Plan for US-Israel anti-tunnel R&D project clears first House hurdle

Congressional committee okays amendment for an Iron Dome-style joint program designed to combat terror tunnels

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

A Hamas tunnel discovered by soldiers from the Paratroopers Brigade in the northern Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)
A Hamas tunnel discovered by soldiers from the Paratroopers Brigade in the northern Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of Congress members unanimously approved adding an amendment authorizing research and development of an anti-tunneling defense system for Israel’s protection to the year’s most important defense legislation Wednesday.

The amendment combined language from two pre-existing bills – one sponsored by Rep. Gwen Graham (D-FL) and the other by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) – into a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual must-pass bill that specifies the Defense Department’s budget and expenditures.

The amendment was added to the NDAA by a unanimous voice vote, during a marathon session of the House Armed Service Committee, and will likely remain as part of the bill that will come before the full House of Representatives for a floor vote. The NDAA is considered must-pass legislation, as it secures funding for American national defense, including long-term big-ticket projects and procurements as well as funding the day-to-day operations of the world’s most expensive military.

According to its sponsors, the Lamborn-Graham amendment will authorize R&D of an anti-tunneling defense system to protect Israel from terror attacks, such as those incursions by Gazan terrorists which terrified southern Israeli communities in the summer of 2014. Israeli residents along the northern border with Lebanon have also repeatedly expressed concerns that Hezbollah was currently tunneling entries to Israeli villages in order to launch major terror attacks.

Tunnels were used to launch the 2006 Hamas raid that led to the kidnapping of St.-Sgt. Gilad Shalit, as well as the kidnapping of the body of Lt. Hadar Goldin’s during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Rafah. Last summer alone, the Israel Defense Forces discovered 32 tunnels, 14 of which crossed into Israel.

The Lamborn-Graham amendment was designed to be similar to the 2011 legislative authorization for the highly successful Iron Dome Anti-Missile Defense System – a joint US-Israel venture that has broken new ground in rocket defense systems.

“Our closest ally in the Middle East – Israel – lives under the constant threat of terrorist attacks from underground tunnel,” Rep. Graham wrote in a statement Wednesday. “The US-Israel Anti-Tunnel Defense Cooperation Act will launch an unprecedented new initiative to protect Israel from this dangerous menace. To secure peace, we must first help Israel secure their state from attacks. Iron Dome has saved countless civilian lives, and an anti-tunneling defense shield will save countless more.”

Rep. Lamborn characterized tunneling as “an age-old threat that has re-emerged in a very dangerous way.”

“We know that if Hamas has used tunnels in successful terrorist attacks, it is only a matter of time before terrorists elsewhere use tunnels as well,” he added. “Tunnels are a threat to American bases and embassies around the world, and are already a serious threat on our own southern border. For all these reasons, it only makes sense to partner with Israel, like we have done on missile defense, to learn with them about how to defend against tunnels.”

The amendment’s sponsors emphasized that Hamas has spent an estimated $100 million to construct tunnels, which are used tor smuggling weapons, money and supplies into Gaza from Sinai, as well as for launching terrorist attacks within Israel.

AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, endorsed the legislation, arguing that it will “help both the United States and Israel defend against future threats emanating from tunnels.”

In their endorsement letter, AIPAC’s directors of government affairs wrote that the bill “promotes real cooperation and cost-sharing between Washington and Jerusalem on this key challenge.”

The process to approve the NDAA, however, is far from complete – and horse-trading over amendments and riders is likely to continue until the final votes on the key legislation.

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