The Underground Tunnel Omission: A Predictable Failure
As far back as 2008 I cautioned that the IDF is not doing enough to cope
with the major threat posed by the subterranean system being constructed by
Hamas: technology is not likely to provide a solution to this problem and
even political beheadings will contribute nothing. Amir Rapaport’s weekly
Amir Rapaport | 21/10/2016
One of the most severe chronic diseases of the IDF is a particularly short
corporate memory. Commanders in the various corps of the ‘green’ (ground)
military change at a mind-boggling pace, and the knowledge accumulated
during the tenure of a serving commander will fade away very often – or
would have to be learned afresh, with more blood spilled as tuition fees.
The results of this inbuilt failure become evident again and again, during
every new major operation. Naturally, during peacetime, many of these faults
remain hidden from public view.
The omission involving the underground tunnels in the Gaza Strip, which
evolved into the most acute aspect of Operation Protective Edge, is a
significant example of the implications of that chronic disease, and is the
natural extension of other omissions from the more distant past. Against the
background of this omission, some senior military officers and government
officials are currently anxiously awaiting the forthcoming report by the
State Comptroller, who has been investigating the information that was
available about the tunnel threat and the solutions provided for that
threat. The report is to be submitted very soon, and dozens of lawyers are
already conducting a series of dialogs with the senior officials of the
State Comptroller’s office in an attempt to contain the damage to the
respective reputations of their clients.
Additionally, last week the IDF Radio revealed, for the first time, findings
of the IDF Commission of Inquiry headed by Brigadier-General Yossi Bachar,
which investigated the issue pursuant to Operation Protective Edge.
Amazingly, that commission of inquiry ruled that the IDF had not prepared
properly to face the tunnel threat.
The tremendous efforts currently under way are an utter waste of time. Here
are some simple and alternative findings that were listed in a report
regarding this omission which I had written long before Operation Protective
Edge. The following was published on the NRG website on October 25, 2008,
under the heading ‘The Surprises Awaiting IDF under the Ground in the Gaza
This is what I had written back then: “A construction effort is currently
under way in the Gaza Strip. Admittedly, it cannot be seen, but it is
gaining momentum nevertheless. We can tell just by the massive demand for
cement, as on the ground you cannot see where all this cement is going.
Throughout the Gaza Strip there are hardly any construction sites where
high-rise buildings are being erected, and even the number of low-rise
buildings currently under construction is very small. This gap can lead to
only one conclusion: he who does not build high – builds deep. Most of the
construction work currently under way is being carried out clandestinely,
under the ground.
“What are they building down there? Ask the Hezbollah terrorists who
invented the ‘nature reserves’ in Lebanon – those hidden, impenetrable
firing positions that changed the rules so dramatically in the summer of
2006. That is the process currently taking place throughout the Gaza Strip –
massive underground systems, bunkers, basements and mainly an infinite web
of tunnels and fighting trenches.
“If the ceasefire agreement should collapse and IDF invade the Gaza Strip,
those tunnels will be manned by thousands of terrorists who would attempt to
inflict heavy casualties on the invading forces.”
I also pointed out that “Military sources estimate that Hamas are building
tunnels for two primary needs – offensive and defensive operations. The
tunnels are being constructed under the central parts of such cities as
Rafah or even Gaza, where, according to Hamas’ estimates, extensive combat
encounters could take place when IDF invade the Gaza Strip.
“The tunnels inside the cities were intended to enable Hamas terrorists to
move freely from street to street under the ground, in order to take the IDF
units by surprise – from a different position every time. The fighting
trenches connect to underground command and control bunkers as well as to
underground ammunition dumps.
“At the same time, tunnels are being constructed away from the city centers
that connect to ‘explosive pits’ – cavernous spaces in the ground, located
under the primary routes leading into the Gaza Strip, which Hamas might fill
with explosives so that they may be detonated, when the time comes, under
IDF vehicle convoys.
“The underground construction effort also includes, according to various
estimates, hundreds of firing positions for Qassam and Katyusha rockets,
designed to be immune to Israeli air strikes. Some positions of this type
have already been uncovered during a limited-scope IDF operation in the
northern part of the Gaza Strip about ten months ago. The overriding
principle of this project is the fact that the entire underground
construction activity is carried out while existing buildings are being
converted for combat functions above the ground, too, so that everything may
be coordinated efficiently.
“Sooner or later, as history has taught us, it is the nature of war to shift
into the subterranean medium, mainly in the case of confrontations between
regular armed forces and guerrilla groups.”
I had also written the following back then: “Hamas is probably counting on
its members to inflict massive casualties on IDF owing to the fact that they
will be fighting out of those tunnels. In view of those heavy casualties,
Hamas expects the (Israeli) political echelon to come under pressure to
withdraw the forces, as the fighting would seem futile.
“At the tactical level, it is doubtful whether IDF can come up with an
effective solution for coping with the web of tunnels being built by Hamas
(…). When Hamas’ plans seem so obvious, the question that needs to be asked
is ‘What are IDF doing about it?’ Apparently, they are not doing enough.”
I had concluded with the following remarks: “In view of the fact that ‘an
underground city’ is currently being built in the Gaza Strip, one could have
expected a tremendous effort by the best minds of the Israeli defense
establishment, but that does not seem to be the case.
“‘Sometimes it seems that the tunnel problem does not really concern anyone,
as if it were the problem of some other country,’ says a senior defense
source with frustration, ‘If we have to pay a heavy toll because of the fact
that we are not investing every possible effort, people will say it was an
omission. At this time, it looks like a severe omission, one which we can
point out in advance’.”
The Alternative Report
The obvious conclusion from the report published in 2008 is that all of the
details regarding the tunnel system and its objectives were well known.
Since then, the information only became more detailed and comprehensive, and
even included the precise locations of some of the tunnels, as the data
about those tunnels had been obtained by the defense establishment through
an extensive range of intelligence sources.
What became of that information within IDF after 2008? Not much. The few
commanders who were truly concerned about this danger were replaced by
others. Some of them were discharged to civilian life at a fairly young age.
The new commanders were kept busy, in the best IDF tradition, by more
immediate, local threats – not by what had been conceived as a distant
threat that would eventually become the problem of ‘another watch’.
On the morning when Operation Protective Edge was initiated, the IDF Chief
of Staff placed in motion an operational plan that had no connection
whatsoever to fighting the tunnels. That entire issue had been kept out of
the plan. The IDF Operations Division referred to the employment of
additional element that were to be dispatched to the combat zone in the
event of an actual enemy intrusion – nothing more than that.
The enormity and severity of the threat had been well known for a few years,
but the IDF failed to internalize and understand it, and the memory was
eroded. Consequently, IDF regarded the tunnels on the first morning of the
fighting as a marginal issue – if they had ever addressed them to begin
with – and all of that does not even refer to the argument between ISA and
IDF as to whether a ‘tunnel warning’ had existed or not. Beyond that, there
was no similarity between the manner in which the actual combat operations
were conducted and the original battle plan.
Only IDF Southern Command had a plan for fighting the tunnels, designated
‘Hagana Kidmit’ (= Forward Defense). It focused on a section extending to a
depth of several kilometers inside the Gaza Strip. The general commanding
IDF Southern Command in those days, Major-General Sammy Turjeman, suggested
it to the cabinet for the first time only five days after the operation had
The IDF Intelligence Directorate knew almost everything, but failed in
presenting the over-all picture of the threat to the senior echelons of the
military and the government. When Operation Protective Edge was launched,
the IDF Intelligence Directorate was busy, first and foremost, disseminating
thousands of bits of intelligence information to the field echelon – an
important and worthy lesson drawn from the Second Lebanon War. The
underground tunnels had not been defined as a high-priority threat.
The line of defense of the IDF Intelligence Directorate vis-à-vis the State
Comptroller maintains that the tunnel issue was the exclusive intelligence
responsibility of IDF Southern Command, as GHQ only handles strategic-level
threats. Allegedly, IDF Southern Command had refused to hand over the
authority to the IDF Intelligence Directorate (at GHQ), and only agreed to
hand over the tasks of locating and tracking the long-range missiles,
regarded as a strategic threat. Even the task of handling
(intelligence-wise) the enemy’s short-range rockets remained the
responsibility of IDF Southern Command Intelligence.
At the operational level, between 2008 and 2014 IDF had made almost no
preparations whatsoever for coping with the tunnel threat. The combat effort
against the tunnels during Operation Protective Edge was nothing more than a
makeshift, improvised activity. It is hard to believe, but back then IDF did
not have any structured drills for engaging in combat operations inside the
tunnels. Incidentally, since then IDF are constantly developing such drills
and preparing for it using a specialized tunnel training facility.
Until Operation Protective Edge, the lion’s share of the effort aimed
against the tunnel threat was technological. The substantial efforts
notwithstanding, dozens of projects intended to eliminate the enemy’s
underground system failed miserably. In 2011, MAFAT (IMOD’s Weapon System &
Technological Infrastructure Research & Development Administration)
announced an emergency project. In 2012, a subsequent tender was issued for
that project. The technology of the winning project was based, in part, on
an idea conceived years previously by the late former President of Israel,
Shimon Peres. That project failed on the ground. Even after Operation
Protective Edge, when the technological effort was pushed to the limit,
technology has failed to provide any magic solutions.
Against the background of the concerns regarding the forthcoming State
Comptroller’s report, the decision to start erecting an underground concrete
wall between Israel and the Gaza Strip, which was made recently without an
in-depth deliberation and even without a tender, may be viewed as nearly
hysterical. Even if the limited-scale trial currently under way succeeds,
the project as a whole seems to be an illogical idea: the cost of
constructing a 60 kilometer long wall of this type could amount to hundreds
of billions of ILS. The actual construction process will take many years to
complete, and when everything has been done – the enemy may still penetrate
the wall and cross it using mechanical equipment. Meanwhile, this enormous
project is under way, and everyone’s attention is drawn to the forthcoming
State Comptroller’s report.
Past experience has shown that the State Comptroller’s report will point to
specific individuals as those responsible for the omission more than others.
If the State Comptroller fails to do so, the media will look for
“beheadings”. The names of former IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General
Benny Gantz (currently a civilian) and former Head of the IDF Intelligence
Directorate Major-General Aviv Kochavi (who currently commands IDF Northern
Command) have already been mentioned by the media in this context – as in
the case of the article by Amos Harel published by the newspaper Ha’Aretz
last week. Naturally, the question of what the defense cabinet had known or
had not known will erupt with unabated intensity, and a fierce political
debate regarding this issue would follow.
Focusing on the personal guilt of individuals will, naturally, be a
mistake – just like the mistake made by the Agranat Commission after the
Yom-Kippur War. An enlightening study by Professor Alex Mintz of IDC
Hertzliya, dealing with this particular matter, has been published last
month. Additionally, the problem of the cabinet’s wartime performance and
the faulty interface between the cabinet and the military echelon is much
more profound than the question that is likely to be raised again in this
context – “What did the government ministers knew about the tunnel threat?”
The failure is systemic and the chronic disease known as the short corporate
memory of IDF will continue to exact heavy tolls in future operations as
well. Even if this is difficult to prove in retrospect, it is perfectly
obvious from the things that had been written well in advance.