also features the family of one of the Hamas members killed in a tunnel collapse who still insist that building tunnels is more important than rebuilding Gaza. For this piece in full, CLICK HERE.

Next up is a piece from the New Yorker, which has some more details about the Israeli debate about the tunnel threat. Reporter Ruth Margalit says that Israel has spent hundreds of millions of dollars exploring more than 400 different proposals for dealing with the tunnel problem, and appears to be implementing some of them. A comparison is made by Israeli officials between tunnel defence and the “Iron Dome” system Israel developed to control the rocket threat, largely with success, amid suggestions that this problem also will be solved with similar ingenuity. For more discussion of why the issue is so threatening to Israelis, and could possibly spread to other borders, CLICK HERE.

Finally, included here is a slightly older piece from Time, looking more at the issue from the perspective of residents of both sides of the Gaza border. It begins with the views of Ofer Lieberman from Kibbutz Nir Oz, and his friend Hashem Barawi, a Palestinian worker from Gaza, and then goes on to include analysis from Gaza academic Mkhaimer Abusada. Abusada says that most Gazans do not support another war with Israel, but many do buy the “fantasy” that Hamas will somehow defeat Israel, and confirms Hamas is apparently diverting material to tunnel-building and away from reconstruction. To read the rest, CLICK HERE.

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Israel Ramps Up Fight Against Tunnelers With ‘The Obstacle’

Security officials race to develop an underground defense system, fearing Hamas may be rebuilding its subterranean network

TEL AVIV— One morning early last month, Ahmed al Zahar picked up a scarf, left his mobile phone in the kitchen and headed out to help build a tunnel underneath the Gaza Strip near the border with Israel.

Hours later, he was dead, after an underground passageway he was working on collapsed.

A member of the Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the secretive militant arm of the Islamist movement Hamas, Mr. Zahar is one of at least 10 operatives who have died since the middle of January trying to create an underground network that could move weapons and supplies in any conflict with Israel, a more technologically advanced foe.

His parents have been told little about where and why their 23-year-old son died on Feb. 2, but they knew he worked for Al-Qassam. And despite his death, they support the digging.

“They are not safe,” Ahmed’s father Haidar al Zahar, 62, said of the tunnels from his home in Gaza City. “[But] tunnels guarantee safety and security for the Gaza Strip.”

Israeli officials and analysts say the digging could push the two sides toward conflict again, although Hamas officials have recently tried to play down the threat the tunnels represent.

Israel fought a 50-day war with Gaza’s rulers Hamas in 2014 to destroy a tunnel network. Since then, it has tightly controlled the movement of building materials, such as cement, into Gaza.

But that hasn’t stopped Hamas from digging.

Amid the flurry of recent deaths of Al-Qassam operatives, Israeli officials have been scrambling to train the country’s soldiers in underground combat—and to buttress its defenses.

Israeli security officials recently presented a proposal to a parliamentary committee to fund, develop and construct a system to detect and destroy cross-border tunnels, according to Israeli lawmakers.

Known as “The Obstacle,” the system is being funded in part by the U.S. government, which has agreed to offer $40 million this year, according to Israeli and U.S. officials.

The details of the system are confidential but security analysts say the technology is likely to use acoustic sensors that detect the sounds of digging.

The race to develop an underground defense system comes at a particularly tense moment for Israel and Hamas.

Over the past five months, Hamas militants have tried but largely failed to escalate a spate of stabbings and shootings in Israel and the occupied West Bank into a wider Palestinian uprising. An attack via a tunnel from Gaza remains a dangerous prospect, one that has divided Israeli lawmakers about how to respond.

In the war of 2014, Hamas mounted assaults on Israeli forces through a labyrinth of tunnels. The subsequent Israeli ground offensive in Gaza led to the deaths of 2,205 Palestinians and 71 Israelis and the destruction of 18,000 Palestinian homes.

Although the tunnel attacks spurred public criticism of its defenses, Israel had been making progress thwarting militant attacks from the sky. In 2011, the Israeli military introduced the ‘Iron Dome’ defense system, the first missile-defense system capable of detecting and destroying short-range missiles within seconds.

But like the Iron Dome system, which went through several iterations before it reliably shot down short-range missiles, The Obstacle isn’t expected to be completely effective initially, officials say.

At the same time, Israel’s army is investing millions of dollars to train hundreds in subterranean combat. It is building an advanced training facility in the north of Israel, called Snir, which will have hundreds of meters of tunnels and cost more than $50 million.

Soldiers will learn how to approach the entrance of a tunnel and fight inside, although combat underground is discouraged in most cases, according to Brig. Gen. Einav Shalev, commander of the Israeli military’s ground forces department.

The military is also spending millions of dollars on an elite engineering unit, called the Yahalom, or “Diamond” in Hebrew, to destroy tunnels without risking soldiers’ lives. 

The unit is adding personnel, robots and other equipment to understand the size and depth of tunnels and how to destroy them without damaging buildings and infrastructure above.

“We understand that this is a big issue, and that we can’t just solve it [immediately],” Gen. Shalev said.

Hamas’ underground network into Israel—before the 2014 war largely destroyed it—was built over years by Palestinian workers who used sophisticated machinery and thousands of tons of cement. Militants created tunnels up to 3 miles long at a cost of up to $10 million each, according to Israeli officials.

With the help of the United Nations, Israel has since kept a close eye on cement and other materials moving into Gaza, which has helped slow economic and social development after the war.

Few Palestinian homes have been rebuilt since the war but cement distributors in Gaza say that some of the materials passing into the strip are being used for tunnel construction.

“The trick is that either the man receives more cement than he really needs or he uses part of the amount and sells the rest,” said Abu Feras, a distributor in Gaza. “In both cases, cement makes it to the black market.”

Those who dig the tunnels, like the late Mr. Zahar, are engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with Israeli intelligence. Mr. Zahar told his family almost nothing of his work on the tunnels, only that he wanted to be part of the resistance to what he perceived as Israel’s occupation of Gaza.

He used to leave his mobile phone at home to avoid Israeli intelligence. His parents would hear nothing from him all day.

His father says that rebuilding a tunnel network similar to the one that existed before 2014 is the priority for Gaza—more so than reconstructing homes destroyed during the war. That way, he argues, Hamas can continue to disrupt Israel’s security and push for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“Rebuilding Gaza is a matter of time,” he said. “But building tunnels is the priority if we want to finish what we started.”

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The Tunnels of Gaza’’s Next War



The New Yorker, February 27, 2016

By all accounts, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is on a tunnel-building streak. Hamas has boasted of building fifty tunnels since the Israel–Gaza conflict of July, 2014, though Israel insists those numbers are exaggerated. But residents of kibbutzim that border Gaza are increasingly warning of clattering and drilling noises under their homes. “I’ve heard the sound of a hammer and chisel, and my neighbor says she can hear them digging under the cement,” one resident told Reuters. They are worried about a scenario in which Hamas militants emerge outside an Israeli kibbutz or village, and attack.

Two Hamas operatives died from a tunnel collapse earlier this month, according to reports coming out of Gaza. A week earlier, seven Hamas members were killed when another tunnel caved in, apparently because of heavy rains and flooding. “East of Gaza City, heroes are digging through rock and building tunnels, and to the west they are experimenting with rockets every day,” Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, said while attending the funeral of the seven operatives.

In Israel, there is heated debate about the country’s preparedness for a “tunnel war.” Earlier this week, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon responded to the latest developments in Gaza. “We are not deluding ourselves,” he said. “We are prepared for the possibility that a southern front will open one of these days, and that we will have to defend ourselves.”

Israeli security forces believe that over the past eighteen months Hamas has been constructing three kinds of underground networks: weapons tunnels that operate within the Gaza Strip; smuggling tunnels into Egypt; and so-called offensive tunnels, or underpasses that snake all the way into Israel. In a rare sign of overt coöperation between Israel and Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt in recent months has flooded and destroyed more than thirty Hamas tunnels under its Rafah border, apparently at Israel’s request.

Israel and Egypt’s continued blockade on practically all supplies going into the coastal strip, and a drying up of funds from Hamas sponsors in Iran and Qatar, mean that Gaza, home to 1.8 million Palestinians, is verging on economic collapse. Unemployment is at forty per cent, and Gazans, with no prospect of work or of ever leaving their besieged enclave, are increasingly driven to despair. As the reporter Avi Issacharoff wrote last week, thirty Gaza residents have attempted suicide this past month alone. While Haniyeh insists that “no new war on Gaza appears on the horizon,” there are indications that Hamas may be preparing to attack. Hamas is now said to employ a thousand tunnel diggers who work around the clock. And on Friday, the group’s military wing made a show of simulating an attack with assault rifles and a suicide bombing.

On July 8, 2014, Israel launched an offensive in Gaza with the declared purpose of halting Hamas rocket fire, which had intensified after the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teen-agers and the subsequent burning of a Palestinian teen-ager. But that objective changed when, on July 17th, hours before a mediated ceasefire was to go into effect, thirteen Hamas militants came out of a tunnel into an open field outside an Israeli kibbutz, rattling the Israeli military, which had not understood the extent of Hamas’s underground network. Israel embarked on a ground offensive to destroy the tunnels, an operation that Ya’alon predicted would take “two to three days” but that lasted seven weeks and yielded only partial results.

Reports published after the war showed that the military had known of thirty-two tunnels before the offensive, but hadn’t realized their sophistication or that at least a third led straight into Israel. One engineering officer who helped identify three of those underpasses told Haaretz that while the Israel Defense Forces had seen “shallow” Hamas tunnels in the past, the ones found that July “made it clear that we were faced with something completely different: wide tunnels with internal communication systems. They had been dug deep underground and their walls were as thick as cement. You could walk standing upright without difficulty.” Once inside the tunnel, the officer added, “you realized that it wasn’t just meant to kidnap a soldier from the border, but that it could transport an entire enemy force in a short amount of time straight into the home front—and to attack us there.”

Hamas has relied on underground tactics since as early as 2006, when seven of its members surfaced from a tunnel some three hundred feet into Israeli territory, killed two soldiers, and abducted a third. That soldier, Gilad Shalit, was released in 2011 in exchange for a thousand and twenty-seven Palestinian prisoners. The defense minister at the time of Shalit’s abduction was Amir Peretz. I spoke to Peretz in his bureau a month after the Gaza war ended and asked him what he would have done about the tunnels had he still been defense minister. In an apparent dig at Ya’alon, who has held the job since 2013, Peretz said, “If I were the defense minister, I would have treated [the tunnels] as a strategic threat of the highest order, and the solution would have already existed by now.” He warned, “If we don’t solve this in Gaza, we’re going to encounter it in the north”—on Israel’s border with Syria or Lebanon.

Peretz told me that he had become aware of the gravity of the underground threat after the Shalit abduction, and that “back then we tried to solve it with vertical water tunnels and sensors.” But, he added after a pause, “It turned out to be more complicated than that.”

In recent weeks, there have been reports that Israel has spent more than seven hundred million dollars over the past year—and received an additional hundred and twenty million dollars from the United States—to field some four hundred different ideas for the detection and destruction of tunnels. There are signs that it may have adopted some of the suggested technologies: Hamas has complained of finding sensors and cameras at the sites of the collapsed tunnels, and a report published last year in the Israeli newspaper Globes stated that the military has started to implement a sensor-based system developed by an Israeli defense electronics company. That system reportedly cost upwards of a million dollars for each kilometer covered, while the building cost of an entire tunnel by Hamas is estimated to be no more than a hundred and twenty thousand dollars.

Israelis are expecting no less than an “underground Iron Dome,” as one resident put it, in a reference to the anti-missile system that had a whopping ninety per cent interception rate during the Gaza war, according to Israeli security sources. Long before Hamas launched rockets from Gaza, it reached deep into Israeli cities through the use of suicide bombings. But for Israelis, the fear of the tunnels lies in face-to-face encounters with enemy forces. The fear is basic, almost atavistic, in these days of advanced warfare.

In the wake of the war in Gaza, I sat down in Tel Aviv with Danny Gold, the retired general who is credited with having invented the Iron Dome. Gold took the tunnel threat seriously. “It’s not a simple ‘event,’ technologically speaking,” he told me. “Since the Vietnam War it hasn’t been solved. Between Mexico and the United States it isn’t solved. Sometimes it’s even harder than finding oil in the ground.” Still, he added with a smirk, “I think rockets are harder to defend against—and we did it.”

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The Next War Between Israel and Hamas May Be Fought Underground

Lush trees drip with fruit in a clementine orchard near a lookout point at the Nir Am kibbutz. Hashem Barawi, a Palestinian worker from Gaza, hands the kibbutz’s agricultural head Ofer Lieberman several of the sweet citrus fruit. This idyllic setting, home to 400 Jewish Israelis, is one of the closest communities along Israel’s border with northern Gaza. “It’s quiet here. It’s like heaven,” says Lieberman.

Barawi and Lieberman have been friends and colleagues for 35 years. They remember when Gaza was open and they could travel to visit each other, though now only Barawi is allowed to travel into Israel, and only with difficulty. Yet the two men should be enemies, at least judging by the relations between their respective leaderships — the Israeli government and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has ruled Gaza since it won an election in 2005 and seized control of the Gaza Strip from Palestinian Authority forces in 2007. Increasingly bellicose rhetoric has put Hamas and the Israeli leadership on a collision course toward war, barely a year and a half after the last open conflict in 2014, which began with rocket fire and left 2,100 Palestinians and 70 Israelis dead.

But the next war will likely be waged underground. Hamas have announced they are building tunnels into Israel, and residents of the kibbutz Nir Am and other communities along the border have recorded sounds of tunnel diggers working underneath their homes. And the thought of militants operating beneath their feet has Israelis — not unaccustomed to terror — increasingly fearful. “Personally I prefer missiles — because you can get inside a shelter and it’s O.K., but once a terrorist is inside the kibbutz with a gun, I don’t know what would happen,” says Lieberman. “I really hope it will not happen, but we just don’t know.

Tunnels are not a new threat. The Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by a militant who entered Israel using a tunnel in 2006. He was held for five years and freed only when Israel released 1,027 prisoners. At the height of the last war, the underground threat became real when 10 Hamas militants emerged from a tunnel in a wheat field on the periphery of Nir Am. They were disguised in Israeli army uniforms. Four Israeli soldiers were killed, and all 10 of the militants, in an exchange of fire.

That atmosphere of vulnerability intensified this year after a Jan. 29 funeral of seven diggers who were killed when winter rains allegedly caused five tunnels to collapse. “East of Gaza City, heroes are digging through rock and building tunnels, and to the west they are experimenting with rockets every day,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said at the funeral. While Hamas blamed their deaths on the heavy rain, when the Palestinian news agency Maan asked the Israeli army’s Coordination of the Government Activities in the Territories unit chief, General Yoav Mordecai, if Israel had a hand in the collapse of tunnels, he replied, “God knows.”

Hamas started digging tunnels immediately after the war ended in 2014 and says it has constructed more than 50 in that time. While Israel acknowledges that there are tunnels, it says these numbers are inflated. For Hamas, the purpose of these tunnels is simple: either to kidnap Israeli civilians in order to use them as leverage for the release of more Palestinian prisoners, or to attack Israelis and kill them.

In 2014 the Israeli army discovered 32 tunnels, half of which penetrated into Israel. The army believes it took Hamas four years to build these 32 tunnels, which were all destroyed in the last war. But in some cases Israel was only able to blow up the entry or exit points of the tunnels, or collapse them in the middle. Israel is working desperately to develop technology along the border to try to halt further construction, but it has refused to divulge details on just how that might work — or how effective it will be.

“It’s a kind of race between us and them. We will find a solution, and they will then find several answers,” says Atai Shelach, a former commander of Israel’s military combat engineering unit, who now heads a company providing engineering products. “This challenge won’t vanish in the next three to four decades. It’s not just a race, it’s a marathon race; we have to be patient.”

Heavy machinery and engineering equipment were lined up along Israel’s border with Gaza when TIME visited recently. While the Israeli army won’t confirm what is being done with the equipment, military spokesman Peter Lerner confirmed that army has 100 engineering devices “carrying out various activities along the border to reveal and expose tunnels.”

These devices have been rumored to be part of a secret underground defense system, similar to Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which detects and intercepts rockets being fired from Gaza. According to a recent report in the Financial Times, Israel secured $120 million in U.S. funding this year to develop technology to detect and destroy tunnels. On Feb. 20, during Friday prayer, Haniyeh of Hamas announced that al-Qassam, the group’s military wing, had discovered Israeli electronic equipment meant to find underground tunnels. He said the equipment included cameras and sensors.

But while Israel forges ahead with its high-tech detection system, Hamas says it has workers constructing tunnels up to 24 hours a day. “The death of the tunnel workers during the last severe storm gave a very serious signal that Hamas is working around the clock, even in the worst weather circumstances,” says Mkhaimer Abusada, a professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza.

While Abusada estimates that two-thirds of the Gazan population do not support another war with Israel, there are many who do. “The Palestinian community in Gaza is divided — those affiliated with Hamas are very comfortable with the strategy of digging tunnels and developing missiles. Hamas create an illusion that Israel will be defeated and that people will be able to pray in al-Aqsa mosque — people buy this fantasy.”

Yousra al Shobaki, mother of 22-year-old Ghazwan, who dug tunnels and fought for Hama’s military wing, al-Qassam, told TIME she supports Hamas’ efforts. “We will win in the end. I ask all the mothers in Gaza to support the jihad and to go to the mosques to teach them how to defend their country — and to teach their sons what jihad means. I wish all the young Qassam men the best in their work, and I hope they will win in the end of all these conflicts with the Israelis. There is no such thing as Israel — these people occupied our land, there is nothing called Israel.”

The situation for everyday Palestinians in Gaza has become dire — 900,000 of the 1.2 million–strong population are in need of aid support in the aftermath of the last war. Earlier this month, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories announced the need to collect $571 million for emergency services across the Palestinian territories, most of which would go to Gaza. With only a quarter of the 18,000 homes destroyed during the war in any state of repair, much of Gaza is still in rubble, with thousands of people remaining homeless. Dr. Abusada believes that some of the much needed building materials entering to Gaza through Israel were ending up in Hamas’ hands, where they were redirected toward tunnel construction.

Back in kibbutz Nir Am, Barawi and Lieberman agree that a war would be catastrophic — and so it would be for ordinary Palestinians and Israelis alike. But the decision may not be up to them.

— Additional reporting by Mohamed al-Zaharna

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