TEL AVIV — Israel wants extensive US multiyear funding to field a multilayered system for detecting and destroying border-breaching tunnels — a mission defined by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon as "a top priority" for the nation's defense establishment.
"The search for tunnels is at the top of our priority list … and we will not spare any efforts," Ya'alon said following Monday's lifting of a gag order on a nearly two-month-long operation that resulted in "neutralization" of a tunnel extending from southern Gaza near Rafah deep into Israeli territory.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman, said a brigade-level force supported by special forces, technologists and constant air cover discovered last week a sophisticated Hamas-built tunnel extending "several hundreds of meters" beyond the fence "adjacent to Israeli communities."
"The operation had been ongoing for about two months," he said. "The working assumption is there are more."
Lerner added: "It was fully equipped with electricity, communications, air filtration and transport rails … big enough for a grown man to stand with weapons, RPGs and more."
Last week's tunnel discovery was the first since Israel's summer 2014 Gaza war, and was similar to those exposed during fierce urban combat in that 51-day clash.
In his April 18 statement, Ya'alon hailed the recent discovery as "an important operational achievement" and noted that in recent years, Israel has made "tremendous investments" that involve forces from the IDF, the Shin Bet intelligence service and the Israeli defense industries.
"Dealing with the phenomenon of tunnels is very complex, and the state of Israel is a world leader in this field. This battle demands from us persistence, creativity, and also responsibility and good judgment," Ya'alon said.
He noted that in recent months, Hamas has lost manpower due to collapsing tunnels and other work accidents.
"Hamas has experienced the phenomenon of collapsing tunnels, diggers that are killed during their work and now this discovery. Nevertheless, we don't delude ourselves that Hamas will draw conclusions, cease this activity and make itself available to improve the quality of life for the citizens," Ya'alon said.
A senior defense official told Defense News that Israel's Ministry of Defense has invested more than $60 million in anti-tunnel technologies and demonstrations in the past five years and is hoping for at least twice that amount from Washington in the coming two years.
US funding, he said, would allow Israel to develop supplemental technologies, and transition from prototype development to testing and production of operational systems.
In December, Congress included $40 million in its omnibus spending bill for US-Israel anti-tunnel technology development. Israel is hoping for at least another $40 million in 2017 and in 2018, according to defense and industry sources in Israel.
Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence estimates that Hamas invests about $3 million on each tunnel, despite economic hardship and lack of resources suffered by civilians in Gaza. Not only is Hamas rebuilding and improving on the tunnel network damaged or destroyed during the last war with Israel, but it is constantly investing in new land, sea and air attack capabilities.
Palestinian members of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, take part in a gathering on Jan. 31 in Gaza City to pay tribute to their fellow militants who died after a tunnel collapsed in the Gaza Strip.
Photo Credit: Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images
In a statement Monday, the military wing of Hamas said the tunnel destroyed by Israel was not a new tunnel and that it represented just "a drop in a sea of moves" that it is preparing against Israel.
"The preparation for war continues in all arenas, and what the enemy uncovered today is but a drop in a sea of moves the resistance has prepared in order to protect its people, free its prisoners and liberate its land," according to Palestinian Ma'an news agency.
Lerner said both sides are preparing for the next confrontation "that neither of us want."
"The ugly truth is that Hamas continues to invest millions of dollars to build tunnels of terror and death. The tunnel uncovered in Israel demonstrates once more Hamas' warped priorities and continued commitment and investment in tools and violence," he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the recent tunnel discovery as a "global breakthrough" and said his government is investing "considerable capital" in countering the tunnel threat.
"This is an ongoing effort that will not end overnight," Netanyahu said in a Monday evening statement. "We are investing in this and will continue to do so with determination."