Since Israel began its ground operation in Gaza as part of “Operation Protective Edge,” the extent of Hamas’ tunnel network stretching from Gaza into Israel has quite literally been exposed by the IDF. The vast network was built by Hamas to enter Israel and carry out terror attacks, and its extent has reportedly shocked both Israeli security analysts and the general public. It has now become one of Israel’s primary goals in the current conflict to see the tunnels found and destroyed.
Meanwhile, reports are emerging that children were used to build the network, with materials reportedly secured for “humanitarian purposes.”
Reports based on interrogation of captured Hamas operatives say that the tunnels were intended to be used by Hamas in a co-ordinated, simultaneous terror attack on Israel to coincide with the Jewish New Year/Rosh Hashanah – which falls on September 24. As noted by American security analyst Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin writing for the Gatestone Institute:
“The Hamas plan consisted of what was to be a surprise attack in which 200 fighters would be dispatched through each of dozens of tunnels dug by Hamas under the border from Gaza to Israel, and seize kibbutzim and other communities while killing and kidnapping Israeli civilians.”
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that degrading Hamas’ ability to conduct attacks from the tunnels is a key goal of Israel’s ground operation:
“We will not complete the operation without neutralizing the tunnels, the sole purpose of which is the destruction of our civilians and the killing of our children… It cannot be that the citizens of the state of Israel will live under the deadly threats of missiles and infiltration through tunnels – death from above and death from below.”
The tunnels are a potential game-changer for the conflict, a reality that has become increasingly evident as the tunnels and the extent of Hamas’ construction and strategy have been gradually revealed. Reports say the IDF have indicated they would have to continue their operations for some time in order to finish the job of destroying the tunnels. A senior Israeli official was quoted as saying, “The attack Hamas was planning…’would have made Israel drop to its knees.'”
This need was also reportedly an important factor behind the cabinet’s unanimous rejection on Friday of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposals, which it was reported, did not clearly allow Israel to continue to seek out and destroy the tunnels.
The tunnels are also a nightmare for the Israelis who live near the Gaza Strip, as noted by Eyal Brandeis, a political scientist who lives on Kibbutz Sufa, a couple of kilometres from the Gaza border:
“It takes us a little bit to our childhood fairy tales of demons… It’s a very pastoral 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.”
While the tunnels are slowly being found and destroyed, it is clear there still remains a clear and present threat. On July 29, five Israeli soldiers were killed when Hamas terrorists fired an anti-tank missile at an IDF position after having infiltrated Israel via a tunnel. A recent NY Times piece describes the breadth of the tunnel construction:
“5 feet and 7 inches above the sand floor. The walls are about 30 inches apart – wide enough for two people to squeeze past each other…there were dates, water and crackers; rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles; small rooms for sleeping or hiding; a kidnapping kit of tranquilizers and plastic handcuffs; Israeli Army uniforms; and a Bosch drill.”
“Israeli experts said each tunnel would take up to a year and cost up to $2 million to build, involving dozens of diggers working by hand and with small electric tools.”
Israel has so far uncovered at least 30 tunnels, seized Hamas supplies and uncovered plans for future attacks. Reports are that “each tunnel has arteries, veins, offshoots, and offshoots of the offshoots in intricate and complex arrangements.” An Israeli spokesman stated that “there are two Gazas, one above ground and one below ground: an underground terrorist city.”
Many of the tunnels have rail tracks, power cables and communications systems. The IDF have indicated they have made some progress in uncovering the network and estimate they have destroyed around 60% of the tunnels:
“We have been working steadfastly since the moment we entered the Gaza Strip to locate and destroy the tunnels. We were able to uncover and demolish at least half of the enemy’s tunnels used for attacks and we are continuing to work with determination.”
The tunnels were constructed using an estimated 800,000 tonnes of cement, at least partly using materials provided to Gaza intended for humanitarian purposes and subsequently misappropriated by Hamas. As noted by Evelyn Gordon in Commentary Magazine, many of the materials used were delivered to Gaza in the wake of demands that Israel ease its blockade and allow in cement for rebuilding. Israel, with some prescience, had previously treated cement as a “dual-use good,” likely to be expropriated by Hamas for building military fortifications and bunkers:
“Hamas built a vast warren of underground bunkers to protect its rockets and its own personnel. It also built dozens of cross-border tunnels dedicated solely to launching attacks inside Israel…each of which runs for miles, deep underground, requiring hundreds of tons of cement and millions of dollars to build.”
“Israel’s lifting of restrictions last year undoubtedly helped. And even before that, Israel allowed huge quantities of dual-use products to be imported for projects supervised by the UN, Western governments, or international aid agencies, who were supposed to ensure that Hamas didn’t use them for its terrorist infrastructure. Given the sheer size of the tunnel network, it now seems likely that Hamas siphoned off some of this material.”
To make matters worse, there are reports that children were utilised by Hamas as forced labour to construct the tunnels, with a reported 160 children losing their lives as a result of their involvement in the tunnel construction.
Materials were procured through aid by the international community, on the understanding that they be used to serve the people of Gaza, as detailed in a recent story by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Yet instead of using this concrete to build schools, or homes, or community centres, or hospitals, or bomb shelters, they were employed to shelter only terrorist and weapons, not Gaza’s civilians, and as a way for Hamas terrorists, dressed as IDF soldiers, to enter Israel and attack Israelis. As noted by Leil Leibowitz of Tablet Magazine, this tells us a great deal about Hamas’ intention and priorities:
“The intention behind Hamas’ tunnels is clear from where the exits are located: inside Israel… Their gallant plan was to send the killers through the tunnels, so they could emerge from the ground in the middle of Israeli kibbutzim and start throwing grenades and shooting indiscriminately, with the goal of killing as many Israelis as possible.”
“Israel’s concerns about how the concrete would be used were universally derided in the West as inflicting cruel and needless suffering on the people of Gaza-who, needless to say, didn’t receive any of the concrete for their own use. The priorities of Ismail Haniyeh’s government were crystal clear-to use all resources at their disposal to launch another war with Israel.”
“Erecting Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, required 110,000 tons of concrete. Hamas, then, could’ve treated itself to seven such monstrosities and still had a few tens of thousands of tons to spare… Egypt, on its end, recently claimed to have destroyed an additional 1,370….
“What all this adds up to is that Hamas is not seriously interested in governing Gaza, which is why all the honorable attempts at resolving this current round of bloodletting will fall flat. New elections won’t help. Giving Hamas more concrete won’t help either.”
“Hamas isn’t here to talk or build or heal the wounded people of Gaza. The organization’s raison d’etre is killing people in order to bring about the rule of its fundamentalist and radically intolerant brand of Islam-they shoot Jews, and they also shoot anyone else the organizations doesn’t like, including Egyptian soldiers, gays, and political opponents from other Palestinian factions.”
One of Israel’s key goals for an outcome to the conflict is for Gaza to be demilitarised, a stance backed by US President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. The tunnels – and the havoc that they could have led to – appear to 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.