The head of the IDF’s Southern Command revealed the location of two alleged Hamas tunnel sites buried underneath an apartment building and a family home in the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday, and threatened to blow up both structures in a future conflict despite a desire to avoid civilian casualties.
The tunnels are believed to be connected to a vast underground network inside Gaza, which Hamas could use to move soldiers and weapons around the Strip in a future conflict, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.
Zamir accused the Hamas terror group of purposefully building the tunnels under civilian structures to provide cover for its operations.
“The intelligence that we have [shows] that Hamas is operating in a civilian arena and under the cover of a civilian population, preparing its infrastructure for the next conflict within the civilian arena,” Zamir said.
“Their goal, of course, is to make it more difficult for us to operate,” he added.
One of the buildings is located next to a gas station; the second is across the street from a cemetery.
Zamir warned that “these sites are legitimate military targets. Anyone inside of one, should another conflict begin, endangers himself and endangers his family, and the responsibility is on the Hamas organization.”
The announcement came a day after a rocket fired by a terrorist group in the coastal enclave struck an open field in southern Israel, causing neither injury nor damage. In response, Israel destroyed two posts belonging to Hamas, the de facto ruler in Gaza.
‘On the one hand there is stability, on the other it’s potentially explosive’
In the briefing, the general described the current situation in the Strip as precarious. “On the one hand there’s stability, on the other it’s potentially explosive,” he said.
Zamir said Hamas does not appear interested in fighting a war with Israel now, but is preparing itself for a conflict in the future — and so is Israel.
The construction of an above- and below-ground barrier around the Gaza Strip, aimed at countering Hamas tunnels dug into Israel to carry out attacks, is advancing on schedule, the general said.
In the past, the military has expressed concerns that the construction of the barrier, which began in earnest this summer, might serve as a catalyst for renewed clashes with Hamas.
The terror group sees tunnels as a central weapon in its fight against Israel and the barrier presents a threat to them.
Zamir did not specifically address that fear on Tuesday, but said he hoped the terrorist group “won’t try to challenge us.”
Preliminary work on the barrier began late last year, but the main construction effort started this summer. “We’re working according to plan on the barrier. In the next few months, this project is going to gain significant momentum,” he said.
Zamir said the 37-mile (60-kilometer) barrier is expected to be completed in approximately two years. Once the barrier, which includes an underground section, as well as a new fence and a host of high-tech systems, is up and running, “it will be able to damage [attack tunnels] and neutralize them.”
Houses over tunnels
The military provided reporters with both satellite images of the alleged Hamas tunnel covers in the northern Gaza city of Beit Lahiya and their geographic coordinates: 31°33’05.9″N 34°28’07.9″E and 31°32’45.2″N, 34°29’52.8″E.
According to the general, the entrance to one of the Hamas tunnels is located under a six-story apartment building, which was constructed within the past two years. It is located around the corner from a gas station in the neighborhood of al-Atatra.
The army’s satellite photograph notes the approximate location of the tunnel shaft in the building’s southern corner.
The army said the second site is a home owned by Omar Muhammad Mahmoud Hamad, where he lives with his five children in Beit Lahiya. Hamad’s father and brother also live in the house. The military said Hamad is an active Hamas member.
According to the IDF, the tunnel beneath Hamad’s house connects to a nearby mosque.
The building is around the corner from a cemetery, down the street from the Beit Lahiya municipality, and is also close to a school for boys and a gas station. It is also close to the Hala Al Shawa Medical Center.
The general did not specify what intelligence sources led the IDF to determine that the homes were covers for underground infrastructure.
Zamir stressed that the IDF has “no intention or desire to harm civilians,” but said that there would likely be such casualties in a future conflict due to the difficulties of urban warfare. He added that the military will do what is required to protect the State of Israel.
The Southern Command chief noted that the two tunnel-covering sites were not the only ones identified by the military, just the only ones the army was prepared to publicize.
“They show the operating methods of Hamas and the way they endanger the citizens of the Gaza Strip,” he said.
Placing military infrastructure underneath civilian buildings is not a new practice for Hamas. During and after the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas drew international criticism for using hospitals, schools and mosques as cover for its terrorist activities.
In June, a Hamas-dug terror tunnel was also found under a school run by the United Nations in the central Gaza Strip.
The Gaza powder keg
In the briefing, Zamir indicated that Tuesday night’s rocket fire was an exception, noting that the three years since the 2014 Gaza war have been some of the quietest in terms of terror attacks emanating from the Strip.
“We see that Hamas is deterred, restrained and is also reining in terror attacks” from Gaza, the general said.
In July 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in response to rocket fire from Gaza. During the 50-day campaign, the IDF destroyed some 14 tunnels that entered Israeli territory and depleted Hamas’s weapons stores.
In the time since the 2014 war, on average between one and two rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel each month. They have been fired by fringe salafist groups, not by Hamas, which took control of the Strip in 2007 and has ruled the coastal enclave ever since.
But Zamir added that while the terror group is working to prevent attacks in the Strip — Tuesday night’s rocket notwithstanding — Hamas is still “fanning the flames” and directing terrorist activities in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
“It is also continuing to strengthen itself and prepare for the next war,” Zamir said.
According to military assessments, the terrorist group is believed to have completely restocked its weapons caches and rebuilt its tunnel network.
“It must be said that much of these efforts… are made at the expense of civilians,” Zamir said.
Hamas has long been accused of diverting building materials meant for the Gaza reconstruction effort and using them to build tunnels and other military infrastructure.
In recent months, the humanitarian situation in the Strip deteriorated, as a spat between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority over which of them is responsible for paying for the enclave’s energy bills drove Gaza into darkness.
Both of them refused to pay for Gaza’s power, so residents of the Strip get only a few hours of electricity per day.
“Hamas first and foremost worries about its military infrastructure and only then worries about its citizens,” Zamir said.