Israel is stuck in the tunnels of yesteryear, but Hamas is digging right now
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Analysis

Israel is stuck in the tunnels of yesteryear, but Hamas is digging right now

You'd likely miss it amid the clamor prompted by the state comptroller's 2014 war report, but the fact is Gaza's terrorist rulers have 15 tunnels reaching into Israel today, and an internal underground network to challenge the IDF should major conflict again erupt

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Illustrative: A Palestinian youth waves the national flag as the IDF searches for smuggling tunnels at the border east of Gaza City on May 15, 2016, the 68th anniversary of the 'Nakba,' a reference to the birth of Israel in 1948. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)
Illustrative: A Palestinian youth waves the national flag as the IDF searches for smuggling tunnels at the border east of Gaza City on May 15, 2016, the 68th anniversary of the 'Nakba,' a reference to the birth of Israel in 1948. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Hamas is still tunneling. With or without the state comptroller’s report, it tunnels almost without respite, and without paying much heed to the incessant Israeli chatter regarding the war that ended two and half years ago.

More and more ink is spilled in Israel, pages upon pages in an orgy of analysis, opinions and declarations, culminating in a report, Tuesday, that set out conclusions everybody already knew. Pages upon pages that do nothing to change the result of that war. And that will probably not impact the next war, either.

The State of Israel continues to look for scapegoats, and to highlight failures, even when many of the people responsible are long gone — including 2014’s IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz and defense minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Israel plainly doesn’t really know how to prepare for the next war; only for the previous one. That was the case, too, with the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Hamas is still tunneling, 24/7, in shifts.

A Hamas tunnel discovered by the IDF running under the Gaza border into Israel on May 5, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A Hamas tunnel discovered by the IDF running under the Gaza border into Israel on May 5, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Hamas’s tunnel unit has become one of the most prestigious in the Gaza terror-government’s military wing, and the men who enlist in it are accorded superhero status in the Strip, receiving particularly fat salaries.

But Israel is still living in the past, in the tunnels of yesteryear.

It’s hard to believe amid the crescendo of 2014 recrimination generated by Tuesday’s comptroller report, but the fact is that Hamas has already got at least 15 tunnels under the border with Israel. Right now.

Meanwhile inside Gaza, a subterranean network thrives — criss-crossing over tens of miles — transferring supplies, enabling gunmen to move around at will.

Residents of Tel Aviv, who are living amid years of construction for a city subway project, can only be jealous of the dizzying pace at which the diggers move beneath Gaza and at the border.

The IDF has upped its preparedness and training to try to confront the tunnel threat. There has been much talk of the barrier Israel is constructing to block the cross-border tunnels. But nobody expects such a barrier to be completed within the next couple of years. Despite the comptroller’s report, with its repetition of the familiar litany of failures, therefore, Israel still lacks an effective defense against the Hamas tunnels. Israel also still lacks an effective response to Hamas’s ongoing rearmament.

This is where the ongoing failure lies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (R) and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (L) at the Command and Control Center of the 162nd Armored Division in southern Israel, July 21, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (R) and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (L) at the Command and Control Center of the 162nd Armored Division in southern Israel, July 21, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

The politicians, and the media, obsess about the last war. But nobody is talking about initiating an operation, or taking any other effective action, to counter the current threat deepening, literally, under our feet.

Nobody wants to start another war by taking preemptive action. And therefore, it is clear that in the event of another round of conflict with Hamas, Israel will again be vulnerable to attack via cross-border tunnels. And if that next round of conflict develops into a full-scale war, the IDF will not encounter too many Hamas fighters above ground. There’ll all be in the internal Gaza tunnels.

For decades, the IDF has trained for warfare via columns of tanks, taking control of enemy areas. Has it trained for battle in the arena Hamas has now prepared for it inside Gaza? Given the insistence on looking backward rather than ahead, as exemplified by Tuesday’s report and the clamor it has attracted, one doubts it.

On Monday evening, the Hamas military wing issued a statement in which it indicated that if Israel again responds to a rocket attack in the way that the IDF did on Monday, by targeting several Hamas positions across Gaza, it will escalate its response. That may prove to be an empty threat, but experience suggests it would not be wise to take it lightly. Hamas cannot afford to appear weak, but that is the impression that has been created in recent days. The sense has been created that it is afraid of another major confrontation with Israel.

IDF military intelligence failed to accurately gauge Hamas’s appetite for war

If there is one useful conclusion to be drawn from the comptroller’s report, much more useful than his comments about the tunnels, it is his assertion that IDF military intelligence failed to accurately gauge Hamas’s appetite for war. At the very beginning of 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, the assessment of IDF military intelligence was that Hamas was eager to end the fighting. At a series of briefings in the early days of the war, military intelligence declared that Hamas was weak, had been dealt punishing blows, and wanted to cry uncle. Those assessments, for some reason, overlooked what Hamas considered to be its achievements, as well as its conviction that it was scoring many points in Gazan and wider Arab public opinion. Those assessments, for some reason, failed to internalize Hamas’s desire to continue fighting, and its belief that it was poised at a historic turning point. Military intelligence missed its mark.

Hamas was wrong to believe that the war would enable it to dramatically change the Gaza reality, by pressuring Israel into lifting the security blockade and/or consenting to the construction of sea or air ports. It was wrong, but its confidence meant it was not looking for a swift end to the fighting.

Ahead of the next conflict, Israel should realize that gauging the true intentions of Hamas — and of Hezbollah, in southern Lebanon, for that matter — is far from simple. It’s not only in Israel that politicians’ actions are affected by concerns about public opinion. It’s not only in Israel that there are those who believe the nonsense spouted in conventional and social media. And it’s not only in Israel that decision makers put their own political interests ahead of those of their people.

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