Israel reported significant progress last month on an underground fence around the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Officials say Israel is close to completing the underground component and can see the finish line with the above-ground elements (roughly 80% complete). Once fully assembled, the three-layered barrier may be the most sophisticated barrier in the world.
The threat to Israel from Gaza and other adjacent territories has been constant. Suicide bombings by Hamas, Fatah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad during the Second Intifada prompted Israel to build a barrier to control border crossings. This inspired Hamas to instead construct and fire thousands of crude rockets into Israel. In response, Israel developed the Iron Dome missile defense system (and others for longer range threats). Frustrated again, Hamas began digging commando tunnels for fighters to reach Israel to gather intelligence, conduct terrorist attacks, or even launch surprise, coordinated assaults.
The Israelis first understood the need for such a barrier during the 2014 Gaza conflict, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, after uncovering several commando tunnels. But it was not until 2016 that Israel set out to build this complex, multilayer barrier.
The new border fence has three levels: a deep underground layer, an upper fence physical layer, and an upper hi-tech layer that includes detection devices like robots, drones, unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and more. They are all equipped with visual, electronic and intelligence equipment and powered by artificial intelligence. And they all operate through command-and-control bases along the barrier.
The physical upper layer of the Gaza barrier is similar to what Israel erected along the Egyptian border. It stretches across the entire 40-mile border with the coastal enclave. All of the elements are not yet public. But Israeli officials say it is adaptable to a range of threats.
The underground layer includes a high-tech cement wall extending "tens of meters" beneath the ground (the exact depth is not public). It is equipped with a multi-dimensional sensor net to detect any activity near, at, or under the barrier. The barrier even stretches into the Mediterranean Sea to stymie Hamas naval commandos from penetrating Israel, as occurred at Zikim Beach during the 2014 conflict.
Israel also set out to detect and destroy existing tunnels. In total, more than 20 were found and neutralized. At the start, the Israel Defense Force harbored concerns that Hamas might accelerate efforts to attack Israel via tunnels. But the "use it or lose it" calculus did not push Hamas to engage. After more than five years of tunnel detection and destruction, officials are confident the threat is neutralized.
While the high-tech Gaza fence is likely to attract attention now, Israel now seeks to fulfill its total fence protection doctrine on all of its borders, as articulated in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 2018 National Security Strategy. Under the leadership of Brigadier General Eran Ophir, Israel has built more than 620 miles of fence along the borders with Egypt (150 miles), the West Bank (370 miles), the Golan Heights (68 miles), Lebanon (8 miles) and Jordan (21 miles). More adaptations are likely, but they hinge on technical, budgetary, and political considerations.
These fences have prevented unlawful entry and violence, but they are not without controversy. Fences can inadvertently signal Israel's view of legal borders – particularly those subject to bilateral or multilateral disagreement. Domestically, there is disagreement about the path of some fences. The Israeli left protests when fences divide Palestinian villages. The Israeli right protests when settlements are not included on Israel's side of a fence.
Controversy also surrounds the military message that barriers send. Some in the IDF believe the construction of expensive and high-tech fences sends a message of weakness or a defensive posture. They argue that effective fences might prevent political leaders from taking decisive action during conflict, particularly if they feel the barrier might shield the country from a wider conflagration.
Barrier proponents argue these measures prevent terrorism and loss of life. The West Bank fence brought the number of suicide bombings to near zero. The Egypt border fence brought smuggling down to negligible numbers, too. As with Iron Dome, some argue that advanced fences give political leaders flexibility to decide exactly when and how to launch a military response to provocations.
As always, the debates will continue in Israel. But in the meantime, the Gaza border is likely safer -- until Hamas invents new ways to attack.
Brigadier General (Res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace Engineering Faculty. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's acting national security advisor and head of Israel's National Security Council. Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president at FDD and a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury. Follow Jonathan on twitter @JSchanzer.