By Glen Falkenstein
Online Opinion – Monday, 25 August 2014
It takes us a little bit to our childhood fairy tales of demons… [the] environment I live in, the quiet, the green grass, the trees. It’s not a pleasant thought that you sit one day on the patio drinking coffee with your wife and a bunch of terrorists will rise from the ground.
Such is the reality for a resident of southern Israel – only a mile from his house, 13 Hamas terrorists emerged from a tunnel, reaching from the Gaza Strip to his community – with the intention of attacking civilians during the recent conflict.
At the time of writing, more than 220 rockets have been fired by Hamas into Israeli civilian areas following the expiry of a temporary ceasefire, to which Israel has responded by striking Hamas targets in Gaza. On Wednesday, 168 rockets were fired into Israel, the largest amount launched from Gaza since hostilities began last month.
During the recent ceasefire negotiations which took place in Cairo, Israel called for the demilitarisation of the Gaza Strip, while Hamas demanded ease of movement to and from Gaza. Prior to negotiations taking place, the extent of Hamas’ tunnel network had quite literally been exposed by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) operations in Gaza. Reports are that Hamas intended to use the tunnels in a co-ordinated, large-scale terror attack on Israel to coincide with the Jewish New Year in September.
Israel has uncovered dozens of tunnels which have been used in Hamas cross-border terror attacks, with the military currently researching a sensor-based system to better detect Hamas tunnels. The network is massive, with an Israeli spokesman stating, “there are two Gazas, one above ground and one below ground: an underground terrorist city.”
An estimated 800,000 tonnes of cement were used to construct the tunnels, an amount roughly equivalent to 15 Sydney Harbour Bridges. The tunnels are wide enough for two people to squeeze past each other and contain plenty of rooms and side shafts for hiding, sleeping and storing weapons. Each tunnel runs for kilometres and cost an estimated average $2 million.
Much of the cement used in the tunnels’ construction was delivered to Hamas with the understanding it would be used for the benefit of Gaza. But Hamas, a proscribed terrorist organisation in many countries, did not use this cement to build homes, hospitals, schools, community centres or bomb shelters; instead, they used it to protect their stockpile of weapons, artillery and rockets, and to facilitate attacks on Israeli civilian towns.
Israel has long been criticised for monitoring the delivery of cement into Gaza, which it said could be used to build military fortifications, but has let through large quantities in recent years on the assurance it would be used for “humanitarian purposes”. It is clear now that Israel’s fears were not unfounded. It is a great tragedy this material was not applied to crucial infrastructure in Gaza, nor was it used in any way for the population’s welfare or benefit.
One of the reasons there has been a lesser number of Israeli civilian casualties in the recent conflict is that Israel has invested millions in bomb shelters and warning systems to alert civilians to Hamas rocket fire. Conversely, Hamas have invested millions in tunnels to house their weapons and have told civilians in Gaza to ignore Israeli warnings about impending strikes.
Construction of each tunnel would have taken many months and huge amounts of physical labour, with reports that children were used by Hamas as tunnel-diggers and that 160 children died during the tunnels’ construction. It has also been reported that Hamas executed dozens of diggers responsible for the tunnel’s construction, fearing that workers would reveal the locations of tunnel openings in Israel.
The revelation of the extent of these tunnels clearly served as a game-changer for Israel with respect to the conflict. It was evident that as long as tunnels were operational, they were a fundamental threat to Israel’s security.
While Israel has now destroyed the tunnels it found and withdrawn its troops from Gaza, it is unclear if all the tunnels were detected. Moreover, the Israeli nightmare is that Hamas will rebuild the tunnels and continue their attacks as has been the case this week. It is unclear what direction negotiations for a long-lasting truce will take in the short term; what is evident is that any negotiations and future agreement need take into account the ongoing security threats posed by Hamas and the potential consequences of easing restrictions on a designated terrorist organisation.
Prominent members of the international community including the US have called for the demilitarisation of Gaza. The tunnels make that case for demilitarisation stronger than ever. And not just for Israel’s sake – for the sake of Gaza’s civilians as well. For just as Israelis deserve security from indiscriminate cross-border terror attacks, the people of Gaza deserve rulers who will devote their physical resources to bettering the lot of the population, rather than diverting them to prepare for a war of terror which can only lead to further bloodshed and suffering.
Glen Falkenstein is a Policy Analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council