Retired IDF general advises Israel’s decision-makers to remain immune to criticism or populism in the immediacy of dealing with Hamas’ tunnels that may already reach deep into Israel.
By Yaakov Amidror, Maj-Gen (ret.)
The question of the threat posed by the tunnels dug under the Israel-Gaza Strip border has been revisited recently, prompting a debate on what can be done to eradicate the threat.
This question requires an understanding of the root cause of this issue. The tunnel problem first emerged following the implementation of the 1993 Oslo Accords, when the IDF withdrew from large parts of the Gaza Strip and redeployed along a narrow strip bordering Egypt. Residents of Rafah and the Gaza-based terrorist organizations used the tunnels to bypass the border, with the eager cooperation of the residents of Sinai.
After the unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005, the tunnel grid expanded dramatically, adding two sub-systems: an underground labyrinth beneath the Strip, which aims to allow Hamas to fight the IDF should it try to seize control of Gaza; and a maze of tactical assault tunnels leading from Gaza into Israel.
During 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, the military uncovered and destroyed some 30 tunnels, and it is believed that the threat we are currently dealing with also comprises several dozen tactical tunnels.
The tunnels were a known threat even before the last Gaza campaign. In 2006, for example, IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted by terrorists who emerged from a tunnel near the Kerem Shalom crossing, and only weeks before the 2014 campaign, four cross-border tunnels were discovered about a mile deep in Israeli territory. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon even toured one of them. So while no one can argue the existence of the underground passageways surprised the IDF, one can argue that the nature and magnitude of the threat were misunderstood.
Perhaps that is why the military was ill-prepared for the tunnel issue in the summer of 2014, and lacked the means and measures to detect and destroy them. However, the decision made shortly after the operation was launched to target Hamas’ tunnel grid via a separate yet simultaneous operation was correct. Israel could not afford to conclude the fighting without dealing the tunnel infrastructure a significant blow.
Now, when Hamas has clearly rebuilt its tunnel grid, the question of what to do has once again become prominent, and with it the calls to launch a pre-emptive strike, one designed to cripple the enemy before it can carry out its nefarious plans.
The question of whether or not Israel should launch pre-emptive strikes against its enemies has been hanging in the air almost since the Jewish state’s inception, and at least one military operation — the 1956 Sinai war — was preventative in nature, as Israel was concerned by an arms deal between Egypt and Czechoslovakia, which would have tilted the balance of regional power in Cairo’s favor.
Pre-emptive military campaigns are essentially “elective wars,” as no one knows when, or even if, the enemy will strike. This makes the decision to launch such campaigns very difficult, as decision-makers face the possibility of sending soldiers to their potential deaths based on an educated guess that may prove wrong. The threat may always remain ambiguous, but the toll thwarting it might take will be immediate.
At the heart of the cold, professional debate is the question of how best to utilize time.
On the one hand, the advocates of restraint argue that Israel, as a nation forced to live by the sword, should strive to wield said sword as rarely as possible, as the periods of calm allow it to advance and grow stronger, so the longer they are, the better it is for Israel. This view states that the government’s primary role is to create as long a calm as possible for Israel, which, if utilized correctly, will enable it to defeat the enemy should war erupt.
On the other hand, the advocates of the active approach believe Israel must be able to choose its battles, so that it may wage them when it has an advantage over the enemy — before the enemy maximizes its force. Israel is a small nation, and therefore its leaders must choose the best possible time to demonstrate its military superiority, to prevent a potential catastrophe that might take place should the enemy ever maximize its abilities.
Regardless of both views, the issue of a pre-emptive war entails the question of legitimacy, in Israel and worldwide, which is hard to achieve when it appears a country is waging war unprovoked.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume the IDF is currently better equipped to counter the tunnel threat. It is, however, safe to assume that the Gaza-based terrorist groups possess improved capabilities as well, especially in the field of rocket fire, and in their ability to defend their front line — the tunnels.
This means that any operation to eliminate the tunnels will most likely resemble Operation Protective Edge, meaning a few dozen Israeli casualties versus several thousand Palestinian casualties; only this time, the tunnel grid will be destroyed completely. No one in the global community would support such an operation, including the U.N., which only recently condemned Hamas’ tunnel-digging efforts. Israel will be condemned left and right, and its ability to mount future operations will be severely compromised.
Domestically, harsh criticism will be leveled at the government’s “adventurous pursuits” and its insistence on launching an avoidable war. Moreover, even if the IDF’s advanced measures allow it to level the tunnel grid completely, what’s to stop Hamas from simply taking up the enterprise again? If that is the case, why rush into an operation now?
To conclude, decision-makers facing such questions must take their time and weigh all the options. When you know how an operation starts but have no idea of how it may end, and when human life and Israel’s international standing are at stake, any decision must carefully determine — as much as possible given the inherent ambiguity of the future — whether the benefits outweigh the risks, what threats these risks entail, and what the risks of doing nothing are. The decision-makers have their work cut out for them, but they cannot be swayed by short-term considerations or belligerent rhetoric.
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