Need to fight in a tunnel or find hidden IEDs? Ask Lt. Col. Liron Aroch how

To prepare soldiers to fight in Gaza, the IDF Southern Command Training Base exposes them to the underground passages and sophisticated explosive devices they’re liable to face

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Lt. Col. Liron Aroch, head of the IDF's Southern Command Training Base, during a tour of the facility on January 10, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Lt. Col. Liron Aroch, head of the IDF's Southern Command Training Base, during a tour of the facility on January 10, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

There’s an active Hamas attack tunnel deep inside Israeli territory, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Gaza Strip, stretching tens of meters and full of hiding spots, offshoots and storage depots. There are others like it, too.

But unlike the three border-crossing attack tunnels that the Israel Defense Forces has destroyed in the past three months, these are nothing to worry about.

Since the 2014 Gaza war, also known as Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli military has constructed multiple replicas of Hamas tunnels in the grounds beneath military bases across the country, including two of the largest ones under the Southern Command Training Base, known in the army by the Hebrew acronym Baf Darom.

Once the domain of special forces, tunnels have become so prevalent in the Gaza Strip that now every IDF infantry soldier has to learn how to fight in them, Lt. Col. Liron Aroch, the commander of Baf Darom, told The Times of Israel during a tour of the base this month.

Our goal is not to fight in a tunnel, but to deal with it from above

The facility is located across the Route 222 highway from the better-known Tzeelim base, which contains a mock Palestinian city used for urban combat training. Together, the two bases represent a central resource of information on the best techniques for fighting in the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula.

An Israeli army officer looks at a destroyed Palestinian Islamic Jihad tunnel, leading from Gaza into Israel, near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Kissufim. (Jack Guez/AFP/POOL)

Over the past few months, tensions surrounding the restive Strip have been higher than usual, as, during the course of work on a new security barrier that will surround the coastal enclave, border-crossing attack tunnels are discovered and destroyed. The Israeli military says it does not anticipate renewed large-scale clashes in the Strip, though it does not discount the possibility entirely due to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, along with the inherent volatility of the situation there.

In addition to the multiple border-crossing attack tunnels that enter Israeli territory from Gaza, a sprawling maze of subterranean passages — which some IDF officers jokingly refer to as the enclave’s “metro” —  is believed to zigzag through the sandy soil beneath the Strip.

It is with these tunnels and bunkers that Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the two most powerful terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, would go to war with Israeli ground forces, using them to conduct sneak attacks and, as they have in the past, to kidnap soldiers.

Fighting in tunnels as a last resort

Aroch, 37, tall with cropped salt-and-pepper hair, has been responsible for training soldiers in the Southern Command for about two years. Before this, the father of three was deputy head of the Givati Brigade’s Rotem infantry battalion, which he helped lead during the 2014 war, including during  the discovery and demolition of two Gaza tunnels, he said.

Lt. Col. Liron Aroch, head of the IDF’s Southern Command Training Base, crouches inside a mock-Hamas tunnel that was built inside the facility, during a tour of the base on January 10, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The Southern Command Training Base includes two types of Hamas tunnels. One is intensely claustrophobic, approximately five feet (1.5 meters) tall and two-and-a-half feet (0.8 meters) wide, with a domed roof. A soldier with a helmet, combat boots, backpack and rifle could only hope to move in such a tunnel while hunched over and constantly scraping against the walls and ceiling.

The other is far wider and taller, more than two meters (six feet) tall and nearly as wide. This was the type of tunnel used by Hamas during the 2014 war to bring terrorists on motorbikes into Israel.

To mimic the real world, this tunnel’s entrance is hidden inside an unassuming shack.

In these tunnels, soldiers learn that the structures can trick their eyes, drawing their gaze toward the end of the passageway so they miss the indent off to the side where a terrorist can be hiding.

Motorcycles discovered by IDF troops inside a tunnel crossing into Israel from Gaza on August 3, 2014. (Gadi Yampel/Israel Defense Forces)

That said, no matter how well trained a soldier is in underground warfare or how good the intelligence is on the layout, combat in a Hamas tunnel is a losing proposition for the Israeli army. It would mean giving up almost every strategic advantage at the IDF’s disposal and fighting on the enemy’s turf.

“You can’t bring a tank into a tunnel or use the air force in a tunnel,” Aroch noted.

Soldiers from the Givati Brigade seen at the entrance to a Hamas attack tunnel on July 23, 2014, during Operation Protective Edge. (Israel Defense Forces/Flash90)

“Our goal is not to fight in a tunnel, but to deal with it from above. To seal the tunnel, to blow it up, to destroy it, from aboveground,” he said.

“But there will be cases where the IDF has to go into tunnels, to gather intelligence or take out senior commanders. So we have to prepare the soldiers for this challenge,” he said.

IEDs on the security fence

But the Southern Command Training Base isn’t dedicated solely to training soldiers for tunnel warfare.

The facility prepares soldiers for all types of missions and threats in the Southern Command. As such, it contains models of the Egypt and Gaza security fences to train soldiers for missions along the border. (A new area is under construction to mimic the upgraded barrier currently being built around Gaza.)

The training base also contains a classroom where soldiers are taught to identify, avoid and disarm some of the most prevalent types of weapons used by terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip — mines and improvised explosive devices.

Models of improvised explosive devices that could be used against Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip, on display at the Southern Command Training Center on January 10, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“One of the main challenges is explosive charges. The class is here to demonstrate the threat presented by them, how to deal with them, how to locate them,” he said.

The room contains a number of varieties of explosive charges that have been retrieved by Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip over the years: mass-produced Iranian mines designed to destroy tank treads, locally made Gazan Claymore anti-personnel mines that fire tiny metal balls at unsuspecting troops, touch-sensitive plates that explode when they’re stepped on.

“This is a threat that is constantly increasing. This is the best ‘value for money’ for the other side. They can put in very little effort and cause significant damage, without casualties on their side,” Aroch said.

The training base commander said the threat was multinational, with devices coming into Gaza through Egypt or by sea from Iran and Libya. The Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorist group is also known to have shared tips on constructing and using these mines, he said.

“IEDs that we used to see only in Lebanon, now we’re seeing them in Gaza with different types of coverings that help them blend into the landscape,” Aroch said, referring to fiberglass forms that go over the mine to make it look like a rock or, in one case, part of a chicken coop.

A model of an improvised explosive device that could be used against Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip, on display at the Southern Command Training Center on January 10, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

During the 2014 Gaza war, IDF soldiers faced these explosive devices in tunnels, apartment buildings and open fields and along roadways.

“We had more than a few casualties caused by explosive devices during Operation Protective Edge,” Aroch said.

Today, the army encounters these explosives mostly along the security fence, though most attempts at setting them up are prevented due to the surveillance tools at the army’s disposal, Aroch said.

However, the army is concerned that such devices could be placed along the border during a large-scale protest, where the rioters and fires can provide cover.

Palestinian protesters wave national flags during clashes with Israeli security forces on the eastern outskirts of Gaza City, near the border with Israel, on January 12, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

One model that’s of particular concern to Israeli troops currently guarding the Gaza border — where Palestinians have been staging regular protests following US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — is made to look like a flagstaff, like the ones bearing Palestinian flags that demonstrators have been placing on the security fence.

A model of a flag whose staff was rigged with explosives to blow when soldiers tried to remove it from the Gaza Strip security fence, on display on January 10, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“This model was used about four years ago. They put a flag whose pole was rigged, full of explosives and ball bearings. And if the soldiers had pulled it down, it would have set off the firing mechanism and explode,” Aroch said, pointing to a recreation of the device that was on display in the classroom.

“But the soldiers recognized the threat and took care of it, preventing serious injury.”

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