After quite a few attempts at concealment and denial, Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, on Thursday released the names of “the seven heroes, men of Allah” who were killed earlier in the week in the collapse of an attack tunnel in the Tufah neighborhood in the northeastern part of Gaza City, only a few hundred yards from the Israeli border.
At first, Hamas leaders tried to hide the fact that any of its members had been killed in the tunnel. Then they claimed that the men were merely missing. Finally, they released the names of seven of the 11 excavators who were there at the time of the collapse.
Hamas’s statement read in part: “We trod the path of death for your lives’ sake.”
Several days earlier, Faiz Abu Smala, a journalist with close ties to Hamas, wrote on his Facebook page about a meeting with the local commander of Hamas’s military wing: “He admitted to me that they were still working night and day, around the clock, and that the battle they faced would be a matter of the utmost importance, of life and death, and that they had no alternative but to work under all conditions.”
The seven Hamas operatives who were killed were not the first victims Hamas’s tunnels have claimed during their post-2014-war construction and reconstruction. Last month, one of Gilad Shalit’s captors was killed inside a tunnel that collapsed near Khan Yunis. According to sources in Gaza, 12 other Hamas operatives were killed in tunnel collapses last year.
According to the commander, Hamas has already restocked its rocket supply and is ready for a new war. He also said that in the next round of fighting, Hamas would operate “inside the territory of 1948.” This was a broad hint that Hamas plans to engage in terror attacks inside Israel using, among other means, its new and restored cross-border tunnels.
Some might say that these are empty threats of the kind that Hamas makes every so often. But a close look at what is happening right now in the Gaza Strip gives the opposite impression: 18 months after the last war, someone in Gaza is preparing the ground on the public level, and making preparations below ground on the military level, for large-scale escalation leading to another conflict with Israel.
The question is when and under what circumstances.
The numbers throw into sharp relief Hamas’s determination to rehabilitate its tunnel project, which was badly damaged during Operation Protective Edge: Hamas has more than 1,000 people working around the clock, six days a week, to dig more and more attack tunnels under the border and into Israel. The inclement weather has not slowed the pace of the work, as the incident in Tufah demonstrates. This is because the tunnel project is deemed central, since Hamas believes it can use the tunnels (among other weapons) to carry out an “opening strike” that will give the impression of victory in any future round of fighting with Israel.
There are a few tunnels estimated to be crossing into Israel, but there may be more. Hamas is using concrete to line the tunnel walls, as it did in the past, and has sufficient access to such materials.
These tunnels are not the antiquated ones that were built along the Philadelphi Route at the beginning of the past decade; those were dug by amateurs at a medium depth of 7-8 meters. These new tunnels are being dug 30 meters deep, with sophisticated engineering equipment and more advanced technological support, including engineers’ blueprints.
Hamas probably does not want an escalation or another round of war at this time, as former Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniyeh hinted in his latest speech. But not everyone in Hamas hangs on to Haniyeh’s every word.
For the military wing, it is crucial to restore Hamas’s image, which took a serious hit in the last war. That is why an “opening strike” is almost obligatory, certainly in light of the state of affairs in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas’s popularity is steadily dropping because of the economic situation, among other reasons.
Other high-ranking Hamas officials, such as Yahya Sinwar, prefer the military wing’s urgent approach to Haniyeh’s more patient one. In their view, maintaining the status quo is untenable in Gaza, where rising unemployment and poverty rates, closed borders, and the erratic supply of electrical power could damage Hamas’s ability to survive, particularly in light of the Egyptian embargo and the cutback in support from Iran.
Gaza keeps surprising us. Every time it seems that the situation has never been worse, it plummets even further. One example is this week’s storm, which set a new record for electricity consumption in Israel. In Gaza, it caused a particularly long power outage. Instead of eight hours with electricity followed by 16 without, the people there had four hours on and 20 hours off.
The cold was particularly bad in Shejaiya, Beit Hanoun and several other neighborhoods, where thousands of people whose homes were destroyed in the last war are living in prefabricated mobile homes with no proper insulation. Many homes were flooded in Khan Yunis, Hiza’a and several other places that had already been reduced to rubble during the last war with Israel. Almost everywhere in the Strip, groups of people could be seen huddling over burning barrels, trying to warm themselves in the frigid weather.
“The animals in your safari in Ramat Gan have it better than the people here,” said Hisham, a resident of Gaza City, who visited the animal park near Tel Aviv in the 1990s.
Gaza has never been in such a bad humanitarian situation, residents say, calling it much more difficult than it was on the eve of the last war.
“Nobody is working, there are no construction materials in the market, and there is no money because there are no salaries,” said H., also a resident of Gaza City. “Hamas officials do not receive regular pay; rather, they receive NIS 1,000 to 1,200 shekels (about $300) every 50 days. The members of Islamic Jihad have no money either.
“This is going to lead to an explosion,” said H. “It will be a miracle if 2016 ends without a war. It’s not up to Hamas or Israel anymore.”