At the current rate of progress, it will take Israel at least half a century to clear the millions of mines laid over the decades in sensitive areas nationwide from the Golan Heights to Eilat, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee was told on Wednesday.
The panel was given an update on the progress of the Defense Ministry’s Mine Clearing Authority, which was set up two years ago to tackle the project, and has an annual government budget of NIS 27 million (some $7.4 million). Israel and the territories it controls over the pre-1967 lines have 150,000 dunams — 37,000 acres — of minefields, including fields laid by Syria and Jordan.
Officials from the authority said the private companies it employs have cleared some 30,000 mines to date — including in minefields near Eilat, south of the Dead Sea, and in the Golan — but could make double or triple the progress if more money was available. As things stood, they said, “it will take 50 to 60 years” to get the job done. Efforts to raise funds through donations have not been particularly successful.
Committee Chairman Avigdor Liberman, who was the only MK present at the start of the session, suggested the authority seek to obtain funding from the European Union, which he said might have a budget for the work. In the interim, since the project was going to take so long, he urged the authority to make better signposting of minefields a top priority.
Liberman urged a Treasury representative at the meeting to help find more money for the project, noting that the fields, once cleared, were swiftly utilized for agriculture — boosting the economy. The young Treasury official responded by highlighting Israel’s current budgetary travails.
Two other committee members — MKs Meir Sheetrit (Hatnua) and Moti Yogev (Jewish Home) — later joined the discussion. In his brief comments, Yogev, a new member of Knesset, misidentified Sheetrit as MK Eitan Cabel (Labor), to much hilarity.
The Mine Clearing Authority works separately from the IDF, which is also at work clearing minefields. Two weeks ago, Cpl. Roi Alphi, from the Combat Engineering Corps, was killed when a mine exploded as he worked with his colleagues to clear a minefield in the Golan Heights.
The Defense Ministry officials at Wednesday’s committee meeting said they had no further information on that incident, which is being investigated by the IDF. While the Mine Clearing Authority focuses on minefields with anti-personnel mines, the mine that killed Alphi was an antitank mine — the M15.
The officials could not comment on reports that the US-made, Korean-war era M15, large numbers of which have been modified with an Israeli-made pressure-plate called the “Pa’alul” (Hebrew for “stunt”), was known to be faulty and susceptible to heat.
There had been several previous explosions of M15 mines when they were uncovered during mine-clearing work on the Golan three years ago, the reports said, and veteran Combat Engineering Corps reserve officers had warned the army to stop sending soldiers into such minefields until a solution was found for the faulty mechanisms.
A military source said that the incident in which Alphi was killed and those in 2010 were “completely different… and should not be seen as a trend.” The Times of Israel was also told the IDF team investigating Alphi’s death was replicating the circumstances in which the M15 exploded, under laboratory conditions, to try to ascertain why it had detonated. The IDF has suspended mine-clearing operations while the investigation continues.