The Lieberman Line

Will the underground wall project along the Gaza Strip end up like the Bar-Lev Line did? What is the actual significance of Russia's recent moves and the aid agreement signed with the USA? All will be revealed in Amir Rapaport's weekly column

Israeli soldiers enter a tunnel discovered near the Israel Gaza border (Photo: AP)

The history of the State of Israel included quite a few fateful (and costly) decisions that were made pursuant to a minimal public discussion or with no public discussion at all.

As always, history repeats itself: an ambitious project involving an underground concrete wall around the Gaza Strip has been launched recently. Although this project could evolve into one of the costliest projects in Israel's history, and although the doubts and concerns regarding its effectiveness are just as deep as the wall itself – the public debate around this project is minimal. It is fair to say that very few people are aware of the project's existence. Here are a few details about this giant project.

The wall in question is intended to surround the entire Gaza Strip – a 60 km circumference. It will reach a depth of dozens of meters.

A minimal trial section will be erected initially, at the cost of not less than 600 million ILS. One half of the funding will come from the budget of the Ministry of Defense while the other half will be provided through a special budget of the Ministry of Finance. The progress rate of the construction process, at best, will be as planned. Even if the rate improves over time, a long period of time will be required in order to complete the wall. The total cost will amount to billions – many billions.

The wall project is associated – quite naturally – with the attempts to find a solution to the underground tunnel threat. This threat has been in existence for decades and billions have been spent in an attempt to provide a solution for it through a countless number of ideas (for example, the planting of thousands of underground sensors). The change brought about by Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014 was the realization that the tunnels are no longer just a "nuisance", but an acute and substantial threat that could lead the inhabitants of the Jewish settlements around the Gaza Strip to abandon their homes.

So, in the two years that have passed since Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli defense establishment promoted dozens of programs in an attempt to find a solution to the tunnel threat, including a project led by Elbit Systems. Other technological and operational efforts were made in connection with the tunnel threat. Some were effective, others were not. We are unable to elaborate, for obvious reasons.

The decision to opt for the construction of an underground wall was quite a surprise. In order to build the wall, specialized equipment was acquired, capable of excavating and pouring in massive amounts of concrete. The decision was made by the government secretly. Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman is pushing the project vigorously. Nevertheless, within the defense establishment, support for the project is far less than massive.

What are the pros? The factor that led to the decision to build the wall under the ground was the concept of certain parties within the Ministry of Defense, according to which eventually, a physical barrier provides security. The fence systems along the majority of the "Green Line" and along the border with Egypt in the south are regarded as a success. The person in charge of these project, who believes in fence systems with all his heart, is the oldest-serving regular IDF officer – Brig. Gen. Eran Ophir.

However, there is a big difference between a fence rising to a height of a few meters above the ground and a concrete wall under the ground. For this reason, quite a few parties within the defense establishment, including IDF and MAFAT (IMOD's Weapon System and Technological Infrastructure Research & Development Administration), object to this project. Their voices cannot be heard as no public discussion is being conducted with regard to this issue.

So, the project has been launched while it is still unclear where it is headed: if the trial fails, 600 million ILS will go down the drain. If it succeeds – massive budgets will be required, on the scale of nation-wide projects dating back to the early days of the State of Israel, like the Israel National Water Carrier.

Apparently, the process of erecting the concrete wall will involve the planting of quite a few sophisticated sensors, but the major concern is that the tunnel diggers of Hamas will be able to penetrate the wall while the IDF is unable to spot all of the points where the wall had been breached.

The vigorous operations associated with the trial section of the wall are clearly visible near the Gaza Strip. In accordance with the challenge, the engineering equipment being used is of monstrous proportions. The company awarded the lion's share of the construction budget for the trial section is Solel Boneh. In the event that a decision is made to complete the wall around the entire circumference of the Gaza Strip, three different contractors will be selected through a tender, and subsequently ordered to work simultaneously.

The giant scope of this project has led to the emergence of a strong lobby of defense industries and construction companies that are keenly interested in the very existence of the project. The project is also intended to calm the justifiable concerns of the inhabitants of the southern region with regard to the tunnel threat. It can help the government relieve the political pressure calling it to "do everything possible" to find a solution to the tunnel threat. But will the Gaza Wall be an effective defensive wall? Far from certain.

Putin's Tactics

Here is another move of considerable regional importance that has received only minimum attention from the media: in view of the forthcoming overbalance in the civil war in Syria, the Russians are pursuing an initiative to establish a permanent airbase on Syrian soil.

The person who aimed the spotlight at the application submitted to the Russian parliament to authorize the establishment of the new airbase is Jacob (Yasha) Kedmi, formerly the head of the Nativ organization in the USSR. According to Kedmi, from a strategic viewpoint, the permanent base will be able to provide an aerial umbrella for Russian naval vessels operating in the Mediterranean Sea (some of which are docked at the established Russian naval base in Lattakia). This will change the region profoundly.

In addition to the establishment of the airbase (as opposed to deploying Russian aircraft to a temporary airbase in Syria, which had taken place many months ago), the Russians have been conducting extensive naval maneuvers over the last few days with the Chinese Navy. So, while world attention was drawn last week to the agreement that had been reached (or not) by the USA and Russia regarding a ceasefire in the civil war in Syria, it seems that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is taking advantage of the pre-election period that has paralyzed the American government in order to make military moves of strategic significance across the globe.

The US-Israel Aid Agreement

This, too, happened last week: following a long delay, the new US-Israel aid agreement for the ten-year period commencing 2017 has finally been signed.

This column reported months ago that the future aid package will amount to about US$3.8 billion per year, an amount that will include all of the aid elements, including such special projects as the Arrow and Iron Dome. The Americans have stiffened their terms regarding the manner in which some of the aid funds may be utilized outside the USA.

Despite the fact that the negotiations have been exhausting and that there are no real surprises regarding the agreement eventually, the very signature of this agreement will make it easier for the IDF to kick-start several projects, including the primary procurement project for which the bulk of the budget is intended – the acquisition of the new F-35 fighters, IAF designation Adir.

The first Adir aircraft is expected to be handed over to IAF in December. By the end of next year, IAF will have 8 Adir fighters. The Israeli Government has thus far sanctioned the acquisition of 33 aircraft. IAF wants to utilize the budget to complement the acquisition by 17 additional aircraft (bringing the total to 50 F-35 fighters, making up two fighter squadrons).

The real fight within the defense establishment will be waged over the question of whether the US Aid funds would be used to purchase a third squadron of Adir fighters, or at least one half of an additional squadron.

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