The Underworld

The Underworld

The Underworld

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 3 2009 6:33 AM

The Underworld

Two weeks ago, when Israel was pounding Gaza, we looked at technical options for blocking or detecting the tunnels Hamas uses to smuggle arms from Egypt. The list ranged from walls to moats to sensors to periodic bombing. The idea was to offer Israel ways to cut off the flow of weapons without having to continue its military campaign.

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Israel then halted its invasion, based on a memorandum of understanding in which the United States pledged, among other things, to "provide logistical and technical assistance and to train and equip regional security forces in counter-smuggling tactics." It was pretty obvious who the "regional security forces" were, given that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was already in Egypt .

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So what's happened since then? Who's doing what about the tunnels? And can a tunnel, of all things, bring peace to the Middle East?

For now, Israel is still bombing the Gaza tunnels. On Sunday, Israel hit six of them , ostensibly retaliating for rockets launched from Gaza. Here's a photo  of one bombed site, taken yesterday. It gives you a rough idea of how much—and how little—damage was inflicted.

The most interesting thing about the bombing is Israel's efforts to avoid killing anyone in or around the tunnels. According to the AP, "Palestinians said residents near the Egypt-Gaza border received calls after nightfall Sunday from the Israeli military advising them to leave " before the tunnel bombings. The recorded message said : "Everybody who is near any place used for terror or weapon storage facility or tunnels, should evacuate the area immediately." Then Israeli planes sent sonic booms through the area, alerting tunnel workers , who proceeded to get out before the planes dropped their bombs. "No casualties were reported from any of the bombings," says the AP.

Will bombing solve the tunnel problem? No. Last week, the commander of Israel's air force admitted , "If we hit them today, they'll open again tomorrow and they'll be dug in the future, too." The Israeli military thinks weapons shipments to Gaza should be intercepted at sea or in the Egyptian desert before they get to the tunnels. But U.S. envoy George Mitchell says the best way to close the tunnels might be to open Gaza's borders above ground: "To be successful in preventing the illicit traffic of arms into Gaza, there must be a mechanism to allow the flow of legal goods."

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Mitchell is right. Opening the borders won't stop Hamas from seeking weapons. But it'll ease the economic necessity that currently drives Gazans of all persuasions to dig and maintain underground channels to Egypt. Then we can isolate and target those who work for Hamas and its arms network.

That's where technology comes in. The United States and Egypt, apparently spurred by a U.S. financial-aid requirement and the Jan. 16 agreement with Israel, are trying some of the high-tech options we discussed a couple of weeks ago. Reuters says Egypt began "installing cameras and motion sensors " along its Gaza border on Jan. 29, assisted by "joint U.S., French and German expertise." The system, designed to detect tunnel excavation, is being networked by cables that will run "from south of Rafah to the Mediterranean coast." AP has a more explicit report. Citing an Egyptian official, it says U.S. Army engineers are installing ground-penetrating radar .

I'll be surprised if that works. As we explained last month , ground-penetrating radar can't see below 50 feet of earth, and the Egypt-to-Gaza tunnels run deeper than that. That's why GPR lost its deterrent value along the U.S.-Mexico border. In fact, the New York Times  reported yesterday ,

Despite huge enforcement actions on both sides of the Southwest border, the Mexican marijuana trade is more robust—and brazen—than ever, law enforcement officials say. Mexican drug cartels routinely transported industrial-size loads of marijuana in 2008, excavating new tunnels and adopting tactics like ramp-assisted smuggling to get their cargoes across undetected.

In Gaza, tunnels have proved so effective and resilient that Israel is becoming infatuated with them. Yesterday, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak, the guy in charge of bombing them, proposed to connect Gaza to the West Bank via—you guessed it—an underground corridor. "The preferred way to do it would be to dig a tunnel that would be under Israeli sovereignty, but under totally free and unobstructed use by Palestinians," Barak explained . He even has a specific route in mind.

Why run the corridor underground? To avoid disturbing or threatening the surface. Israelis and Palestinians could cross paths without seeing one another. Palestine would be connected without bisecting Israel. That's what's really emerging from the tunnel industry: a three-dimensional way of thinking about land. You build your walls and station your soldiers above ground; we go down 60 feet and dig past you. We demand access to the West Bank; you tell us we can't go through Israel, but we can go under it. In a region where land is scarce and fiercely contested, the third dimension, the one beneath our feet, was bound to become part of the problem. Maybe it can be part of the solution.