So now, finally, parts of the story can be told.
The context to the IDF’s drill late last week, which simulated an attack on a kibbutz near the Gaza border by Hamas forces, becomes clearer.
The oblique references by senior Israeli officials to Hamas’s ongoing tunnel digging, made in television interviews and at public forums, resonate more seriously.
The assertions that Israel will fight the next war with Hamas on its terms, issued by IDF officers who cannot be named in briefings to local military correspondents, take on a more immediate significance.
Why? Because Hamas, the IDF finally confirmed for publication on Monday, has been tunneling under the border again. The nightmare of 2014, when troops discovered and destroyed some three dozen cross-border attack tunnels in the midst of a bitter war, is far from over.
As with those 100,000-plus rockets and missiles deployed by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon with only one address, the question of the next round of conflict with Hamas in Gaza — it must unavoidably be concluded — is not one of “if,” but rather, simply, of “when.”
And while it would be comforting to believe that “senior IDF officer” who last week assured Israel’s military reporters that Hamas is not prepared for a new round of conflict, that Hamas will not again drag Israel into a war, and that any future conflict will be one undertaken at the initiative of the Jewish state, there are compelling reasons, unfortunately, to doubt his confidence.
For one thing, Israel has three times found itself dragged into conflict with Hamas in the less than a decade since the Islamist terror group seized control of the Strip. And in none of those wars and mini-wars has Israel been able to achieve a decisive victory or even a prolonged period of subsequent calm. To state this is not by definition a savage criticism, by the way, or a recommendation for the use of greater force. A more destructive confrontation would have cost more lives on both sides and exposed Israel to greater international criticism and damage — no matter how unjustified — without necessarily yielding any more auspicious result. But it is true, nonetheless: Despite the best efforts of Israel’s best military minds, Hamas still rules Gaza; Hamas is still sustained by international support or indifference; Hamas is constantly improving its rocket capabilities; and Hamas, the Israeli public has now finally and formally been told, is again digging sophisticated attack tunnels under the border.
For another thing, prepared or not, Hamas may now believe it has an urgent incentive to attack Israel again in the near future. It was widely and quite credibly argued, during and in the aftermath of 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, that Israel had narrowly avoided a devastating Hamas onslaught through the network of tunnels the terror group had set up at the time. It was suggested that Hamas had been planning to send hundreds of gunmen through those tunnels, to attack military and civilian targets, to massacre Israelis, to seize hostages — to radically remake the balance of power. It remains unclear to this day why Hamas chose not to attempt such an attack; some have argued that there was a dispute within the organization between its so-called political and military leaderships. Whatever the case, on July 22, 2014, while the war was in full swing, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog spoke of the “unimaginable” mega-terror attack Hamas was believed to have been planning — sending hundreds of terrorists swarming through those tunnels to massacre Israelis in the Gaza-adjacent kibbutzim and moshavim. Days earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said intended Hamas attacks on kibbutz kindergartens, homes and dining halls would have been “catastrophic.”
With the cessation of hostilities, even as Israel was grappling and continues to grapple with the international community’s failure to understand what we face from the Gaza terror state — step forward Bernie Sanders, BDS et al — Hamas went back to concerted tunneling and rocket manufacture. It has been gaining strength at a “surprising” pace, that same unnameable senior IDF officer acknowledged in last week’s briefing. And it has been utilizing some 1,000 tunnelers, working round-the-clock six days a week.
Inevitably, perhaps, it has suffered setbacks, notably including a series of tunnel collapses, and the exposure of the tunnel revealed by the IDF on Monday. Or, then again, perhaps to say “inevitably” is to miss the mark. Perhaps, Hamas may be asking itself, Israel has been making gains of its own in this relentless battle of wills. Perhaps it has found technologies to combat even Hamas’s well-constructed, deep and reinforced subterranean attack routes. (Israeli security sources were indeed quoted Monday talking about new “technologies” being utilized to find the tunnels.)
And if that is the case, one can only ask, can Israel really be confident that it will determine the timing and nature of the next round of conflict with the brutal Islamists? Hamas, which insists on continuing its efforts to destroy Israel, and which demonstrates such supreme indifference to the well-being of the people of Gaza (and doubtless much cynical amusement at the naivete of the international community), may feel that, fully ready or not, now is the time to attack. That now, heaven forbid, is the time to do what it did not do prior to the 2014 war. Because otherwise, it may be gauging, Israel could be on the point of exposing and destroying more, perhaps all, of that painstakingly constructed network of attack tunnels.