True & False Regarding the Tunnels

The on-going public discourse regarding the underground tunnels in the Gaza Strip still contains question marks and disinformation. In his weekly column, Amir Rapaport attempts to put everything into order

The tunnel leading from Gaza into Israel, near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Kissufim (Photo: AP)

The IDF operation in which the Hamas tunnel in Kerem-Shalom was demolished earlier this week made the headlines, but the on-going public discourse regarding the tunnel issue (since Operation Protective Edge in 2014) still contains some question marks and even some disinformation.

Some of the statements made this past week are only partly true. So what is true and what is false with regard to the tunnels?

1. "This week, the IDF destroyed a tunnel the likes of which has never been encountered before."

Both true and false.

On the one hand, apparently, almost every tunnel is "one the likes of which has never been encountered before." Each tunnel has its own route, depth and length characteristics, and the excavation and construction methods vary as well.

On the other hand, the tunnel that the IDF demolished and subsequently, as it seems, filled with massive amounts of cement and concrete, was truly exceptional with regard to length and the severity of the disaster it could have helped inflict: a massive terrorist attack against the Kerem-Shalom goods transfer checkpoint above it.

The IDF attack was aimed at the opening of the tunnel, located in the outskirts of the town of Rafah. The tunnel started in the eastern part of the town, 900 meters away from the border fence system, passing under the gas and fuel pipes of the Kerem-Shalom checkpoint complex and extending into Egypt. Out of the overall route, a 180-meter long section was inside Israeli territory.

Hamas responded promptly by stating that the tunnel was a "commercial" smuggling tunnel operated by the Bedouins. It may have been used to smuggle Hamas operatives into Egypt. The total length of the tunnel was 1.5 kilometers and it was still under construction during the past year before it was destroyed.

2. "The IDF has developed a technological measure, the equivalent of the Iron Dome system, against the tunnels."

False.

Regrettably, despite the massive investments in the development of technologies against the tunnels (a project led by Elbit Systems in which numerous industries participate), a "subterranean Iron Dome" or some other magic device capable of telling its operators exactly what takes place under the ground are yet to be developed. Presumably, the recent cases in which tunnels were spotted involved a mix of technological and intelligence resources.

Does Israel have an interest in creating an exaggerated impression regarding a possible "magic cure" for the tunnel problem? Very likely.

3. "The tunnel issue is one of the most severe omissions in the history of the Israeli defense establishment."

This statement may be somewhat exaggerated – but in principle it is true.

Over the last few years, the State Comptroller has examined the manner in which the tunnel threat had been handled prior to Operation Protective Edge. It is unclear whether his report regarding this specific issue will be made public.

4. "The IDF will provide a complete solution for the tunnel threat by the end of 2018."

Very true.

Even if a magic technological solution is not available yet, the combination of detection capabilities of every conceivable type, including "human" resources, with a massive engineering project of erecting an underground wall extending to a depth of dozens of meters, will eliminate the threat by the end of 2018, in line with the goal set by the IDF Chief of Staff. That's the way it goes when the Israeli defense establishment decides to handle a threat in a thorough manner, regardless of any budget restrictions.

Two problems are associated with this activity, however: firstly, the tremendous effort invested in the elimination of the tunnels has led to a state of high tension, which could escalate into a war none of the parties is interested in. Secondly, the unprecedented investment will not provide a solution for the next major threat, which could be a swarm of unmanned airborne platforms launched out of the Gaza Strip or some other peril – anything the creative imagination of Hamas and Islamic Jihad can come up with.