Hamas tunnel shows conflict has continued unabated since 2014 war

Gaza’s terrorist rulers have been digging around the clock in a relentless battle of wits and will with Israel

Avi Issacharoff

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.

Israeli soldiers and civilians use heavy engineering equipment to discover a Hamas attack tunnel near the Gaza border last week, in a video released on April 18, 2016. (Screen capture: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Israeli soldiers and civilians use heavy engineering equipment to discover a Hamas attack tunnel near the Gaza border last week, in a video released on April 18, 2016. (Screen capture: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

The army spokesman’s announcement on Monday of the exposure of a Hamas attack tunnel that crossed into Israel from the southern Gaza Strip was both grim and unsurprising. It constitutes just one more of the many examples of the ongoing confrontation being waged above and beneath the surface between Israel and Hamas.

Hamas has made no secret, ever since Operation Protective Edge ended on August 26, 2014, of the fact that it is continuing to dig terror tunnels into Israel. It devotes close to 1,000 men working 24 hours a day, six days a week, and many millions of dollars per month, to the task.

There were those in Israel who had claimed that there was no proof that these tunnels penetrated into Israeli territory. In fact, it turns out, there was indeed proof of this. But it may have been easier for the Israeli government to keep the public ignorant, especially in the region adjacent to Gaza, and thus spare itself discomfiting questions over why it was not attacking the tunnelers inside Gaza territory.

Even now, after the discovery of this tunnel, Hamas is continuing and will continue to dig its terror tunnels. And the army and the Shin Bet will continue to try to expose them — both via intelligence and practically, on the ground, where IDF bulldozers are working full tilt at the Gaza border in the search for other tunnels dug into Israel. The intelligence war finds its expression, necessarily, in less overt activities. According to Palestinian reports, one Hamas tunneler recently crossed the border into Israel and is being interrogated by the Shin Bet. The reports include his name and his photograph, and thus appear to be credible.

Unfortunately, it would appear that much of Hamas’s tunneling activity remains undetected. The tunnel whose existence was finally acknowledged on Monday was apparently not an entirely new one, but one that dated from the 2014 war. In other words, here too there is a gulf between what Israel knows and what is actually going on beneath the ground. This is so despite the assertions about Israel’s excellent intelligence and the claims that Israel had found and tackled all the terror tunnels at the time of Operation Protective Edge. All too evidently, if the Israeli defense establishment now knows of a specific number of terror tunnels that have been dug by Hamas across the border, it is reasonable to assume that the true number of such tunnels is actually higher.

All the while, the battle of wits and will goes on. Israel faces no simple dilemma in grappling with the tunnel problem because, plainly, tackling the tunnels at root requires activity on the Palestinian side of the Gaza border and perhaps a wider solution regarding Hamas.

For Hamas, the dilemmas are just beginning. What will it do if it establishes that the various hints in the Israeli media about improved technology enabling tunnel detection turn out to be true, and its network of tunnels is known to Israel? Will it maintain its current policy of restraint, keeping things quiet? Or, to the contrary, might it move into accelerated action because it fears that this prized strategic asset, this network of terror tunnels, may be about to topple domino-style — exposed and destroyed by Israel?

Complicating Hamas’s decision making is the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which sees the local populace pressing for action to break the “siege.”

A Qatari emissary responsible for rehabilitating Gaza held talks in Israel a few days ago to discuss running a gas pipeline between Israel and Gaza. But with all due respect to that idea, the factor that should be preoccupying the Israeli side is the latest World Bank report which shows that only nine percent of the homes that were destroyed in the 2014 war have been rebuilt. Recently, Israel barred the supply of cement to the private market in Gaza — fearing its subversion to tunnel construction — and its price shot up almost 400 percent, from 30 shekels a bag to 110 shekels.

Meanwhile the public mood veers between “we need a war” to “we must avoid war at all cost” (depending on whom you ask) in the pressure cooker known as the Gaza Strip.

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