The IDF vs. Subterranean Warfare\ by Gal Perl Finkel

רשומה רגילה

Despite the great public attention paid to the problem of subterranean warfare, this does not mean that subterranean warfare is the major strategic threat to Israel

Subterranean warfare has appeared many times in the Arab-Israeli context, and the IDF and the Ministry of Defense have dealt with various aspects of the phenomenon of subterranean warfare for many years. On rare occasions Hizbollah chose to operate underground during the years the IDF controlled the security zone in Lebanon. In the Second Lebanon War, a force from the Maglan special forces unit conquered a fortified Hizbollah dugout adjacent to the Shaked post; two IDF soldiers and five Hizbollah operatives were killed in the battle. After the war, Hizbollah built an extensive system of concealment and military tunnels within the villages, and possibly tunnels for cross-border penetration as well.

During the second intifada, the Palestinian terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip made extensive use of tunnels for smuggling weapons from Egypt to the Gaza Strip and for attacking IDF forces in Gush Katif. Digging a tunnel is estimated to take about three months and costs about $100,000. Such tunnels can be concealed so that their openings are inside houses or greenhouses, and can be dug in advance without being used until the crucial time. The IDF launched many raids against the tunnels, and by June 2004 had destroyed over 100 of them. A special heavy piece of equipment, called a trencher, was acquired and used to dig a trench along the Philadelphi axis. Shafts were dug at random places into which explosives were inserted in the hope of making the tunnels collapse, and rows of houses close to the Rafah road were demolished. The problem, however, was not solved.

Past significant attacks included the booby-trapped tunnels in the IDF’s Termit outpost, in which three soldiers were wounded in September 2001; the booby-trapped tunnel in the IDF’s Orhan outpost, in which one soldier was killed and five wounded in June 2004; and the attack on the Joint Verification Team (JVT) outpost in Rafah in December 2004 in a powerful booby-trapped and cross-border tunnel attack, which left five soldiers killed and six wounded and was considered the most deadly tunnel attack during those years. Hamas’ best-known offensive tunnel, whose exit was 100 meters inside Israeli territory near the Kerem Shalom border crossing, was used on June 25, 2006 in an attack by a terrorist squad that killed two IDF soldiers and kidnapped Gilad Shalit.

Between the years 2006-2008 In October 2006, IDF forces demolished from smuggling tunnels and offensive tunnels from the Gaza Strip. In November 2008, a paratroopers battalion commanded by Yaron Finkelman operating in Operation Double Challenge killed six terrorists and demolished the opening of a tunnel concealed within a building 300 meters from the fence on the Gaza Strip border.

The IDF'S tunnel rats 

Already in the early years of the twenty-first century, the IDF organized the Samoor (“weasel”) company for combating hidden weapons caches and tunnels, as part of the Yahalom Special Operations Engineering Unit of the IDF Engineering Corps. The unit is trained and equipped with means to operate within tunnels, including communications and breathing systems. Actually, the IDF prefers to avoid entering tunnels it has detected, if possible, because the attacking side has no advantage in a tunnel. This capability is designed for a scenario in which a soldier has been kidnapped, or in order to attack the enemy’s underground command and control positions.

 Operation Protective Edge's Subterranean warfare  

During the entire period that included Operations Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense, not much tunnel warfare activity was recorded, but in November 2013, IDF forces destroyed two cross-border tunnels. In March 2014, the IDF demolished another cross-border tunnel. Tunnel warfare began even before Operation Protective Edge was declared, during the escalation that took place following Operation Brother’s Keeper. On July 6, 2014, in response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, the IDF took preventive action against a cross-border tunnel in the Rafah area that led to the death of six Hamas operatives.

As a result, Hamas intensified its rocket fire, further escalating the conflict and leading the IDF to launch Operation Protective Edge on July 8, 2014. An attempted attack on July 17 by 13 terrorists emerging from a cross-border tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa was foiled, and led to the beginning of the land-based operation. During the land campaign, brigade combat teams, including infantry, armored forces, and combat engineers engaged in the detection and demolition of both combat tunnels within the Gaza Strip and cross-border tunnels.

During Operation Protective Edge, Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives carried out a number of attacks in Israeli territory using cross-border tunnels. Terrorists attacked an IDF pillbox tower near Nahal Oz, killing five soldiers. On August 1, 2014, a Hamas force violated the ceasefire, killing three Givati Brigade soldiers, and escaped through an offensive tunnel to Rafah, taking with them the body of First Lieutenant Hadar Goldin. A total of 34 cross-border tunnels used by Hamas were destroyed. The tunnels detected by the IDF during Operation Protective Edge were complex tunnels, with a number of entry and exit shafts. The main tunnel route was often split, and sometimes there were parallel routes. For this reason, dealing with the tunnels was no simple task.

As soon as a tunnel was detected, IDF forces took action to isolate the operating area and detect its additional shafts and branches. The Special Operations Engineering Unit planted explosives in order to demolish the tunnel. A number of methods were used to demolish tunnels during Operation Protective Edge, including aerial bombardment using JDAM bombs (called “kinetic drilling”), using water to make the tunnel collapse, and using liquid explosives by a special system dubbed “Emulsa.” In addition, elite IDF units were trained to fight within tunnels as “tunnel rat” units. In retrospect, the IDF learned that aerial bombardment of the tunnel shafts made it harder to detect the tunnels themselves.

The tunnels have been classified as a strategic threat, with the impression given that this is the gravest threat facing Israel. Arguments have since been made that the defense establishment is responsible for a strategic failure, and there have even been demands for an investigative commission on the matter. There is no doubt that the tunnels are a serious problem. despite the great public attention paid to the problem of  subterranean  warfare,  this  does  not  mean  that subterranean  warfare is the major strategic threat to Israel. It is merely one of many kinds of warfare. In other words, the issue is currently in the headlines, but long term thinking should not be distracted by momentary criticism.


The Author is the Military & Strategic Affairs and Cyber Security Program Coordinator at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv.

(The article was published in "The Jerusalem Post", August 16, 2016)

The warrior ethos is alive and well\ by Gal Perl Finkel

רשומה רגילה

An outsider observing the Israel Defense Forces' fighting during Operation Protective Edge will notice right away that brigade, battalion and company commanders make up a large proportion of the wounded and casualties. The Golani Brigade alone has lost a deputy battalion commander, and among its wounded are three platoon commanders and a brigade commander. Three officers are now vying to succeed the fallen commander. This is true not only in the regular army, but also – maybe even more so in light of their stronger connection to civilian life – among the reservists.

Even those who oppose the scope of the operation cannot ignore the obvious "IDF spirit" of it. This is the spirit that leads the IDF in its best moments. The battles of the 1948 War of Independence established the norm of "Corporals, retreat – the commanders will cover you!" During reprisal operations carried out by the paratroopers in the 1950s, the officers' command "Follow me!" became the guide for IDF fighters and commanders. For the first time, general ideas like professionalism, personal example, confronting obstacles, and the rule that "We don't go back until we get it done" became iron-clad rules of thumb.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, too, when reservists in the Paratroopers Brigade left for the Suez Canal Operation in APCs jam-packed with fighters – many more than orders allowed – this spirit prevailed and the army, bruised and battered from battles to stop the enemy's progress, sailed across the canal, and didn't stop until it won a military victory. This spirit of volunteerism has also typified other operations, like Entebbe and Protective Wall.

Over the years, more than one commentator has claimed that today's young people are not what they used to be, and that technological developments on the battlefield have turned commanders into people who sit in front of screens, running things from afar, attacking the enemy via remote control. An examination of the IDF's fighting in Gaza shows that this is entirely untrue. The war is being managed from close up, among houses and tunnel shafts and against a determined enemy who – unlike in previous operations – is not immediately retreating. IDF commanders are leading their people on the front line, because to in order to lead soldiers, to accurately and independently assess the situation, and to complete the mission, they have to be in front, where the war is taking place. This means that a brigade commander isn't the last of his force to go in, but that a commander's place is with his forces.

The IDF's warrior ethos, as an article by General (res.) Giora Rom put it, is a behavioral code comprising courage, selflessness, loyalty to society and to comrades, coolness under pressure, integrity, and willingness to accept any hardship. The group of Israelis who operate under this code isn't large. In every society, be it American, Swiss, or Chinese, the first men in – the fighters willing to take on any burden – have always been the minority. But from the moment you serve in the IDF, you're in it for life. Even if you have finished your service, every loss will hit close to home. You may not know the fallen personally, but you may have been in officers' training with his cousin, or served with his older brother. Not a very large group, not glamorous, always on the same hilltops – but fewer people each time.

Alongside the criticism from various officials about the "tunnel failure," the "failure" in the lack of armored equipment for the soldiers, and more, those who are doing the job – those who are still loyal to the warrior ethos – should be valued. Because we have someone to depend on.

Gal Perl Finkel is a eserve soldier in the Paratroopers Brigade and a research assistant at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies and operates the blog "Al Hakevenet" (In the Crosshairs).

(The article was published in "israelhayom", July 31, 2014)