Israel Turns to Advance Tech to Spy On Hamas Tunnels

Hyperspectral sensors could be key to the battle of Gaza—but they have their limits

2 mins read
An Israeli army officer shows journalists a tunnel reportedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks from Gaza into Israel, July 25, 2014. (Reddit)

There is no higher priority for intelligence services in a war than locating the enemy. That’s why “find” is the first word in the combat mantra of “find, fix and finish.”

For the intelligence officers helping the Israel Defense Force plan its ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, the first piece of business is to map the vast complex of underground tunnels that provide shelter for Hamas’s military leaders and weapons stores, not to mention the 220 hostages held by it and other militants.

And now, thanks in part to 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz,  an Israeli hostage who was released earlier this week, we now have confirmation that the tunnel system is as vast and daunting as reputed, an elaborate underground fortress that provides Hamas fighters with formidable defensive and offensive advantages now that what looks like a first phase of Israel’s ground operation has begun. Under a heavy barrage of artillery and air strikes, Israeli tanks and ground troops moved into the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip late Friday night, sources in Israel told SpyTalk.

“They brought us to the entrance to the tunnels,” Lipshitz told a news conference  at a Tel Aviv hospital soon after her release. “We arrived in the tunnel and walked for kilometers on wet dirt. There is a giant system of tunnels, like spiderwebs. . . .We started walking in the tunnels, the dirt is damp and everything is always damp and humid. We reached a hall with 25 people in it.  . . They guarded us closely.”

With the captives most likely separated into small groups and being held in different tunnels, the Israelis will have to pinpoint their exact locations and try to rescue them before the army can destroy Hamas’ subterranean redoubts.  And to do that, Israel’s use of sophisticated ground-piercing surveillance technology may determine both the fate of the hostages and the outcome of the battle.

A person familiar with the technology says Israel has advanced hyperspectral sensors, which can confirm the presence of people, weapons, explosives and other objects deep beneath the ground, among other things. 

This hyperspectral sensor can be mounted on a drone over Gaza (Headwall company photo)

Hyperspectral sensors use a vast portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to analyze and identify objects buried beneath the ground or under the water. They operate on the principle that all materials leave unique fingerprints in the electromagnetic spectrum. These sensors, first developed by NASA in the 1970s, scan these fingerprints, known as spectral signatures, and identify the materials that make up the scanned object. 

Geologists were the first to use hyperspectral sensors to find subterranean oil fields and mineral deposits. Since then, their utility has spread to farmers, who use the sensors to track the development and health of crops, and to environmentalists, who use them to aid in recycling by their ability to identify different types of plastic. They’re also used in medicine and food processing,

But these sensors also can read subterranean soil densities and the signatures of other buried materials, such as concrete and metal rebar, which would permit the Israelis to pinpoint the exact location of underground tunnels. They also can identify the spectral signature of the weapons and explosives that Hamas stores in their tunnels. And the sensors can pick up the chemical fingerprints of subterranean carbon dioxide, a sure sign of people—both Hamas fighters and hostages—living underground. 

This person said Israeli drones outfitted with these sensors can linger over Gaza collecting data on what lies beneath the surface. The army then downloads that data to a receiver close by inside Israel or aboard an Israeli naval vessel offshore.

But this person cautioned that hyperspectral sensors have their limits: They cannot penetrate any tunnel segments that Hamas has reinforced with concrete or metal rebar. And the sensors can’t distinguish between Hamas fighters and hostages.

“These sensors can tell if there’s a person or persons in those tunnels, but they can’t tell if it’s Ibrahim or Abraham,” this person, who asked not to be identified, told SpyTalk.

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is a veteran reporter, editor and foreign correspondent, Broder writes about defense and foreign policy from Washington.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog