Hours after announcing the destruction of the longest and deepest Hamas attack tunnel reaching into Israel from Gaza, the Israeli army released a video on Sunday, showcasing the new, special “laboratory” it established for locating cross-border tunnels dug from the Hamas-run coastal enclave into Israel.
The laboratory, which located five tunnels in recent months, was established two years ago as part of the IDF’s Gaza Division and is headed by Captain B, who was trained in electrical engineering and chemistry, the army said.
The tunnel destroyed over the weekend was the longest and deepest yet built by Hamas, and was “ready for use,” military officials said. Because it was part of a wider tunnel system, it could potentially have been used by very large numbers of Hamas terrorists, dispatched to try to carry out terror attacks inside Israeli territory, Israel’s Hadashot TV news reported on Sunday afternoon.
The new technologies and work-methods implemented by the new “laboratory” close to the Gaza border do not add up to a panacea against all attempts by terror groups to tunnel into Israel, but the relentless and “systematic” approach now being used means that Hamas “is gradually being denied” its attack-tunnel weapon, the TV report added.
Military sources on Sunday suggested that Hamas might have been intending to utilize the tunnel under the cover of the mass protests it is encouraging at the Gaza border each Friday. The TV report said Hamas was switching tactics to mass border protests because the Iron Dome rocket intercept system has gradually neutralized the terror group’s rocket capabilities, and the new IDF laboratory is gradually neutralizing its tunnel capabilities.
By the end of next year, the IDF will have deployed sensors as part of the laboratory’s tools all along the border, and is set to have completed both underground and overground barriers at the border, as part of a Gaza border defense project estimated to total some $3.5 billion, according to Hadashot.
The laboratory’s work is gradually being refined and improved. “It does not offer any kind of X-ray” of what Hamas is up to underground, the TV report said. But the IDF’s expertise is constantly improving, in much the same way that today’s Iron Dome rocket defense system is a far more effective protection than it was when first introduced.
The former defense minister and ex-IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon said Sunday that Israel was now the “world leader” in this aspect of defense. He noted that the US has invested $120 million in Israeli technology in this field for use on the US-Mexico border.
The IDF’s laboratory team, under Captain B, includes “the best minds in an assortment of technological and research fields,” the army said Sunday, “including members of the Ground Forces’ Technology Brigade, physicists, engineers, intelligence personnel and geologists.”
The IDF described the laboratory as its “technological arm” for tunnel detection and said it works in concert with operational and intelligence elements to locate tunnels on the Gaza border.
The laboratory also works to improve existing technologies and to develop new discovery and mapping techniques based on the specific challenge of locating terrorist tunnels in different ways, the IDF said. The team works in close cooperation with intelligence personnel and engineering forces, as well as with other units in the field.
The tunnel located by the team and destroyed over the weekend was the “longest and deepest” underground passage discovered in Israel thus far, according to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
It passed under the border in an area where Palestinian protesters have recently clashed with security forces, the army said.
A military spokesman said the tunnel was dug by the Hamas terrorist group and was connected to a “kilometers-long” network of other passages under the Gaza Strip.
The tunnel reached “tens of meters” into Israeli territory in the area of the northern Gaza Strip, close to the Israeli community of Nahal Oz, the army said. It was constructed since the 50-day 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas, according to the IDF.
The tunnel was detected using new technologies and methods that the IDF has deployed against the terror tunnel threat and was disarmed over the weekend, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said on Sunday morning.
“This was clearly a terror tunnel that connected to other tunnels in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “It extended into Israel and violated Israeli sovereignty.”
Security forces had been monitoring this tunnel network, which had been under construction for years, the spokesman said. The decision was taken to destroy the tunnel once it crossed into Israeli territory, he added.
Palestinian tunnel diggers were working their way up to the surface to construct an exit within Israeli territory when the army decided to act.
The tunnel destruction came amid tensions along the security fence in recent weeks — with the Palestinians holding mass marches near the border, and in some cases rioting, for the last three consecutive weekends. Israel says the violence is being orchestrated by Hamas, which it accuses of trying to carry out border attacks under the cover of large protests.
On Friday, at least 10,000 Gazans took part in large-scale demonstrations, with the Israeli military saying protesters hurled an explosive device and firebombs at Israeli troops deployed at the border, as well as making “several attempts” to damage the fence between Israel and Gaza, and cross over into Israeli territory. A week earlier, about 20,000 Palestinians took part in the demonstrations, with the previous week attracting an estimated 30,000.
More than 30 Palestinians have been killed in the clashes over the part three weeks, according to Hamas-run health authorities. Hamas has acknowledged that several of those killed were its members, and Israel has identified other fatalities as members of terrorist groups.
The protests are part of what Hamas said will be several weeks of “March of Return” demonstrations, which Hamas leaders say ultimately aim to see the removal of the border and the liberation of Palestine.
The terror organization’s tunnel network has become a focus of Israel’s security forces since the end of the 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, when the underground system was used to devastating effect to attack Israeli troops near the border with Gaza.
Stuart Winer contributed to this report.