The Hamas tunnels in the Gaza Strip are “a child's game” compared with what the Lebanese Hezbollah built during the last two decades, judging by reports published in recent years in the Arab press. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) first encountered the Hezbollah tunnels in southern Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. However, according to reports, the tunnels have been upgraded and expanded since, in both equipment and range. It is thus naturally feared that they already reach into Israeli territory, and Iranian experts have been involved in the massive development of the tunnels.
The tunnels dug in southern Lebanon extend south of the Litani River, all the way to the Israeli border. In an article published earlier this year, the Arab news magazine Al Watan Al Arabi reported — apparently, based on bragging by a Hezbollah source — that the tunnels under discussion were most sophisticated, and that “quality-wise, they are on par with the metro tunnels in the major European cities.” These are well-lined tunnels, equipped with highly advanced communication, lighting, control and surveillance means, and with whatever it takes to enable a lengthy stay and battle management over long periods of time, including war rooms.
As far as is known, the Iranians have built underground missile launching sites for Hezbollah that can be operated either manually or by computer. It is one of the lessons learned by Hezbollah in the wake of the Second Lebanon War, when the Israeli Air Force succeeded in destroying vehicle-mounted missile launchers.
It seems that the Iranians and Hezbollah have thought of every detail, leaving nothing out. The tunnels have thus been equipped not only with weapons-storage facilities and command and control equipment, but also with kitchens, bathrooms, clinics and everything needed for a few hundred fighters staying at any given moment inside the tunnels.
Hezbollah has already threatened to take over settlements in the Galilee
It is not clear whether Hezbollah has continued digging the tunnels into Israeli territory. Yet, two factors may be cited in corroboration of this assumption: One of these is the threats made by Hezbollah that in the next confrontation with Israel, its fighters will be able to take over towns and villages in the Galilee in northern Israel. The other factor is the Hamas attack tunnels along the Gaza Strip border. After all, it’s from Hezbollah that Hamas learned the tactics of tunnel warfare.
According to sources in Lebanon, since the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah has reinforced the “tunnel city” in the Bekaa Valley, being concerned that this could be one of the organization’s weak points. And, in fact, its reasoning has proven true, all the more so since 2011, following the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Supervised by Iranian experts, and with a large financial investment, Hezbollah has developed a system of tunnels in the Bekaa Valley. One can only imagine what the organization tried to haul through the tunnels or what was actually transferred by the Syrian army through the tunnels in support of Hezbollah since the rebels managed to gain a foothold in the regions controlled by Assad.
The funding for the Hezbollah tunnels comes from Iran, as well as from the income sources of the Shiite organization itself. It is estimated that Iran used to allocate on behalf of Hezbollah a budget of $200 million per year. And following the Second Lebanon War, Iran has reportedly increased this aid budget, through special grants designed to accelerate the restoration of Hezbollah's power. In addition, there are other government-related agencies in Iran that transfer aid funds to Hezbollah. However, according to various reports, in view of the huge Iranian investment in Syria following the uprising against the Assad regime, which flared up about three and a half years ago, the financial aid granted by Tehran to Hezbollah has been cut.
Over the years, Hezbollah has developed its own independent sources of income. These include, among others, donations — not only from the Arab and Islamic world, but also the West. In Lebanon itself, Hezbollah operates a network of economic interests, including trade, service and investment companies. At the same time, Hezbollah conducts extensive business activity overseas, specifically in the diamond sector. What’s more, Hezbollah has been reported to be involved in drug trafficking and also in document-forgery networks — both inside and outside Lebanon.
The aforementioned article in Al Watan Al Arabi cites a senior Hezbollah official as stating, “International intelligence agencies from time to time send agents to areas where they believe tunnels have been dug, for surveillance and information-gathering purposes. We are aware of that activity; they are welcome to try [to do] whatever they want.”
Completely different terrain, but can be tunneled
Experts approached by Israeli daily Calcalist do not rule out the existence of tunnels in the north, although, as they point out, it is obviously completely different terrain from that in the south. If such infrastructure actually exists or is under construction, Israel should start looking for tunnel location means, not only along its southern border but also in the northern part of the country. Yet, according to the experts, it is not the detection and location means per se that pose the problem, but rather, and above all, the concept adopted by the Israeli security establishment, which relies primarily on military specialists and fails to consult geology professionals.
Yair Rotstein, executive director of the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation and former CEO of the Geophysical Institute of Israel, believes that it is much harder, although quite possible, to dig tunnels in the northern part of the country. “I think that tunnels in the north may be detected sooner than in the south,” he says, but adds in the same breath, “If the tunnels have already been excavated, it could be much more difficult to locate them in the north.”
Dov Frimerman, a geologist who formerly served as a senior executive at the Geophysical Institute of Israel, agrees with Rotstein. “The northern part of the country is characterized by a rocky terrain, which is quite different from the southern terrain, and therefore, it cannot be excavated using simple means, the way it has been done in the south. Hence, excavation activities in the north can be more easily detected.”
As to the ability to detect and locate tunnels, Frimerman notes that quite a number of solutions have been developed for the detection and location of tunnels at the various stages of excavation. He maintains, however, that the major problem currently facing Israel is not the location of tunnels, but rather the concept adopted by the security establishment. “Instead of seeking advice from terrain professionals — whether geologists or physicists, and there are many of those in Israel — specialists who developed the Iron Dome are consulted. However, they are not dealing with the terrain — their field of expertise is optical and electronic sensors. I cannot figure it out; Israel has two institutions dedicated to the exploration of the terrain, boasting an array of experts and vast experience, but neither of them has been tapped.”
Yiftah Shapir, senior research fellow and head of the Middle East Military Balance Project at the Institute for National Security Studies, maintains otherwise. In his opinion, there is currently no technological solution capable of locating all the tunnels. “Everything has been considered and everything has been tried at one time or another — trenches and tunnels were dug, and iron piles were driven into the ground; however, they just dug underneath. Here, they have dug as far deep as 25 meters [82 feet]; in Mexico, they have dug tunnels 40 meters [just over 131 feet] deep; and in [North] Korea, they have already reached 70 meters [close to 230 feet] below ground level.”
Shapir says in conclusion, “It may well be that there is a tunnel shaft near some northern community. Alas, at present, there is no solution. What’s left is intelligence, and in fact, many of the tunnels [in the south] were discovered thanks to intelligence activity.”
Israel will do its best to prevent the restoration of the tunnels in the south
Now that the IDF has reported the destruction of all tunnels leading from Gaza into Israel, Israel and Hamas are bound to start an arms race. Hamas would of course be interested in rebuilding the destroyed tunnels, while Israel will do its best to detect the tunnels before they are dug across the border. Frimerman believes that Israel has time enough to place multiple means of geophonic detection capable of tracing various vibrations in the ground, and thus thwart the excavation of any tunnels along or across the border with Gaza. “The cost of such detection means is not that high, and a surveillance network may be set up in no time along the entire length of the border with Gaza, even before Hamas manages to complete the construction of the tunnels,” he explained.
It is assessed that at the moment, Hamas is capable of building one meter [about 3 feet] of tunnel per day. Hence, the completion of an approximately 2 km [about 1.25 mile] length of tunnel would take quite some time — which Israel could use to position an adequate lineup of alert and detection means. “The State of Israel has no need to look for new means for tunnel detection and location; it just has to convert the means already at its disposal,” said Rotstein. “The technology required to detect tunnels is there, and converting it to meet the IDF's needs is neither complicated nor costly.”
Frimerman, who acquired vast experience in the location of sinkholes in the Dead Sea region, said that those very means used to locate sinkholes could now be applied to detect tunnels in Gaza.
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