IDF probe: Army failed to internalize, train for tunnel threat
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IDF probe: Army failed to internalize, train for tunnel threat

Investigation finds that unpreparedness of units to destroy tunnels during fighting constituted worst neglect of 2014 war

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

IDF infantrymen congregating around a tunnel entrance in Gaza, July 24, 2014. (Courtesy IDF Flickr)
IDF infantrymen congregating around a tunnel entrance in Gaza, July 24, 2014. (Courtesy IDF Flickr)

An internal military investigation found the IDF had failed to adapt its fighting concepts to allow for the threat of Hamas attack tunnels before the 2014 Gaza war, and as result didn’t properly train engineering units in methods to destroy the underground passages during combat.

Instead, IDF doctrine assumed the tunnels would be dealt with after territory was already conquered, Army Radio reported Wednesday. The security cabinet had not been presented with the findings, which were compiled in an internal IDF document after the war, Army Radio said.

Army Radio broke news of the IDF report on Tuesday and published additional details from it on Wednesday. An upcoming State Comptroller report, elements of which were leaked in May, is expected to sharply criticize both the government and the IDF for being ill-prepared for the tunnels.

Hamas fighters used the tunnels to launch attacks on soldiers advancing through the Gaza Strip. A number of tunnels were used by Hamas terrorists to infiltrate Israel and carry out deadly attacks on troops during the summer conflict. During the campaign, dubbed in Israel “Operation Protective Edge,” Israeli forces discovered and destroyed at least 34 tunnels, many of them leading into Israeli territory.

The most egregious neglect, the report said, was the failure to assemble a force to deal with the tunnels, a failure it said was shared by multiple units in the army.

Army Radio did not say when the IDF report was finalized, but noted that it was before Moshe Ya’alon stepped down as defense minister in June 2016. A spokesperson for Ya’alon said that the minister had decided to not share the report with the security cabinet, as it was an internal IDF investigation.

Although the IDF investigation and the upcoming state comptroller report are entirely separate, and the political leadership had no influence on the IDF’s internal findings, the military conclusions are expected to give additional weight to the state comptroller document when it is finally released.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister, Moshe Ya'alon, and IDF Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, get briefed in the South Front Command on Operation Protective Edge, on July 9, 2014. (Photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, and IDF Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, get briefed in the South Front Command on Operation Protective Edge, on July 9, 2014. (Photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

According to the army report, engineering units, seen as the primary force for dealing with tunnels, were not properly trained. Even the limited training that was carried out proved to be irrelevant, as the mock tunnels prepared by the IDF bore little resemblance to the actual tunnels the troops encountered in Gaza.

While the army was aware of the tunnel threat several years before the campaign, the idea that dealing with the tunnels would be a central part of the fighting was not widespread among the commanders and soldiers, and, most importantly, the engineering corps, the report said.

Although the idea of developing means to uncover tunnels was well received by IDF decision makers, there was almost no attempt to prepare for the possibility that such tunnels would have to be destroyed while they were being used in the midst of a war with Hamas. Instead, it was assumed that the tunnels would be destroyed after Israeli forces had gained control of territory.

In practice, during battles against Hamas-led fighters, regular IDF combat units focused on destroying the tunnel access shafts, an operation they weren’t trained for and which was essentially an engineering operation, the report noted.

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)

Headed by the commander of the IDF’s General Staff Corps, Maj. Gen. Yossi Bachar, the probe was authored by over 30 senior officers and included responses to questionnaires filled in by nearly all the officers involved in the operation.

Earlier revelations from the IDF report, some elements of which remain classified, suggested there was a connection between the lack of preparation and the length of the 50-day war.

Leaks from the unreleased state comptroller report into the government’s handling of the 2014 war accused Netanyahu, Ya’alon, and then-IDF chief Benny Gantz of covering up information regarding the threat posed by the Hamas terror group ahead of the operation.

Hamas has bragged since the 2014 war that it is rebuilding a network of attack tunnels under the Israeli border and restocking its arsenals while testing more potent rockets for future use against Israel.

A Hamas tunnel discovered by the IDF running under the Gaza border into Israel on May 5, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A Hamas tunnel discovered by the IDF running under the Gaza border into Israel on May 5, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Army Radio noted that since the report was concluded many of the issues have been corrected.

Since April, the IDF has discovered two tunnels leading into Israeli territory, and the Shin Bet says it has captured a number of Gazans who have given them extensive information on the tunnel system.

Following the conflict, Israel invested an estimated NIS 1 billion (approximately $250 million) into developing a detection system to locate such tunnels.

Israel hopes in the coming months to complete a massive barrier along the border with Gaza that extends dozens of meters underground, along with sophisticated detection systems, to stymie cross-border tunneling by Hamas.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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