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Israeli anti-tunnel expertise attracts US interest

6th May 2020 - 17:30 GMT | by Arie Egozi in Tel Aviv

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Israel may offer US security authorities the benefit of its military experience in detecting subterranean tunnels dug by terrorists, Shephard has learned.

The US is watching developments in Israel closely, as it aims to invest in technology to detect cross-border tunnels used by Mexican drug cartels. Today most tunnels under the US border are uncovered by traditional police work and intelligence collection.

In one high-profile incident, US officials in January 2020 discovered a 1,300 m-long smuggling tunnel (pictured above) between Tijuana and San Diego, complete with electrical power, drainage and ventilation.

‘These tunnels are for smuggling and therefore present a different challenge to the US authorities,’ one well-placed Israeli source remarked to Shephard.

‘If these tunnels at a later stage are  used for other purposes related to the US security,'  I'm sure that the Americans will ask us for the technology and strategy we have developed,' said IDF Col (reserve) Atai Shelach, ex-commander of the Yahalom unit that pioneered the detection of attack tunnels dug by Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

For some time, Israel has confronted the proven threat posed by terror tunnels dug into the country from Gaza and Lebanon. On the ground, an extensive system has been developed to detect digging operations. At the same time , the Israeli Air Force has developed the wherewithal to destroy tunnels from the air before they cross the border.

Shelach claimed the detection technology developed in Israel is the most advanced in the world. However, he added, ‘it is in fact not only  technology but a combination of technology, intelligence and operational capability’.

Example of an attack tunnel discovered by the IDF. (Credit: IDF)

Shelach explained that the first tunnels to be discovered were used mainly for smuggling goods into Gaza from Egypt. Later ‘we received intelligence that tunnels are being dug in order to penetrate Israel and attack the army and civilians’.

Initially, physical obstacles (such as metal mesh to a depth of 25m) were placed along some sensitive border areas. ‘This did not stop Hamas and we understood that we have to develop a new strategy,’ Shelach noted.

This strategy rests on three pillars, he added: ‘Intelligence to know that something suspicious is happening on the other side of the border; detection and identification; and neutralising and destroying the tunnel.’

The ex-commander of the special unit also revealed that the IDF received intelligence from South Korea on tunnels that were dug from North Korea.

‘But very quickly we learned that our problem is unique, as the tunnels were dug very deep under the surface of the ground and were planned as attack tunnels,’ he remarked.

After the IDF assembled a team of experts in an effort to define the operational need and potential solutions, the MoD issued a tender (with funding support from the US) for the development of a so-called ‘mega’ system that would block future attempts to burrow into Israel. The system was based on the work performed by the IDF Tunnel Detection Technology Laboratory.

Elbit Systems was selected as the main contractor with subcontractor support from other Israeli companies.

Since the IDF Tunnel Detection Technology Laboratory was established in 2016 it has located 15 tunnels, mainly along the northern border with Lebanon. These were destroyed by the IDF Northern  Command, Combat Engineering Corps and the Israeli Air Force.

Earlier this year, Israel began to deploy sensor-based technology infrastructure at various depths for detecting and identifying excavation sites on the Lebanese border. The IDF claims this permanent infrastructure, established by engineers in its Northern Command, is ‘based on unique technology adapted to the border characteristics’.

The system at the Lebanese border is highly classified but it is safe to assume that it is based on an array of bespoke seismic and acoustic sensors. The drilling operations will continue for several months.

Arie Egozi

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Arie Egozi


Born in Israel, Arie Egozi served in the IDF and holds a political science and …

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