Anxiety about the new terror tunnels they sense Hamas is excavating under their feet is no longer confined to Israelis living in proximity to the Gaza Strip, or the soldiers serving there. Israel’s northern borderland dwellers, who can see Hizballah’s yellow flags in from their balconies, have the same concerns. Their reports of mysterious underground explosions are confirmed by thousands of Israeli troops conducting field exercises in the neighborhood. The soldiers attest to heavy earthmoving equipment, explosions, burrowing, and shaking ground on the Lebanese side of the border, giving the area the appearance of a huge subterranean building site.
The Lebanese Shiite Hizballah group, Iran’s Lebanese surrogate, has clearly taken a leaf out of its Palestinian ally, Hamas’ book, for a fully mobilized terror tunnel project against northern Israel. Its manpower, including engineering units, is working under the guidance of Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers to sink a large network of tunnels leading under the border into Galilee. They are working efficiently and at top speed with the aid of modern Western-made earthmoving equipment and foreign professionals paid top dollar to manage the project.
Israel seems to be curiously passive in the face of its enemy’s ambitious enterprise. Only last week, the Defense Ministry’s Political Coordinator Amos Gilad denied any knowledge of terrorist tunnels reaching Israel from Lebanon.
However, Brig. Gen. Moni Katz, commander of the IDF’s Division 91, which is responsible for security of the Galilee region, told a different story: “To me it is obvious that the other side is busy digging tunnels. I don’t need intelligence to tell me this. Intuition is enough. There is no denying that this is what they are up to. Can I say they have completed a tunnel?” The general went on to reply: “I must assume they have. I can’t prove it or say for sure a tunnel has crossed into our territory. But my basic premise is that this is so and it is up to us to make plans to fit this case.”
Putting those plans into practice – which would necessitate destroying the tunnels either before they were built or at their entry-points – faces four major difficulties:
1. Close surveillance and first-class intelligence are required to keep track of hostile tunnel projects starting from the planning stage, the recruitment of manpower, the acquisition of engineering technology and equipment and registering the quantity of earth displaced and removed from the underground burrow.
2. The digging process, which sound sensors should have no difficulty in detecting, is a relatively short and irregular process which can just as easily be camouflaged by surface activities.
3. Locating a finished tunnel at the stage when it is still unused and relatively quiet calls for pinning down a number of variables, such as the type of soil, the depth, length, breadth and lining material used in building the tunnel, humidity, weather conditions on the surface as well as its environment, whether urban or rural.
4. Locating such a tunnel – even when it is already in operational use by an enemy – poses another set of difficulties. In combat conditions, electronic listening devices would be drowned out by the fire and explosions of battle and, in the confusion of war, enemy troops would be hard to intercept as they moved in and out the tunnels.
A glance at the map shows that the danger of tunnel warfare should also be taken into account on Israel’s eastern front – where it would just as hard to detect as in the north and the southwest: The Arab populations inhabiting the West Bank and the Israeli side of the border – only hundreds of meters apart – are similar enough to keep counter-terrorism authorities on a high level of alert for the construction of tunnel links between the two territories.
Perhaps a succession of military chiefs should be held accountable for letting the tunnel terror peril develop to its current proportions. But it must also be said that no silver bullet has so far been invented to counter this primitive vehicle of terror, including the methods tried till now, such as buried microphones, optical fibers sensitive to seismic tremors, deep trenches along the border and an assortment of off-beat inventions.
In the view of our military analysts, any solutions would have to vary from sector to sector, adapted to the military and topographical features in each case and an intelligence assessment of the level of risk involved in counteraction. This effort would have to be directed by an interdepartmental, interagency administration directly answerable to the prime minister or defense minister.