In July 2010, Yedioth Ahronoth planned to publish a comprehensive investigative report warning of a serious military problem, of which only a handful of experts were aware at the time: Hamas' terror tunnels.
At the time, Gilad Shalit had been in captivity in Gaza for more than four years, and we had gathered evidence that Hamas was turning the method it used to kidnap Shalit – a terror attack through a tunnel – into a main strategy in its combat doctrine.
The Defense Ministry and the IDF went to great efforts at the time to convince us that the tunnel threat was not so serious and that they were taking steps against the tunnels. Additional and even better measures, they said, would be used in no time.
We eventually decided that it was an important and fundamental issue, and published the investigative report.
The bottom line was that IDF posts and communities in the Gaza vicinity (as well on the Lebanon border, facing Hezbollah) are exposed to terror attacks or abductions through tunnels, and that the defense establishment has no efficient measures against them, despite the fact that the Defense Ministry had received proposals for tunnel-locating systems since the early 2000s.
Four years after the publication of that report, destroying Hamas' offensive tunnels has been one of the main goals of the ground invasion in Operation Protective Edge. The events of recent weeks have shown that Hamas terrorists' attempts to infiltrate Israel through the tunnels are no longer just a journalistic scenario.
Only one thing hasn’t changed in all these years: Israel still doesn't have any technological means to detect the next terror tunnels.
The Israeli intelligence community will find it difficult to claim that it was surprised by the extensive use Hamas made of the tunnels during Operation Protective Edge.
During an internal discussion in January 2010, for example, Colonel Ilan Sabag, who served at the time as the Southern Command's engineering officer, said that, "the Southern Command is aware of the existence of Hamas infiltration tunnels reaching into our territory. As far as the Southern Command knows, these tunnels are meant to be used in due course to kidnap soldiers. The Southern Command estimates that Hamas will decide when to use the tunnels in light of considerations related to the Shalit deal, etc."
He added that the Southern Command lacked any efficient means to locate the tunnels (apart from intelligence), and that the measures deployed along the route surrounding the Gaza border were no longer in use, as they were unsuccessful.
Military Intelligence sources believe that it takes Hamas about half a year to dig a tunnel from the outskirts of Gaza into Israel. The larger and more extended tunnels take longer. This means that without technological means, six months after the last IDF soldier leaves the Strip, Hamas would be able to restore some of the underground abilities it had before Operation Protective Edge.
Unless, of course, Israel is able to detect the tunnels earlier.
Foot-dragging and bureacracyAt the moment, the tunnels are located with the help of two factors, both of which are far from being hermetic and accurate: Intelligence and luck. Luck, for example, was a main factor several weeks ago, when an IDF patrol ran into Hamas terrorists emerging from an underground tunnel near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, on their way to carry out a terror attack.
Accurate intelligence is of course much more preferable – that's how most of the tunnels were detected at the beginning of the operation – but relying solely on intelligence could also be very dangerous.
The best example is the Gilad Shalit abduction: The intelligence community had general information that Hamas wanted to kidnap a soldier in the area, but it wasn't clear there that it was planning to use a tunnel, and definitely not where that tunnel started or ended.
This is where the third way, and supposedly the best and most accurate way to locate tunnels, comes into the picture: Technology. And this is also where the failure begins.
It was 2001, in the midst of the second intifada, and the wave of suicide bombings was growing. The tunnels of that period were used mainly to smuggle weapons into and out of the Strip. But some defense officials were quick to detect the danger and turned to the experts on underground searches: The staff of the Geophysical Institute of Israel (GII).
The rational thought was that those in charge of locating fields of oil, gas and water, would be able to find a solution for the terror tunnels.
And that's exactly what happened.
The GII took up the challenge and developed a system called the "underground seismic fence." The idea was to deploy sensors called geophones, which would be hidden several meters underground. The sensors would be interconnected and linked to a central computer.
The geophones detect every underground noise and can also, according to the GII, detect a tunnel being dug. The computer, which would process the geophone signal, would detect it and send the security forces an accurate warning.
In 2001, the GII researchers completed the system trials and managed to detect tunnels being dug at different depths. Satisfied with its success to solve a serious problem faced by the State of Israel, the GII informed the Defense Ministry of the trials' results.
Some of the successful tests, by the way, were held not far from Kerem Shalom, the place where several years later the tunnel used to drag Gilad Shalit to Gaza would be dug, and the area where several terror tunnels have been uncovered in recent weeks. It's possible that the system, which was tested in that same area 13 years ago, could have already been active by then and given warning about these tunnels.
As time went by, the GII workers began wondering why the Defense Ministry was taking its time. Then they found out that the ministry was busy conducting other trials: "Frequent drilling along the (Philadelphi) Route and inserting tunnel-locating cameras" or "underground mapping using radar."
Let’s not get into which method is preferable and more efficient. The bottom line is that none of these ideas – neither those examined by the Defense Ministry nor the one suggested by the GII – was implemented in the form of an operational system on the ground.
A lot of weapons moved through the tunnels under the Philadelphi Route until December 12, 2004, when five soldiers were killed and another six were wounded in a terror tunnel explosion near Rafah.
The director-general of the Ministry of National Infrastructure, which is in charge of the GII, turned to the Defense Ministry. "Following an initial inquiry, I am under the impression that there is the technological ability to deal with the problem, in the immediate timeframe, through active and passive means," he said optimistically. "We are talking about available equipment which could be purchased and activated immediately."
The Defense Ministry responded that a technology similar to the one suggested by the GII had been suggested by two civilian companies, and that the performance the companies demonstrated was better.
It took the Defense Ministry six more years to admit unofficially in 2010 that those systems had failed, and that the money invested in them had gone down the drain. A senior Defense Ministry official admitted the failure as well several weeks ago, but added that "we are now moving in the right direction."
What happened in the meantime? Until some solution came along, the IDF had to deal with the tunnels somehow. In 2004, the Ground Forces commander, Major-General Yiftah Ron-Tal ordered the immediate purchase of an intimidating American digging tool called a Trencher, which includes an arm and a huge digging chain. Not exactly a high-tech solution, but at least it's something.
"I knew that it wasn't the perfect solution and that we were sort of going back in the time tunnel," Ron-Tal says today. "But we had to find an urgent solution until they completed the technological development, which I was promised was a top priority.
"We sent people on our behalf to Texas to check the efficiency of this amazing digging machine, and it turned out that it could insert an arm with massive strength into the ground and create a 25-meter deep cut.
"At that time we were particularly concerned about the Philadelphi Route, and 25 meters was more or less enough, because that was the depth of the underground water there.
"I was very happy with this solution and allotted a budget of $50 million to this project. It's not small change, but it's also not a huge sum considering the threat it could prevent or at least largely reduce."
That's the way it is. Until the bureaucrats make up their mind, the IDF will fight the tunnels with a tool which was originally built to dig defensive tunnels during World War II.
Buying timeDespite the purchase of the Trencher, the IDF did not abandon its hope to find a technological solution for locating the tunnels. When Moshe Ya'alon was appointed IDF chief of staff and the drizzle of Qassam rockets from Gaza turned into a shower, it was clear that the flow of weapons through tunnels into Gaza had to stop. Ya'alon decided that if someone could find a solution, it would be retired colonel Yossi Langotsky.
Langotsky was awarded the IDF's Distinguished Service Medal for the Six-Day War, he won the Israel Security Prize twice, was a senior officer in the Military Intelligence Directorate and is a renowned geologist. He later became famous as one of the people who discovered the huge Tamar gas field off Israel's shores. (Tamar is his granddaughter's name.)
Langotsky went to work. He met, researched, went out into the field. Eventually, in 2005, he authored a pretty harsh report, which included quite a lot of criticism directed at the Defense Ministry.
"Before a disaster occurs, I hereby warn you that kidnapping, God forbid, several soldiers and transferring them as hostages to enemy territory… along our border with the Gaza Strip… is, unfortunately, a possibility with high chances of being fulfilled," he wrote in his report. He explained that "the defense establishment and the IDF have failed to properly prepare and equip themselves, including with systems which are 'on the shelf' along the relevant borders."
Langotsky's tunnel report was not just critical; it also included recommendations for the future.
One of the main recommendations was to immediately start implementing an emergency program, which would include the GII systems and "the establishment of a (compact) administration for the tunnel issue, which would coordinate the issue on a permanent bases, for years. This administration should be given special procedures which would allow quick and efficient activity.
"Alongside the administration, there will be a supporting team of experts/technologists, which would include civilians with decades of experience. The implementation of all this could yield efficient operation solutions as early as 2005."
Langotsky also included a list of renowned experts who would agree to support the project voluntarily. The report was submitted after Ya'alon had already left office, when the chief of staff was Dan Halutz.
"Hello Yossi," Halutz wrote to him upon receiving the report. "I got it. I read it. Impressive. It will be handled accordingly. We'll talk soon. Halutz."
Almost nothing has happened since then. A system based on the principles suggested by the GII is indeed being developed by security companies, but it will take a long time before it moves to the stage of operational deployment, if at all.
Langotsky retired angrily shortly after submitting the report. "Everyone promised that things would start moving now, but nothing happened," he says. "In the meantime, government workers are pushing papers from side to side. The establishment's conduct is so infantile and so unclear.
"In the establishment I grew up in and in the units I commanded, there was an entirely different concept system. If we had an operational problem, not to mention a strategic problem of this magnitude, I wouldn't sleep at night and I would task hundreds of people with finding a solution – until it was found.
"It's possible that there are still a few of these people left in the Defense Ministry, but they have been overpowered by bureaucracy and no one is capable of pounding the table and saying that this scandal must end. I am told that there is good intelligence about the tunnels that are being dug. That may be true, but the Arabs are not that stupid, you know."
Studying the sinkholes
At present, the focus is on the Strip - and rightly so. But the tunnels may become a significant risk factor even in the north. Hezbollah has previously proven its great ability to dig tunnels inside Lebanon. Intelligence information shows that Hezbollah's intention and plans to use the tunnels to attack IDF outposts or carry out, in case of conflagration, infiltrations into Israel.
Even if tomorrow there is a system in place along the lines of the "seismic fence" suggested 13 years ago by the Geophysical Institute of Israel - or any other technology – Israel has to be able to locate all the tunnels now. The tunnels that have already been created require an entirely different system.
The technological basis for building such detection systems is also available - both at the Geophysical Institute and via external civilian companies. The Geophysical Institute system locate secret tunnels – known as "Ben Ari" - was born from extensive research of the sinkholes around the Dead Sea. With the sinkholes, the objective is to find holes underground that can cause sudden huge and dangerous openings in the ground. The Institute believes that this technology can also identify Hamas tunnels, although the success rate of the "Ben-Ari" has been lower than that of the seismic system. In any event, both development programs were halted.
In 2010, when Yedioth published its investigation, the Defense Ministry said in response that it had "R&D into extensive technological capabilities to deal with tunnels," and added that it was seriously exploring a variety of alternatives. Either way, the bottom line is clear: Even so many years after it became clear that this was real and grave threat - Israel has no tried and tested technology to detect the terrorist tunnels.
'In the right direction'
A recent long conversation with a senior defense official outlined the attempts to find a technological solution to the tunnels over the years. The source asked us not to go into great detail about what had been done prior to 2010, and not to discuss the differences of opinion between the Defense Ministry and Langotsky, both during his stint as Halutz's advisor on the tunnels and later as a private, concerned citizen. The source did confirm, however, that a system that had been installed in Gaza had completely failed, and that in 2010 it was decided to stop using it and rethink the whole issue.
"Not only we were wrong," says the source, "but anyone who dealt with the issue and proposed solutions mistakenly assumed that technology used to study the depths - the discovery of mineral deposits, oil or gas miles underground – was well-suited for the study of shallow depths of just a few dozen meters. But in this field, you cannot simply 'copy-paste'. Yes, the system we put in place failed, but I tell you this with authority: Every system was a failure, because we were not prepared in terms of knowledge and understanding to match our seismic detectors with the depth of the tunnels."
The think tank convened by the defense establishment in 2010 concluded that, despite the investment of years, Israel would have to change its approach. Since then, says the source, the Defense Ministry has been funding a comprehensive academic study on the subject, and has also increased its activity at the tunnel test site, which simulates Hamas activity.
The ministry has also brought in the GII and others to engage in accelerated development of technology that will ultimately be used to lead the process of identifying the tunnels. In parallel, to those others are trying to develop an appropriate solution to the problem of tunnels already in existence. "We listened," the source says, "to anyone who could contribute."
The source stressed that since 2010, it has been made clear to everyone involved that there is unlimited budget and resources, as the defense establishment has classed the issue as urgent and views it as a top priority. According to the source, a dedicated staff has been set up to deal with the matter, many resources have been allocated and hundreds of millions of shekels have so far been invested in efforts to find a solution.
"This is also true for our superiors. Military commanders and heads of the Defense Ministry are involved in the issue, and frequently require us to account for what is being done to resolve the matter, and how."
Experimental trials in recent years, claims the source, have been successful.
"Comparisons to Iron Dome are wrong and unjust," he says, referring to Israel's highly effective missile defense system. "In the case of Iron Dome, the debate was not over whether it was possible or impossible to set up the system. The debate was about its viability. When we developed Iron Dome, we had behind us 25 years of development and experience with the Arrow and other relevant systems. We knew it was possible and we knew it would work.
"This field is relatively new and we do not have that kind of experience in it, nor is it clear in which direction we should be going or which direction will be successful. We turned to sources worldwide, and realized that no country has an effective solution to this issue."
Nonetheless, if you take into account the years of related activity since 2000, it's been 14 years already. How much longer will it take?