There’s a kind of hush over Israel at the moment. The streets are emptier; the cars are honking less; cafes are not deserted but they’re quieter; young kids’ laughter in the little park near our office rings out startlingly loud and carefree.
We’re a nation glued to the news — to the TV, the radio, the internet. And it’s almost unremittingly grim. Just a few days ago, we were worrying about hundreds of rockets hitting all over Israel, and shaking our heads at the mini-miracle of Iron Dome intercepting most of them. Now it’s the residents of the kibbutzim and moshavim close to the Gaza border, and the thousands of soldiers inside the Strip, who are the focus of our frantic attention, emphatically on the front line, their lives in constant danger.
What we are now starting to call “attack tunnels” are being discovered all the time — long, sophisticated underground passages, dug out over months, even years, running from under homes in the dense Gaza neighborhoods like Shejaiya within a mile or so of the border, and up under the Israeli side, some with multiple exits, some directed under the homes and dining halls at those kibbutzim and moshavim: Erez, Nir Oz, Nirim, Ein Hashelosha…
Just three days ago, my colleague Mitch Ginsburg wrote the following: “Haim Yellin, the head of the Eshkol Regional Council, told The Times of Israel, standing outside a tunnel discovered several months ago, that many residents in the region are so scarred by the prospect of a tunnel attack that they hear the phantom scratching of shovels when they close their eyes at night.” Well, now we know that it was not the “phantom scratching of shovels” they were hearing. It was the scratching of shovels.
Numerous air attacks have proved incapable of smashing those tunnels, even in cases where Israeli intelligence knew where to direct bombing strikes. It’s only soldiers on foot, going house to house in Gaza neighborhoods, exposed to mines and hidden explosives and sniper fire, who can find the well-hidden tunnel openings. And many, many soldiers are being killed and injured in the process. The death toll in Operation Protective Edge has already overtaken the toll in the two previous major conflicts since Hamas seized the Strip, in 2008-9 and 2012.
The number of such tunnels being found is rising all the time — five, eight, 13, 15. An immense investment by Hamas of time and money and energy and concrete and hatred. But we still haven’t found them all. Just this morning, Hamas terrorists were spotted emerging from yet another of their “attack tunnels”; the IDF released footage of some of the gunmen squirming away from the exit, en route to murder, before they were blown up. But not all the exits have been spotted in time; we’ve lost soldiers on the Israeli side of the border — where Israel has bolstered its troop deployment to find those exits, and to protect the local residents — gunned down by the Hamas infiltrators as they emerge.
It was not the ‘phantom scratching of shovels’ Israelis in the south were hearing beneath their homes. It was the scratching of shovels
In our small country, with its people’s army — where most of our children are conscripted, and many people are in the reserves through their 20s, 30s, and 40s — the bad news we all now brace for is highly personal as well. Which is why, along with the TV, the radio and the internet, we’re also all glued to our phones, worried when they ring, worried when they don’t.
I say the news is almost unremittingly grim. What isn’t grim is the relative unity of fragmented Israel right now, and the motivation of our soldiers. We are joined in common horror at the evidence of Hamas’s war-to-the-death strategy, and in the realization of the extent of the danger — so much so that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a press conference last night, was asked not about whether he was getting Israel too deep into conflict but about how he could possibly have accepted last Tuesday’s Egyptian ceasefire offer, when that would have left the Hamas tunnel infrastructure intact. (He answered that he calculated Hamas would likely refuse the offer, and that he was determined to tackle the tunnel threat militarily, diplomatically or both.)
When Netanyahu said last night that Israel is in “a war for our home,” it sounded anything but demagogic. When he said that Hamas had expected Tel Aviv to be in “ruins” by now, thanks to its rockets, we knew this was true. When he said Hamas had invested “years of work, and immense capital” in the tunnels, aiming to “carry out mega terror attacks and kidnappings,” and that the planned assaults “on kindergartens, dining halls” would have been “catastrophic,” there was no doubting him.
The word from Gaza is that Hamas’s terrorists and their commanders simply haven’t been seen in the past two weeks. They’ve melted away underground, emerging only to try to kill our soldiers when the IDF moves in, their spokesmen telling the world that Gaza civilian casualties are the fault of the Israeli occupation while simultaneously warning those same Gaza civilians not to heed Israel’s entreaties to leave the area for their own safety.
Often, at times of conflict, Israel is preoccupied with how “the world” is reporting and understanding events. We are bitter that we are misrepresented — that the international community doesn’t realize we are defending ourselves against aggressors (rather than being the aggressors), doesn’t internalize the cynical use by Hezbollah (in south Lebanon) and Hamas (in the West Bank 10 years ago and now in Gaza) of local citizens as expendable shields for their terrorist activity.
We’re frustrated about all that now too, but it’s not our preoccupation. For we find ourselves at war with an Islamic extremist group utterly committed to killing us, at whatever cost, delighting in the evil it wreaks upon us, indifferent to the devastation it brings down upon Gaza.
This is not a nasty terror group. This is a terrorist government that devotes its quasi-country’s resources principally toward wiping out the country next door.
For all that the news is grim, Hamas is encountering far more failure than success. The rockets that were intended to reduce much of Israel to rubble have proved largely ineffective — though nobody should doubt that Hamas is working feverishly to outwit Iron Dome. Infiltrations from the sea have failed. Most of the attack tunnel efforts have been thwarted.
But far too much of Hamas’s capacity to do us harm remains intact. And it is relentlessly seeking to do us murderous harm. So what preoccupies us right now is one simple, essential imperative: to prevail.