Illustrative: A Hamas tunnel from Gaza to Israel, 2014. (AP Photo/Jack Guez, Pool)
Jack Guez/AFP, shows a Hamas tunnel from Gaza to Israel, 2014.
Officer who joined patrol: You had to see it to believe it

How the IDF let a rabbinical mystic search for border tunnels, then spurned him

Officers who went with him claim Galilee-based Rabbi Yehuda found 6 tunnels on Lebanon border, and 31 on Gaza border, years before IDF exposed them. Today, the army is dismissive

Jack Guez/AFP, shows a Hamas tunnel from Gaza to Israel, 2014.

In 2015, an unusual operational report landed on the desks of high-ranking officers in the Israeli army. The document, “A Report on Joint Activity in Uncovering Subterranean Locations,” described efforts to locate enemy tunnels under the northern border. Its author was Col. E., a senior officer in the northern Home Front Command.

The findings Col. E. detailed in the report resulted not from excavation equipment or engineering tools, but from the input of a rabbi.

The report recounted a patrol led by Col. E along the northern border in order to locate tunnels using the metaphysical abilities of Rabbi Yehuda, a Galilee-based mystic, accompanied by his right-hand man, Rabbi Moshe.

“We went on a patrol in the camp,” Col. E. wrote to his commanding officers. “In the district, there is a huge underground reservoir of water that no one would be able to identify if you didn’t show it to them directly. Without our saying a word to him about it, the rabbi found the underground complex and the space that was underneath the area. When we continued the patrol, he found what he rightly said were two more underground spaces, and was able to describe crimes by armed men that had in fact been committed near the location more than three years before.”

I saw a decent person with abilities of whatever kind, who would like to help

Col. E. took care to write early in the report that he is of sound mind. “I would like to state that I am not a religious man. I am a rational person, most of whose actions in professional and private life stem from rational thought and rationalistic examination of every particle.”

Col. E’s report

He concluded the report with a clear recommendation to try to benefit from Rabbi Yehuda’s powers, as witnessed during the patrol. “I saw a decent person with abilities of whatever kind, who would like to help,” he wrote. “In my estimation, if we look at this in terms of possible gain, there is no reason not to accept the rabbi’s help facing other operational challenges in the army’s various theaters of operation.”

Col. E. was not the only one who was impressed. We interviewed several IDF battalion commanders, police officers, and civilian security officers in areas in the north and south who patrolled with the rabbi along Israel’s border fences between 2013 and 2016. They confirmed watching Rabbi Yehuda identify and locate what indeed subsequently proved to be subterranean structures and tunnels, and said that they were convinced that he could spot underground activities and assist the combat, engineering, and excavation troops working in the field.

The information that the officers gathered on their patrols with the rabbi was also reported up the chain of command.

More senior IDF officers, however, were not impressed. The intermittent patrols with Rabbis Yehuda and Moshe were stopped at the end of 2016.

Most of the people who went on patrols with the rabbi in that period would not agree to be identified by name. Likewise, the rabbis themselves refused to be named. So pseudonyms or initials have been used in this article.

Trying to help

In January of this year, the IDF declared that Operation Northern Shield, begun early in December 2018 to locate and neutralize Hezbollah cross-border attack tunnels, was completed, with a sixth and final subterranean passage exposed. Hezbollah, the IDF said, had intended to use the network of tunnels to send in gunmen to carry out devastating attacks against soldiers and civilians in northern Israel. Now that weapon had been taken away from the pro-Iranian terror group.

According to residents, some army officers, and the two rabbis themselves, however, the threat is far from defused. In Moshav Zar’it, in Upper Galilee near the Lebanese border, where three tunnels were discovered during Northern Shield, it is hard to find a single resident who believes that all the tunnels have been found and blown up, despite the IDF’s unequivocal statements to this effect.

Illustrative: IDF reservists patrolling along the Lebanese border near the Israeli village of Zar’it. (Roy Sharon/Flash90)

“If the army were more open-minded, people’s lives would be saved,” said Rabbi Moshe in a recent interview. “We know about dozens more tunnels that are scattered along the border, in the north and in the south. If the army were not so suspicious of everything that smacks of religion, then the major generals and brigadier generals with whom we spoke would give us a chance to help. It’s a shame, since a person who saves one life in Israel is considered as if he had saved a world and everything in it.”

Rabbi Yehuda, 50, lives a secluded life in the Galilee and refuses to speak with the media. His associates describe him as being preternaturally able to “see the other worlds.”

“He can look at you and say whether you are suffering from emotional distress of whatever kind, whether you are suffering from a financial problem or are hiding a big secret,” said Rabbi Moshe. “I am not gifted with such abilities, but I can read Rabbi Yehuda well and direct his abilities into practical channels.”

The exit from a tunnel dug from Lebanon into Israel, December 2018 (Hadas Parush / Flash90)

Before becoming religious, Rabbi Moshe, 71, served in the army’s Intelligence Directorate, and he said that he has been in “direct contact with security officials” for many years. He repeatedly said he had no desire to garner publicity for himself or for Rabbi Yehuda.

“In recent decades, I have been trying to help the Jewish people and the State of Israel using the knowledge and abilities that the Creator blessed me with,” Rabbi Moshe said. “I do so as a private citizen, on a volunteer basis, for no pay. My only goal is to prevent more fiascos, wake up the system, and, if possible, save people’s lives.”

Don’t rule it out until you’ve checked

The key initial link between Rabbi Yehuda and the IDF was Lt. Col. Oded, a battalion commander in the 91st Division, in the Galilee, who knew Rabbi Moshe well — as an Arabic speaker, familiar with the area, and the right-hand man of the mystical rabbi.

“For a decade [prior to Operation Northern Shield], the residents of the communities near the northern border reported hearing noises and banging from below ground, under their homes,” he recalled in an interview.

“I heard this from residents of Kibbutz Sa’ar near Rosh Hanikra, on Moshav Zar’it, and even in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Shlomi. We had to go there and calm the residents down because they were experiencing terrible anxiety,” Oded said.

We knew of the existence of what were then referred to as ‘nature reserves’ — a network of interconnected subterranean tunnels in Lebanese territory that enabled Hezbollah fighters to hide, wait for Israeli soldiers, and take them by surprise when they made an incursion into Lebanon

Oded was one of the founders of the IDF’s School of Guerrilla Warfare, established in 1997 by then-chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak to upgrade fighting capabilities against Hezbollah. Today, Oded lives on a small farm in the north, where he raises cattle. “The army is a rigid system, and I always thought that I ought to use my skills for thinking outside the box, which is very much lacking in the IDF,” he said.

Oded’s out-of-the-box thinking led him to acknowledge that tunnels were being dug in Israeli territory long before the army admitted it. “We knew of the existence of what were then referred to as ‘nature reserves’ — a network of interconnected subterranean tunnels in Lebanese territory that enabled Hezbollah fighters to hide, wait for Israeli soldiers, and take them by surprise when they made an incursion into Lebanon,” Oded recalled.

“Since [we knew Hezbollah] also had a camouflaged system of underground rockets, it was logical to assume that they would try to expand these ‘nature reserves’ across the border into Israel. But [more senior] army officials treated those assessments as fantasies with no basis in logic,” he said.

In a conversation initiated by Rabbi Moshe, “he suggested that I organize a patrol [with Rabbi Yehuda] in the northwestern sector, along the border, and find points where there were suspected tunnels. This was in 2013, to the best of my recollection, and he contacted me as the battalion commander responsible for the northwestern sector in the Galilee formation (the 91st Division),” Oded recalled.

What did you think of that suggestion?

“I’m not a religious person, but I was taught that you should never rule anything out completely before you look into it. I was skeptical at first, also because I was afraid that the move might not be accepted well. I told him, ‘The system won’t look favorably on that, because it’s not an accepted thing to allow civilians to patrol along the border fence.’ But I decided to give the idea a chance just the same.”

Discussions with Rabbi Moshe continued for some time, before a first patrol was arranged and authorized for the two rabbis.

“I contacted our brigade commander, Col. Zion, and asked for permission. He wasn’t enthusiastic about it, but I persuaded him to allow Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Moshe to join a patrol with the battalion’s engineering officer and another few soldiers. The reason I gave was that, at worst, this would calm the residents down.”

The brigade commander approved the patrol.

“I took the engineering officer aside and told him, ‘Stick as close as you can to the border fence,’” Oded recalled. “They rode in an army vehicle along the western sector, from the area of Zar’it to Rosh Hanikra, and came back with amazing findings. I remember that the engineering officer was in shock when the rabbi found a ‘nature reserve’ on the other side of the border, and didn’t understand how he even knew that such things existed.

“The rabbi found [what he said was] a tunnel beneath the Zar’it base without even knowing that there was an army outpost there — and [it turned out later that] he was right. He found [what he said was] another tunnel near Rosh Hanikra — the tunnel that an Israeli army unit would run into a month later,” said Oded.

Israeli soldiers stand around the opening of a hole that leads to a tunnel that the army says was dug by the Hezbollah terror group across the Israel-Lebanon border, near Metula, on December 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

“When I got the report from the officer and troops who had patrolled with the rabbi, I admit that I was still skeptical. I had a dilemma as to how I was going to pass on this information, and to whom. After all, I still didn’t believe completely in the phenomenon, so how could I report about it wholeheartedly?”

“When the brigade commander [Col. Zion] received an update from me that tunnels had been located in the field by alternative methods, he responded with indifference. I told other colleagues in the sector about it, and they didn’t get excited. I decided not to write an official document.”

The facts on the ground speak for themselves: I cross-checked data and made comparisons between the three tunnels found near Zar’it during Operation Northern Shield and the areas that the rabbi spoke about during the patrol [five years earlier], and there was a match

The engineering officer who accompanied the patrol along the border fence was Maj. Gilad. Although he confirmed that he remembered the rabbi and the patrol, he would not talk about it without receiving permission from the IDF Spokesperson’s Office — which refused an interview request.

In 2014, Col. Zion was succeeded by a new brigade commander, who vehemently opposed the rabbis’ patrols. All efforts to continue were firmly rejected, said Oded.

The new brigade commander was Col. Alon Madanes, today, operations officer of the IDF’s Central Command.

Five tunnels located around Zar’it

Also in 2013, Rabbi Yehuda had accompanied another border patrol near Moshav Zar’it, a focal point of underground noises that local residents had been reporting for several years.

“They went out to patrol the area with a police officer, and said that they found five tunnels around the community,” said the chair of Zar’it residents’ committee, Yossi Adoni.

Yossi Adoni (Daphna Talmon)

Looking back, Adoni told us, “There was a match between what the rabbi found” in 2013 and what was discovered in Operation Northern Shield.

“The facts on the ground speak for themselves: I cross-checked data and made comparisons between the three tunnels found near Zar’it during Operation Northern Shield and the areas that the rabbi spoke about during the patrol [five years earlier], and there was a match. The police officer who was with them was also very impressed. The rabbi was pretty much spot-on,” Adoni said.

Meanwhile, down south

Things also began heating up on the southern border in 2013. Rabbi Moshe contacted the then head of the Israel Police’s Security Division, Deputy Inspector General Levi Amiti, and offered to bring Rabbi Yehuda to help find subterranean activity on the Gaza front.

During the patrol with him, we came to the area of [kibbutz] Nahal Oz, and when we stood in a certain place, he pulled my arm and said, ‘There’s a tunnel here’

Amiti checked into the rabbis, heard the assessments of the impressed officers up north, and organized a patrol. “I thought that we ought to give the rabbis a chance to prove themselves, and that we shouldn’t dismiss this way of thinking out of hand,” Amiti, a formerly Orthodox man, who today describes himself as a believing person. “You don’t have to be ultra-Orthodox or pious to check things like this out. I just wanted to see these things with my own eyes.”

Amiti put the rabbis in contact with Superintendent Y., the district security officer, and with Rafi Babian, the Sdot Negev regional council’s security officer. During a patrol along the Israel-Gaza border in January 2014, according to Superintendent Y., Rabbi Yehuda found what he said were 31 tunnels, and marked the exit openings of some of them. Y. and Babian tried cautiously to convey the “findings” up the chain of command, but were met with raised eyebrows and realized that to push harder would merely invite ridicule.

Six months later, during Operation Protective Edge, the army reported the discovery and sealing of 32 tunnels.

A screenshot from a video showing Hamas gunmen infiltrating an IDF base inside Israel near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, July 28, 2014. (YouTube: screenshot)

Looking back to five years ago, Superintendent Y. marveled at what he said were the rabbi’s discoveries. “Listen — it’s incredible. Incredible,” he said. “This man has supernatural abilities, without a doubt. During the patrol with him, we came to the area of [kibbutz] Nahal Oz, and when we stood in a certain place, he pulled my arm and said, ‘There’s a tunnel here.’”

On July 14, 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, four armed Palestinians infiltrated Nahal Oz through a tunnel and fired an anti-tank shell at an army post, killing five soldiers.

“God only knows how he knew, but that was exactly where terrorists emerged [from a tunnel] a few months later, during the war, and killed the Givati soldiers,” said Y. “Right in the same place where I had stood with him. I won’t ever forget that moment.”

Y. is convinced of Rabbi Yehuda’s abilities, but knows the army top brass want nothing to do with it all.  “The senior officials in the defense establishment and the generals have a hard time accepting this idea of ‘channelers.’ It’s very difficult for them. It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t experienced it on the ground, as I did, to believe in it. If I come forward publicly [by name], they’ll think I’m mentally ill.”

If I had come with these findings to the top command, they would have said that I was cuckoo, crazy, deluded. The best way is to bring as many people into the field as possible, and see it in real time. Anyone who saw something tangible with his own eyes was convinced

Amiti said he also stopped trying to have the army examine the findings that came to light during the patrol. “I didn’t push it more strongly because it’s very difficult to convince people in key positions to believe. If I had come with these findings to the top command, they would have said that I was cuckoo, crazy, deluded. The best way is to bring as many people into the field as possible, and see it in real time. Anyone who saw something tangible with his own eyes was convinced,” Amiti said.

In the years following Operation Protective Edge, Rabbi Moshe made several further attempts to connect with the army and have Rabbi Yehuda assist in finding tunnels. He enlisted a friend, OC Central Command Roni Numa, to arrange for a patrol along the Gaza border with Rabbi Yehuda in early 2016 with the engineering officer of Southern Command. But when they arrived, the division commander would not allow them to proceed.

The division commander was initially welcoming, remembered Rabbi Moshe, and asked: “‘What kind of equipment are you bringing?’ I smiled and said we had no equipment, but I told him a little about our previous findings. At this stage, he told us unequivocally that he would not let us into the sector.”

The entrance of a destroyed Palestinian Islamic Jihad tunnel, leading from Gaza into Israel, near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Kissufim, seen on January 18, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP/POOL)

Rabbi Moshe said the commander told him: “I don’t know how to work with rabbis. The chief of staff isn’t fond of rabbis.”

The rabbis ventured south one last time in December 2016, when there was a new division commander. “We went out into the field” with two officers “and identified several tunnels.” The officers “were very positive,” but the army subsequently broke off all contact. “I assume an order came from above to sever all connections to us,” said Rabbi Moshe.

Since then, the rabbis have sought to go back and help locate tunnels that they believe are still undiscovered on the Gaza border, but without success. “The military and political leadership suffer from blindness, and lives in a virtual bubble of reality. As a system, the system is anti-religious, and the chief of staff cannot afford to admit a need to receive help from other, spiritual elements,” charged Rabbi Moshe.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses the tunnel threat, 2018 (Hadas Parush / Flash90)

“If they were to use us, it would be possible to find tunnels far in advance and deal with them in time,” he said.

Asked whether Operation Protective Edge in 2014 resulted in the destruction of all the tunnels from Gaza, his answer was an unequivocal “No.”

It does no harm

Battalion commander Oded, who patrolled with the rabbis along the northern border back in 2013, believes that the army’s attitude is wrong. “I think that the army could have been more open to receiving help from spiritual people,” he said. “We might even save time, reduce risks, and — most important — save lives.”

“Today, when I hear the rabbi say that there are more tunnels, in the north and the south alike, I believe him,” he said.

Yossi Adoni, chair of the residents committee of Zar’it, whose complaints about the noise he and other residents were hearing from underground were ignored for years, promised not to let the matter drop. “I am convinced that not all of the tunnels have been found,” he told us.

“The purpose of my public struggle was to wake the army up, so that they would start taking the subject of the tunnels seriously and deal with it. Today, I can say that I trust that the army is dealing with it. But if I feel that the army is lowering its profile and not doing what I think ought to be done, I will not hesitate to bring in other professionals, from other fields,” he said.

As for Col. E., who wrote the original report on Rabbi Yehuda’s tunnel identification efforts, today he muses that, obviously, he wouldn’t take a rabbi’s advice on operational moves. “But when it comes to finding underground tunnels, you have to ask yourself: what is the harm? … I tend to think that we should not hesitate just because we fear others will call this superstition. There is no risk to soldiers, and the cost is minimal, because the rabbi is volunteering his time.

“So I wouldn’t rule out using these abilities in the future just because mysticism is involved. Such invalidation, in my view, is a mistake.”

The IDF’s response

The IDF Spokesperson’s Office refused to answer questions about the patrols that took place along the northern and southern borders together with Rabbis Yehuda and Moshe, and refused to allow serving officers to be interviewed.

“The IDF is keeping track of the tunnel threat in the north and the south alike, and has worked to locate the tunnels using technological, engineering, and intelligence means only,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Illustrative: Hezbollah supporters shout slogans and wave Lebanese, Hezbollah and Iran flags, during a rally to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, in southern Beirut, Lebanon, on February 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

“After Hezbollah began its project of attack tunnels, the IDF kept track, for more than four years, via a joint intelligence-technology team of the Northern Command and the Intelligence Directorate.

The IDF never relied at any stage upon citizens with any sort of abilities in order to locate attack tunnels

“Once the conditions were ripe for an operation, and before the tunnels turned into a threat to the security of the residents of the north, the IDF began Operation Northern Shield to expose, neutralize, and destroy Hezbollah’s cross-border attack tunnels.

“The IDF never relied at any stage upon citizens with any sort of abilities in order to locate attack tunnels. Rather, it used advanced technological and intelligence means only,” the statement said.

The Israel Police directed questions about patrols held in coordination with police officials to the IDF.

This article originally appeared on Zman Yisrael, the The Times of Israel’s Hebrew site.

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