Gaza Tunnels: How They Work, What Israel Knew

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In my last post I promised to translate Alex Fishman’s Friday column in Yediot Ahronot discussing Hamas’s tunnels. Here it is.

He briefly traces Israel’s growing awareness of the problem over more than a decade. He reaches much the same conclusion as Nahum Barnea: “…the fact is that everyone saw, everyone knew, everyone understood, and yet the test of results ended in failure…”

There’s a lively debate right now in the Hebrew press over whether or not Israel realized the full extent of the threat. That is, given that the threat’s existence was long known, is there any truth to the claim that Israel was “surprised”? I’ve got some links below to follow the debate if your Hebrew is up to it. It can’t be understated how misleading the English-language reporting on the topic has been; more on that below, after the translation.

Both Barnea and Fishman conclude, as my translations show, that the IDF and government knew enough to grasp the full dimensions of the threat, if not the details of every tunnel, long before this operation. Whether or not they’re right will be determined soon enough, as Harel writes. I generally read Barnea and Fishman first because they’re commonly described as the best informed, best connected and smartest in the field in Israel — Barnea in political analysis, Fishman in reporting from inside the mind of the military. Unfortunately, Yediot doesn’t publish on line — its Ynet site is a fully separate publication — and doesn’t translate its print material into English. My translations are as literal as I can make them.

I’ve often heard friends and readers in the last few weeks expressing bewilderment that the IDF had such a hard time finding technology to locate tunnels or detect excavation in real time. Fishman wrote about that a few weeks ago. His basic thrust was that normal sensor equipment is only effective down to about 10 meters, and Hamas attack tunnels are around 25 meters down. And the sophisticated equipment used for oil and gas exploration is too sensitive for concrete structures just 25 meters down — they’re looking for tiny signals from miles down, and closer to the surface they tend to go off whenever a truck goes by.

Anyway, here’s Fishman:

Shai Gal at Mako-Channel 2 runs through a 20-year history of failed efforts to find a technological solution and debates over whether it really mattered. Yoav Zeitun at Ynet details some proposed solutions developed and scrapped over the years. This piece by Doron Nahum at Nana-Channel 10, from November 2013, describes the mounting alarm inside the IDF over the scope of the problem, culminating in a decision to send soldiers out on foot patrols to look for whatever they could find.

This piece by Pazit Ravina in Maariv puts the blame on former (2005-07) IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz, who she says bulked up the air force budget at the expense of tunnel research. It’s one of several claiming solutions could have been found given enough effort and money; blame is variously placed on the IDF or Treasury. Haaretz’s Amos Harel, writing (in English!) last Monday, says regardless of whether the IDF was fully aware of the problem’s scope, it knew enough and the failure to resolve earlier is about to become a major national scandal.

As for English-language reporting on the issue, nothing captures the insipid quality more vividly than an exchange yesterday on the revered PBS News Hour. Anchor Gwen Ifill started it off with a question to a Washington pundit, opening with the observation that Israel regards the tunnels as a strategic threat while Hamas considers them an economic lifeline. She’s talking about two entirely distinct and dissimilar sets of tunnels. The ones leading south into the Sinai city of Rafah were the economic lifeline. They’ve been demolished by Egypt, which was able to locate them on its side of the border because the openings were cargo loading and unloading zones. The ones leading east into Israel are entirely useless as economic channels, leading only to empty fields near Israeli villages and IDF installations. They’re entirely military in nature. Israel can’t easily find them on its side of the fence because they’re not opened until an attack is mounted. Hence the technology dilemma.

Written by

J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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Gaza Tunnels: How They Work, What Israel Knew

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