Foreign Policy reports: During Operation Protective Edge, the name used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for the 2014 war, the military uncovered and destroyed 32 cross-border tunnels that snaked for miles beneath Gaza and reached into Israeli territory. Many of them, according to the IDF, began inside homes and mosques in Gaza and ended inside or on the edge of Israeli border towns.
Hamas has made no secret of its efforts to fortify its labyrinth of tunnels, which have emerged as the group’s most powerful weapon — far more effective than its rocket arsenal. In just a handful of tunnel attacks over the course of that summer, Palestinian militants managed to kill 11 Israeli soldiers and capture the bodies of several soldiers in the hope of arranging a future prisoner exchange, in which Israel would trade Palestinian prisoners for the return of soldiers’ bodies.
“The resistance continues on its path of liberation of the land,” Ismail Haniyeh, a political leader of Hamas and former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, told a crowded mosque in Gaza City in late January. “Fighters are digging twice as much as the number of tunnels dug in Vietnam.”“Fighters are digging twice as much as the number of tunnels dug in Vietnam.”
During the 2014 war, Hamas fired more than 4,800 rockets and 1,700 mortars at Israel, according to Amnesty International. Thanks to the Iron Dome, a first-of-its-kind anti-rocket system developed by Israeli engineers with the help of nearly $1 billion from the U.S. government, many of them were shot out of the sky before they could reach civilian towns and cities. The Iron Dome explains the extremely low number of civilian deaths on the Israeli side. But there is no Iron Dome-type system that has proved as effective at thwarting Hamas’s tunnel network.
While Israel struggles to prevent the construction material it is allowing into Gaza from ending up in Hamas tunnels, it is developing a secret military weapon designed to eradicate the problem.
According to intelligence officials, Israeli engineers are working tirelessly to develop what’s being called the “Underground Iron Dome” — a system that could detect and destroy cross-border tunnels. According to a report on Israeli Channel 2, the Israeli government has spent more than $250 million since 2004 in its efforts to thwart tunnel construction under the Gaza border.
The United States has already appropriated $40 million for the project in the 2016 financial year, in order “to establish anti-tunnel capabilities to detect, map, and neutralize underground tunnels that threaten the U.S. or Israel,” said U.S. Defense Department spokesman Christopher Sherwood. While the majority of the work in 2016 will be done in Israel, Sherwood added, “the U.S. will receive prototypes, access to test sites, and the rights to any intellectual property.”
Contrary to reports quoting the Israeli Defense Ministry, which claimed that the United States had already earmarked $120 million for the project, Sherwood said that appropriations are done annually, thus there is no guarantee that an additional $40 million will be appropriated in 2017 and 2018.
Among the Israeli companies working to develop the new anti-tunnel mechanism are Elbit Systems and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the same company that developed the Iron Dome rocket defense system. Both companies declined to provide any details due to security reasons, as did the IDF and other Israeli officials, who fear that such information could play into Hamas’s hands. Yet according to intelligence sources who spoke with Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity, the system involves seismic sensors that can monitor underground vibrations.
IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Gadi Eizenkot hinted at these efforts in February. “We are doing a lot, but many of [the things we do] are hidden from the public,” he told a conference at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center. “We have dozens, if not a hundred, engineering vehicles on the Gaza border.”
Yaakov Amidror, a former national security advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former head of Israel’s National Security Council, told FP the confidential new system is not yet operational, but it is “in a testing mode.”
Read the full report at Foreign Policy.