Comment by Gen. Amidror: The IDF will need to continue to update and adapt its tactics for combating the tunnel threat.
Daphné Richemond-Barak, a legal expert on warfare, begs to differ with those pundits who say the IDF is on the way to having the Gaza tunnel threat licked.
Three weeks ago, the IDF located and destroyed a Hamas attack tunnel near the Gaza border, and it had successfully done the same only about a month before with an Islamic Jihad tunnel.
Richemond-Barak a law of war professor at IDC Herzliya, tells The Jerusalem Post that the IDF’s indisputable progress can be more accurately summarized as “From nothing to being in the game,” as opposed to, “From nothing to case closed.”
The Post was given an exclusive first look at Richemond- Barak’s forthcoming book, Underground Warfare, in which she wades deeply into the strategic and tactical implications of tunnels for modern combat, in addition to the legal considerations involved.
The “nothing” part, she refers to in the interview, comes from how unprepared all experts agree the IDF was for the tunnel threat during the 2014 Gaza war (Operation Protective Edge) in which Hamas successfully used them multiple times for ambushes.
The debate is about whether the IDF’s recent tactical successes and its combination above-and-below ground wall along the Gaza border – due to be finished in 2019 at a cost of NIS 4 billion – are enough to say the army has the threat beaten, or whether the IDF has merely caught up with Hamas, and a game of underground chess is about to begin, she says.
Part of what is astonishing about the book is its comprehensive survey of how widely used tunnel warfare has been through history, the myriad ways it has been used, and how resilient tunnel fighters have morphed their tactics.
From the ancient Jewish King Hezekiah and the ancient Greeks to the US Civil War and World War I, from Vietnam to Hamas in Gaza and ISIS in Syria and Iraq, tunnels have been used throughout the annals of warfare, for both clever defensive and terrifying offensive purposes. The book addresses diverse tunnel threats globally far beyond the Israeli context. Obviously in the Israeli context the focus is on Hamas and Hezbollah.
Hamas has not yet pulled off the threat that former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz once warned of: Placing explosives under and blowing up an Israeli kindergarten. But the book mentions how the British managed to kill 10,000 German soldiers in one fell swoop with just such an explosives-tunneling attack in 1917 and others having succeeded with the same tactic. That means Gantz’s warning, which Richemond-Barak seconded, still needs to be taken seriously.
BEFORE DISCUSSING whether the IDF has the tunnel threat beaten or has merely developed initial counter-tactics, we need to explain the army’s journey in finding counter-tunnel tactics, what tactics it now employs, and why.
It took years for the IDF to come up with solutions after the tunnel disasters of the 2014 war. Why? Richemond- Barak said that “it was very possible that part of the delay was from the endless options. A lot of people came forward with ‘the’ solution, and there may be have been a lack of understanding that no one could provide a single solution to the problem.
“Once you need to assess multiple options, you may take your time to figure out what is worth investing in, especially when tomorrow you may face different challenges,” she says.
The IDF has only publicized a minimal part of how it is combating tunnels. It has published a number of stories about a range of robots, such as the I-robot, and specially trained dogs for entering and mapping tunnels, tactics usually employed only after a tunnel has been detected.
The IDF has publicized details of a wall under construction along the Gaza border – that it will be 6 meters high and several dozen meters deep – and surrounded by a system designed to locate and measure tunnels using sensors, aerostats and other intelligence gathering methods. Some of the sensors will be attached to large iron cages containing water-resistant pipes.
Richemond-Barak believes some of the sensors were designed to detect movement and noise.
Yet, there are tactics to fool virtually every sensor, and in a sense all of this is a static defensive shield, more than it is a dynamic proactive method for detecting tunnels.
Hamas has found ways in the past to break through a smaller underground wall built by Egypt.
However sophisticated, Israel’s wall and sensors present a static target that can be probed for weaknesses and circumvented.
The Post asked former National Security Council chief and major-general Yaakov Amidror if Hamas could resort to digging its tunnels even deeper than the presumed around 30 meters depth of most of its current tunnels.
Amidror, a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, said digging deeper would be problematic for Hamas in the Gaza terrain, since the area is close to the coast, and at a certain depth, tunnel-diggers would run into water. But he did agree that even with all of the IDF’s progress, Hamas would adapt, and that the army would need to continue to update and adapt its tactics for combating the tunnel threat.