[Dr. Aaron Lerner - IMRA: In all due respect to Prof. Inbar, what grounds
has he to assume that Hamas is pouring tremendous resources into tunnels
large enough to accommodate large strike teams equipped with various means
of transportation only for the purposes of kidnapping or murdering Israelis
within walking distance of the Gaza line? Let me put it another way: I
have no doubt that if you put three smart IDF officers from one of our elite
units in a room for 5 hours that they could come up with a plan to exploit
the concealed access provided by the tunnels to destroy enough critical
infrastructure to literally indefinitely cripple the bulk of the country.
Why assume that Hamas, possibly with advice from Iran and others, is any
On the other hand, Prof. Inbar could very well be correct in suggesting that
Hamas will figure out a way to get around or through the wall.]
The Gaza Tunnels Get Too Much Attention
By Prof. Efraim Inbar, October 6, 2016
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 369
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The threat to Israel of terror attack tunnels from Gaza
is exaggerated. Thus the Israel Ministry of Defense’s plan to build a very
expensive subterranean wall around the Gaza Strip, reaching a depth of
dozens of meters, makes no strategic sense. It is a waste of money and
effort, and hands Hamas a public relations victory.
The attack tunnels dug by the Hamas from Gaza into Israel are great for the
public relations of terrorists. They make for a deeply unsettling image that
intensifies the threat perception among Israelis. Terrorists want to be
feared and the tunnels seem to achieve that goal, despite their limited
In January 2016, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot played into the
hands of the Hamas terrorists by saying that countering the tunnel threat
was the army’s “number one mission this year.” Eisenkot’s statement showed
that he prioritized the tunnel threat over Hezbollah’s growing rocket
capability to Israel’s north or the threat from IS in the Sinai. Moreover,
he belittled the serious nuclear threat from Iran.
Similarly, Education Minister Naftali Bennett gave in to the popular mood
and exaggerated the threat of the Hamas tunnels. He accused Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu of leaving the cabinet in the dark about the grave danger
of the tunnels until after Operation Protective Edge had begun. A leaked
draft of a report by the State Comptroller also criticized Netanyahu,
then-Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Yaalon and then-IDF CoS Lt. Gen. Benny
Gantz for failing to anticipate the Hamas tunnel threat.
In any case, in the summer of 2014, Israel went on a ground attack to
destroy tunnels that crossed into Israeli territory. Heavy fighting ensued,
particularly in Shujaiyeh, a neighborhood of Gaza City. Forty-one Israeli
soldiers were killed and many more injured during the ground phase, which
ended after 32 tunnels were destroyed.
Following the development of the Iron Dome system, which has largely
neutralized the rocket threat from Gaza, tunnels became an important tool in
the Hamas arsenal. They are a low-tech challenge and quite difficult to
handle. So far, Israeli efforts to develop technologies to locate tunnels
have achieved only partial success.
Yet the tunnels’ potential ability to cause significant damage to Israel is
itself limited. True, they enable terrorist attacks and/or the hijacking of
dead or alive Israelis. While Israeli inhabitants around Gaza are most
directly affected and obviously the most concerned, this type of threat,
while undoubtedly disturbing, is not new.
Acts of terrorism have always been considered by the national security
establishment as secondary to dangers that affect Israel’s territorial
integrity or threaten its very existence. The tunnels cannot threaten
strategic targets within Israel, such as power stations or airports, as
Hamas missiles have done in the past. Investing in defense against missiles
is important; spending money to negate the effects of tunnels is much less
so. Limited resources dictate that spending be prioritized in accordance
with the relative magnitude of the threats to be faced.
Nevertheless, the defense establishment, prodded by Defense Minister Avigdor
Lieberman, is planning a giant project – a 60-kilometer wall around the Gaza
Strip that will reach a depth of dozens of meters. Initially, a trial
section will be erected at a cost of 600 million shekels ($158 million).
This “Maginot Line” around Gaza, if completed, could become one of the most
expensive projects in Israel’s history.
The high priority allocated by Israel to the problem of the tunnels is
totally unjustified. First, it is not clear that the planned Gaza Wall would
be effective in preventing Hamas underground projects. Concrete walls can be
penetrated, as bank robbers have shown. Israel should not underestimate the
ingenuity of the engineers employed by Hamas.
Second, this ambitious project diverts resources from financing more
important needs of the IDF. One very pertinent example is the neglect of
ground forces due to financial considerations. Beefing up ground forces is
an imperative in dealing with the looming threats of accurate missiles and a
number of other serious contingencies.
Third, the tremendous effort to handle the tunnel threat unnecessarily
magnifies the power of the enemy to harm Israel. The mammoth wall project is
a public relations gift for Hamas. Moreover, its timing is problematic, as
there are signs that Hamas is getting tired. The rounds of violence have
taken their toll on Gaza. It looks as though Israel’s “mowing the grass”
strategy, and the growing regional isolation of Hamas, may have created a
modicum of deterrence. Hamas seems reluctant to initiate hostilities.
The project to build a wall around Gaza appears to be motivated by domestic
politics. It is intended to calm the understandable concerns of the
inhabitants of the southern region with regard to the tunnel threat. It
enables the government to relieve the constant political pressure by stating
that it is “doing everything possible” to find a solution. It is, however, a
wasteful populist response.
Above all, it makes no strategic sense.
Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan
University, and the founding director of the Begin-Sadat Center for
Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the
Greg Rosshandler Family