Armies have always resorted to lowering the battle against their stronger enemies to tunnels and underground caverns. Hizbullah and Hamas have built entire underground cities. The tunnels that were exposed over the past few days of Operation Protective Edge in the south, are the most crucial stage of the operation. It has been clearly proven that the “explosive tunnels” have been built for kidnapping and smuggling fighters.
He couldn’t believe his eyes.
The southern command of the IDF hosted one of its former senior commanders who served many years ago. It is a gesture the army sometimes makes to former prominent officials. They bring the man back to the zones, and primarily, try to show him what has changed since he’s been there.
Throughout the tour, this official was also taken to the area where the huge tunnel Hamas had dug on the Gaza border was located. He stood and stared in utter shock. “A tunnel in our days,” he said, “was something narrow, almost like a crevice, a few meters long. It was more like an underground storage pit. What I see here is an entire city. Kilometers upon kilometers of tunnel walled with concrete, high enough for a man to walk through, illuminated brightly, with a wired communication system, that crosses borders. In other words, a new underground world.”
Yes, the world of battles between armies is over. Since the dawn of history, weaker armies have chosen to lower the battlefields upon which they waged wars against enemies into tunnels and holes beneath the ground. That was what happened in the days of Bar Kochva, and it was the same during the Vietnam war. The Taliban in Pakistan, the Hizbullah in Lebanon, and now Hamas in Gaza have all resorted to this method. They built entire underground cities. The tunnels exposed in the south this week are the focus of Operation Protective Edge in its new and most crucial stage. It has been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that the terror organizations built these tunnels to kidnap soldiers and civilians and to facilitate the infiltration of terrorists beyond the front lines.
Therefore, it’s worthwhile to change the old image of tunnels in the battlefield. They are no longer what that former officer thought they were when he came on a nostalgic visit to the southern command. Today’s tunnels are the focus of the current conflict, beneath the surface. It is a challenging, dangerous, unexpected battlefield that is most comfortable for those who are familiar with the places, but can be a deadly trap for those who enter like a blind person into an ambush.
Throughout the ground operation of Operation Protective Edge, the IDF has so far discovered nearly 50 tunnels. At least 15 of them are what are known as explosive tunnels, which are long and serpentine, and were dug from the Gaza Strip deep into Israeli territory. The Engineering Corps remembered this week the first tunnel, about 2.5 km in length, that Hamas built from the Strip into Israel, about a year and a half ago. It exploded on the eve of Operation Pillar of Defense and hit an IDF jeep. Only many long days later did it become clear that that tunnel was just another branch in a network of some two kilometers of tunnels that was only exposed some two weeks later. Army sources who examined the exposed tunnels say that the terrorists built them with construction materials that Israel allowed into Gaza in recent years, and that these tunnels span tens of kilometers.
The large tunnel that was discovered since, which came from the southern Gaza Strip towards Kibbutz Ein Hashloshah, was some 15 meters beneath the surface of the ground. It was illuminated with a sophisticated system, and there was a communications network, as well as a small railroad to transport cargo — apparently for terrorists or kidnapped soldiers from one side of the tunnel to the other at maximum speed. The assumptions are that the tunnel was built during the course of two years. As the result of its being discovered and the discovery of which materials were used to build it, the transfer of new construction materials to Gaza from Israel was halted. But a few days later Israel decided to resume the deliveries, under pressure from the Europeans and the Americans, all for “humanitarian reasons.”
“The tunnel was built for terror purposes, and this discovery prevented a potential attack,” said General Shlomo Turgeman, chief of southern command, at the time. “It’s a terror tunnel that penetrated Israeli territory, and through that, violated its sovereign territory. That’s an even more severe act, because these tunnels can be used to harm civilians and soldiers, which is a blatant violation of the understandings reached at Operation Pillar of Defense.” The declaration sounds somewhat comical, today, a year and a half later, when Israel has already unearthed 50 tunnels that Hamas built.
The chief of the command emphasized at the time that the materials used to build the tunnel were materials that Israel had sent into the Strip for civilian use. “We enabled the entrance of construction materials to the Gaza Strip, and Hamas cynically took advantage of our goodheartedness, and utilized these resourses for terror purposes,” General Turgeman said. “Therefore, we immediately suspended the transfer of construction materials to Gaza. It was necessary in light of the way we saw Hamas using those materials. Instead of using them to benefit the public, they are building these tunnels. A tunnel like this,” he emphasized, “can be used to carry out an explosive attack or to enable terrorists to infiltrate.”
Hamas and other terror organizations, he said at the time, are digging many kilometers of tunnels throughout the Strip. “They are already preparing for the next war, and think that it will be easier for them to conduct it with us beneath the surface. This is an entire industry of planners, diggers and machinery. All the partners to the tunnel industry are responsible,” he warned. “Hamas is investing tens of millions of dollars in the darkness of the terror tunnels instead of investing in light, in the population of the strip.”
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon also addressed the exposure of the tunnel at the time, and said that “the exposure of the terror tunnel on the Gaza border is another proof that Hamas continues to plan for a future conflict with Israel and for terror activities in the event it feels they are possible to execute.”
Yaalon and Turgeman knew a long time ago how to define the dangers that are inherent in tunnels, and explained to all why the terrorists chose this sort of underground fighting. But they made a big mistake as to Israel’s abilities to deal with this specific danger. They knew that in a conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Israel has a huge advantage, above ground — except for the tunnel zones beneath the ground. Here, the terror groups make a mockery of Israel, and the intelligence and all the other sophisticated electronic equipment have not been able to provide enough good indications and advanced warning as to the existence of the tunnels.
How many tunnels like the ones exposed this week exist? No one knows, but the assessment is many dozens. And if we take into account that each of the tunnels found in the first days of Protective Edge’s ground operation took 500 tons of cement (which came from Israel, of course), then we can understand what kind of enterprise this is. They are trying to duplicate their achievement into dozens more tunnels, some similar to these, some larger and some much smaller. This can aptly be described as something of “fantastic proportions.”
It has to be admitted: Israel was aware of the danger of the tunnels, but the tunnels were being built for future scenarios when Hamas would decide to implement such an attack. The Israeli side did not pay enough attention to it. They built anti-missile missile systems, but did not invest a tenth of the resources to address the danger of the tunnels. Hamas built dozens of strategic tunnels and dreamed, first and foremost, of repeating the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. The good taste that remains in their mouths from the years he was captive, and the huge achievement they got when they received more than 1,000 prisoners for a lone soldier, does not leave them for a minute. They are fantasizing a reenacting of that kidnapping and achieving similar gains.
And this week we saw that through the tunnels that they built, it is very easy for them to execute kidnappings, and only with great chasdei Shamayim did they fail. And with that, they exacted a steep price in the number of lives, when suddenly, the terrorists appeared behind the soldiers and began shooting at them. The soldiers were taken totally by surprise, and right after that, they fled back into one of those tunnel openings.
“It’s important to understand that underground fighting is not new,” says General (res.) Mordechai Yoav, a Paratroopers Brigade commander. “The issue of tunnels has been dogging the IDF since the 1960s and into the 2000s, primarily because of smuggling along the Philadelphia Corridor. At the end of 2002, at the height of the second intifada, there was a rise in the use of this method by terror groups, and already then, the Gaza Brigade established a ‘Tunnel Department.’ The job of the department was to try and create for the IDF advantages in the underground warfare field since it was impossible to ignore the significance of this factor in the fighting. This threat demanded immediate attention because during wartime, the fighters could come upon the tunnels at all stages of the fighting, fire, maneuvering and cleansing of the zone afterwards.”
But that same tunnel department was closed in 2005 after the deaths of two officers in the explosion of a tunnel. Since then, responsibility for this issue was transferred to the engineering unit for special missions (or in its better known name “Yahalom”) which led to the establishment of the “Smo”r Brigade,” an acronym for the tunnels and weapons caches brigade. The brigade was established in an effort to provide professional solutions to the challenges of concealed, underground battlefields. That was done with the understanding that it was vital to be ready for the underground threat, and that it required an expert, specialized group to do so. The unit has been operating for nearly 13 years, and it includes forces with special levels of training in this field.
“The unit’s activities include isolating the suspicious structures and locating the underground range, combing it, fighting if necessary, and ultimately, neutralizing and cleansing it,” the commander of the brigade explains. “We are not naïve and we know that some of the challenges with this threat can include fighting in dangerous, uncharted territory. As a special unit, the soldiers are trained in very advanced combat and learn how to overcome the physical challenges of underground warfare.
“These challengers are part of the asymmetrical methods of fighting that the terror organizations have been promising in recent years. This manifests the advantages of guerilla warfare that they use and which they are trying to use to overcome the gap in resources and knowledge that an organized army has.”
Today it is already clear that the tunnels in Gaza are more prevalent than in Lebanon and that they are located in built-up areas and in open areas, beneath an old washing machine in a private house or behind a couch where the father of the family slept, under plants in the garden, or in the heart of a cluster of fruit trees. Most of them are guarded and booby-trapped against IDF soldiers.
“Our initial assumption is that in every tunnel the enemy has posted security and bombs against our forces,” the unit’s commander says. The tunnel world is broad and varied, from simple ones with varying depths and widths and a few openings, to complex ones that include numerous exits and which are equipped with many caverns that include command centers, bedrooms, living areas and a medical clinic, like an entire underground city.
“These tunnels have four primary uses. The first is one that traverses borders, whose objective is to enable the enemy to cross the border without being detected in order to carry out attacks and kidnappings (the types of tunnels discovered this week). The second type is the smuggling tunnels, which are the ones familiar at the Rafiach crossing and the Philadelphia Corridor, and which serve to smuggle illegal goods and weapons for terrorists, medicines and even people and cars. This helps shore up terror groups. The other two types of tunnels are what the soldiers encountered in battle this week, and it is there that so many soldiers lost their lives, known in Hebrew as “mignentiot” and “hitkarvut” tunnels.
The catastrophic nature of these tunnels was proven again in June 2006, when, with no advanced warning, terrorists emerged from a terror tunnel dug near Kerem Shalom. The result: two dead and one soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped and held captive for five years in the enemy lines. He was returned only for the release of more than 1,000 terrorists.
The IDF has invested a huge sum of money and manpower and technological resources not only to prepare for the underground fighting, but also to train the soldiers for the moment they will encounter the tunnels and enter. But when the moment arrived, this week, it emerged that the underground battle is completely different from what the soldiers are familiar with above ground, and all the preparations did not prepare them for what really happened. The IDF acquired small robots that are capable of acting automatically inside the tunnels and transmitting messages about what they see and hear. In addition, the IDF has “combed” the world in an effort to find resources to discover tunnels in the early stages of construction. When they did not find any, they tasked the Israeli technology companies to develop such a device.
“Hamas in the Strip has established an ‘underground tunnel land’ in advance of their conflict with us,” said Sergeant Ilan Liani, head of the tunnel division in the Southern Command. “But we have learned this field very well and have come into this battle prepared. With that, it is not an easy battle to fight, but we have the intelligence information and the readiness of the soldiers to go down under the ground and wage this war. For the enemy, it is a strategic weapon, and the fact that we came to 50 tunnels in the first 48 hours of the ground operation, means we will surely discover more in the coming days. We will detonate and neutralize them, and we will harm the Hamas’ ability and ruin their tremendous investment over the years.”