The Israeli Army has developed a new tool in its seemingly Sisyphean struggle against the hundreds of underground tunnels used for smuggling weapons from Sinai into Gaza, or as subterranean staging grounds for cross-border strikes into Israel.
A collaborative effort between the Army’s special technology division and EMI, a local explosive materials manufacturer, the system – known here as Emulsion – injects into the ground a blend of commercial-grade liquid explosives, each of which remains nonsensitive to mishandling or even improvised bomb attack until blended and deployed.
“It’s all automatic, carries minimal risk to troops and creates maximum, irreparable damage to the tunnels,” said Maj. Isam Abu Tarif, director of the special technology division of Israel’s Ground Forces Command.
Abu Tarif said the recently completed prototype is actually a second-generation system, following less efficient versions deployed in Gaza in the last seven or eight years. The newest Emulsion-2 prototype is self-navigating and programmed for precision deployment of explosive materials and optimum penetration of the destructive mixture.
“Earlier versions didn’t provide optimum destruction, allowing the enemy to dig around the destroyed section,” Abu Tarif said. “With this second-generation system, they’re better off digging a new tunnel.”
First reported in the latest editions of B’yabasha (On the Ground), the official Hebrew-language journal of Israel’s Ground Forces Command, the latest Emulsion prototype is mounted on eight-wheeled armored trucks. Future versions will be smaller, tailored for more challenging operational conditions and designed to be towed into high-threat areas by tank.
Deployment of the latest prototype has allowed the Army to amend its doctrine for more effective, force-protective anti-tunnel combat, Abu Tarif said.
“Under our old doctrine, our forces had to endanger themselves while transporting the explosive materials to the target,” he said. “Then they had to physically get into the tunnel to perform the mission. … And there were cases where soldiers died en route or inside the tunnels.
“But now, the two substances are housed separately and are impervious to accidental or enemy-initiated detonation,” he said. “Emulsion-2 is designed to withstand [a rocket-propelled grenade] attack. And once we neutralize the threat on approach, automation takes over with the injection of materials for optimum effect.”
Finally, Abu Tarif said the Emulsion-2 carries “a huge quantity” of two-component explosive material, allowing specialty units to destroy multiple tunnels in a single deployment to high-threat areas.
“Before, we were limited to the amount of explosives carried in an [armored personnel carrier], but now the carrying capacity is safe and unlimited … and the effect of the liquid explosive blend creates a chain reaction that extends well beyond the target penetration area,” he said.
Security sources here estimate a network of many hundreds of tunnels of varying levels of sophistication have been built between Gaza and Egypt. While most tunnels are built to sustain Egypt’s thriving smuggling industry for appliances, vehicles, livestock and other commercial goods into Gaza, an alarming number are used to deliver primarily Iranian-supplied missiles, anti-tank rockets, other weaponry and even military instructors into the strip via Sinai.
Another category of tunnels – some nearly a kilometer in length – are built for commando strikes and kidnapping attempts on Israel’s side of the Gaza border. Security sources here peg the number of so-called terror tunnels built to support subterranean combat operations against Israel in the dozens.
In Israel’s Cast Lead incursion into Gaza in late December 2008, the Air Force destroyed 40 smuggling tunnels in the first two days of the 22-day campaign. Since then, the Israeli military claims to have destroyed or heavily damaged 190 tunnels, 150 of them smuggling routes along the Gaza-Egyptian corridor.
Military sources here said another 40 tunnels destroyed in recent years were built to support infiltration operations similar to Hamas’ successful June 2006 attack on an Israeli tank. Two Israeli soldiers were killed in that strategically important strike, while one – Pvt. Gilad Shalit – remains in captivity. Shalit’s plight has traumatized the Israeli public and taunted a string of successive political and military leaders who have failed to secure his release.
“Combating terror tunnels is a top priority,” said Capt. Barak Raz, an Israeli military spokesman. “The orders are maximum readiness to defend our citizens and soldiers from kidnapping attempts and deny the enemy any opportunity for another strategic achievement.”
Avi Dichter, an Israeli lawmaker and former director of the Shin Bet security service, said Egypt’s decision to open its Rafah border crossing with Gaza will not erode the need for persistent and coordinated military and intelligence anti-tunnel operations.
The late May opening of Egypt’s border crossing with Gaza and its 1.5 million residents is a reversal of deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s policy of isolating and neutralizing the militant, Islamist Hamas authority in the Strip. And while Israel must remain watchful of those exiting and re-entering Gaza via Egypt, Dichter said more than 90 percent of illicit smuggling will continue to be conducted via underground tunnels.
“As much as we lament the passing of the Mubarak era, we have to admit that he could have done a hell of a lot more to blunt the arms smuggling industry,” Dichter told a seminar of Israeli military officers May 26.
“For that matter, when we had control of Philadelphi [the corridor linking Sinai to the southern part of Gaza], we, too, missed a lot of activity,” he said. “Bottom line, the tunnel threat is an eternal mission requiring very close cooperation between security forces and all branches of the Israel Defense Forces.”