The Technology Of Finding Smuggler Tunnels

From Gaza to the U.S.-Mexican border, the latest innovations in detecting illicit tunnels that transport people and goods below the radar.

A Palestinian man in Rafah is lowered into a smuggling tunnel which connects Gaza and Egypt
A Palestinian man in Rafah is lowered into a smuggling tunnel which connects Gaza and Egypt
Harel Eilam

TEL AVIV The methods the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) used to discover the tunnels that connected Gaza to Israel have been shrouded in secrecy. An IDF spokesman said that the army had recently examined more than 100 different technological solutions, even though it is not the first time Israel has faced such a challenge.

Even back in 2004, the army was forced to respond to the smuggling of weapons through the tunnels under the Rafah crossing between Gaza and the Egyptian border; and it seemed as if every geologist in the country had been summoned for the task.

Israel is not alone when it comes to problems with tunnels. Over the past 20 years, the United States has also been forced to face the more than 200 tunnels that have been discovered along the U.S.-Mexican border. Some are up to 35 meters deep and many kilometers long, used for smuggling weapons, drugs and humans. A one-kilometer-long tunnel that stretched between Arizona and Mexico was found to have lights, was large enough for several people to walk side-by-side and even had air-conditioning, rails for heavy merchandise, telephone lines, and reinforced walls.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security launched a long-term project to develop technology to prevent smuggling. Still, the project's chief Edward Turner says the tunnels that have been discovered were typically thanks to human intelligence, rather than any particular technology. “There is pressure coming from the government to supply some kind of magical device that can be taken to the border and discover a tunnel in ten minutes,” he said. “It just cannot happen like that.”

John Verrico, responsible for new technologies for DHS, explained that a sensor that works for one kind of land, or one kind of weather, would not work for another. “Everything can have an influence: the season of the year, land pollution, air bubbles or variations in the geological layers,” he explained. “If you do not understand the land you are testing, you will have a big problem differentiating between the natural features and the man-made tunnels.”

Among the existing tools for unearthing tunnels:

Ground-Penetrating Radar
One of the first solutions that scientists and army officials turned to was radar, a long reliable technology that is accessible, accurate and operates from above-ground. In order to perfect the results, a ground-penetrating radar uses very strong electro-magnetic pulses of radio waves in order to map the land, and creates a three dimensional picture of all the layers and rocks that are below the surface. This type of radar is currently used by the United States, Israel and even Egypt around the border with Gaza and the Rafah crossing, but still has many defects.

The most up-to-date radar, which weighs 12 kilograms and costs several thousand dollars, is able to identify empty spaces within close range of the surface. It is, however, unable to find anything below 10 meters of depth.

Another solution to locate tunnels based on seismographic principles. Instead of trying to map the ground, this solution listens to noises and vibrations caused by the digging of new tunnels or by the transporting of goods and people through them. These sound waves create vibrations in the ground that seismographic equipment, such as special microphones, can detect. This technology is being developed by the IDF as an experimental project that costs $60 million. It is still not considered very accurate, and tends to send false alarms.

The main focus of the U.S. administration today is the development of a technology based on infrared radiation that locates anomalies in the heat dissipation on the surface, indicating the existence of tunnels. In other words, the supposition is that there will be a difference in temperatures where there is a tunnel. Furthermore, infrared sensors have become quite cheap and accurate over the past few years and allow large areas to be quickly mapped.

However, the main inconvenience of this technology is that the heat dissipation can vary according to a variety of aspects such as weather, light and erosion. Therefore, in order to locate a tunnel, one needs sufficient prior knowledge of the ground and its geological structure.

This solution sounds like it was taken right out of science fiction, and is based on measuring the earth’s gravity field in order to locate empty spaces in the ground. Gravity is affected by the mass of the ground, and the act of digging and moving ground around changes the mass. Even if we do not feel it, if you stand on top of a large tunnel, you will be a little bit lighter and lose a gram or two of your weight. In 2002, NASA launched several satellites in order to map the gravity field of earth so in the future we could create a geological map accurate enough to possibly prevent earthquakes.

But microgravity technology also has its defects, and is unable to differentiate between natural tunnels and man-made ones and requires years of study, which of course does not respond well to immediate needs out in the field.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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