Army believes Hamas focusing tunnels more on defense than attack
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Army believes Hamas focusing tunnels more on defense than attack

IDF sees Gaza-based terror group changing tack, as Israel steps up work on underground barrier

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A Palestinian youth crawls in a tunnel during a graduation ceremony for a training camp run by the Hamas movement on January 29, 2015, in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP photo/Said Khatib)
A Palestinian youth crawls in a tunnel during a graduation ceremony for a training camp run by the Hamas movement on January 29, 2015, in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP photo/Said Khatib)

Hamas appears to be changing its tunnel strategy, shifting from a focus on border-crossing attack routes to more internal defense structures, as Israel steps up work on its underground barrier surrounding the Gaza Strip, according to IDF assessments on Wednesday.

The terrorist organization used its network of cross-border tunnels most extensively during the 2014 Gaza war, sending fighters through them into Israel to attack nearby soldiers.

In 2006, one such tunnel was used to kidnap IDF soldier Gilad Shalit into Gaza, where he was held captive for five years, before being released as part of a hotly contested prisoner exchange, in which over 1,000 Palestinian terrorists were also set free.

A tunnel reaching from Gaza into Israel, seen in a picture released by the IDF on April 18, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

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, along with 18 internal tunnels, and depleted Hamas’s weapons stores.

While there were no attacks on civilians through these tunnels during the 2014 war, the concern in Israel is that one day Hamas will send dozens of fighters through them in order to attack a nearby community and either kill residents or take them hostage.

To counter that threat, earlier this summer Israel started construction on an underground barrier that is designed to destroy any tunnels that are currently in place and prevent the creation of new ones.

Israeli construction teams work on a concrete border wall to run above and below ground along the Gaza border, September 2016. (screen capture: Ynet)

According to the military, Hamas has instead shifted its focus to improving and expanding its network of tunnels within Gaza, which can be used to ferry fighters and weaponry across the Strip, out of sight from Israeli surveillance.

In addition, the terrorist organization, which is already believed to have replenished its arsenal of rockets and mortars, is seen to be increasing its attempts to import additional weaponry into the Strip from Sinai.

Though the humanitarian situation in the Strip has improved to a certain degree, as opposed to earlier this summer when it was on the brink of losing nearly all access to electricity, the military still sees the coastal enclave as volatile.

The work on the 37-mile (60-kilometer) barrier began in earnest earlier this summer, and Head of the Southern Command Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir said it would be completed within two years. It will feature an advanced underground protection system that extends dozens of meters below the ground — the army would not specify the depth — in order to detect and destroy tunnels that attempt to penetrate into Israeli territory, as well as an above-ground metal fence adorned with sensors.

The Defense Ministry will also bulk up the defense along the Gaza coast, putting up breakwaters and other protective measures in order to prevent infiltration into Israel from the sea, as occurred during the 2014 Gaza war.

A Kometz soldier, standing on a ladder on the Gaza side of the barrier, fixing the fence (photo credit: Netta Asner/IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The project is expected to cost approximately NIS 3 billion ($833 million), with each kilometer of the underground portion of the barrier costing approximately NIS 41.5 million ($11.5 million). The above-ground fence is significantly cheaper at just NIS 1.5 million ($416,000) per kilometer.

In order to speed up construction, concrete factories were built next to the Gaza Strip.

Currently, dozens of construction workers and engineering specialists from around the world are working on the project, at a few different sites, in order to fine-tune their operating methods. They wear flak jackets and are guarded by IDF soldiers.

By the year’s end, over 1,000 people, both Israelis and migrant workers, will be operating on the border barrier in approximately 40 locations.

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