Gaza Underground, the threat Israel chose to ignore

Hamas’s attack tunnels are now recognized as a major danger, but Israel would have to reconquer Gaza to make sure they aren’t rebuilt, and that would cause untenable losses

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.

A Hamas tunnel discovered by soldiers from the Paratroopers Brigade in the northern Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)
A Hamas tunnel discovered by soldiers from the Paratroopers Brigade in the northern Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

The tunnels inside Gaza and under the Israeli border are not a secret project Hamas ran under the noses of Israel and the Palestinian public. Every child in Gaza, like every junior officer in IDF Military Intelligence, knew that, beneath Gaza City and beyond, a network of tunnels was being dug over the past five years, with an investment of millions of dollars. In other words, Gaza Underground.

Yet the Israeli public was still surprised by the scope of the tunnels when the danger became clear in the past week or two. The Israeli press had reported on the phenomenon, but it appears that Israel’s political leadership — and, to some extent, its security leadership — had preferred to play down the threat. Today, on Day 18 of Operation Protective Edge, the public recognizes the strategic danger.

Hamas’s strategic underground industry didn’t bloom overnight. In order to build 40 “attack tunnels” snaking out from Gaza and under the border (and the number could be slightly higher), Hamas needed significant help, from a large organization or state entity. And not just monetary help, but also professional guidance. Hamas could have used experts from the tunnels dug at Rafah under the Gaza-Egypt border, but those were simpler, and did not demand any extraordinary investment or effort.

The tunnels into Israel were (and still are; the IDF is in the process of destroying them) a different story. Most are concrete-lined, and large enough to allow swarms of terrorists to pass through en route to raid targets within Israel. Major government-level assistance must have been necessary to aid the construction and, no small matter, the navigation of the digging.

Which government or state-like entity might this have been? The list of suspects is short. Hezbollah and Iran are the only players in the region with an interest in hurting Israel that also have the capability to build sophisticated and sturdy tunnels that won’t collapse.

Yet, the attack tunnels are only part of Underground Gaza. Hamas also prepared tunnels to allow its operatives to move from location to location without detection, as well as a system of bunkers containing its command and control centers, which remain unscathed. Hamas leaders from both the political and military wings sit in other bunkers, and they, too, have not been harmed at all.

Tunnel opening discovered by IDF in Gaza,  July 20, 2014. (Photo credit: IDF)
Tunnel opening discovered by the IDF in Gaza, July 20, 2014. (photo credit: IDF)

On the eve of the operation, the Israel Defense Forces figured that Hamas had around 15 attack tunnels — a major underestimate. Is this a major intelligence failure? I don’t see it that way. There is no way the intelligence community could have known about every tunnel.

The failure is that of the political echelon, which preferred to ignore the threat growing under Israel’s southern border for five years. Decision makers knew about the tunnels, and about Hamas’s 9,000-10,000 rockets, but it was easier for them to shut their eyes for convenience and quiet’s sake. It was easier for them to butt heads with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over his dire request to join UNESCO bodies (which clearly poses an existential threat to the State of Israel, forgive my sarcasm), and to expand the settlement enterprise in the West Bank, than it was to deal with an armed and dangerous guerrilla army that maintained the quiet only for as long as convenient.

Now, of course, the tunnels are depicted as the major threat they always were, necessitating IDF troops to operate within Gaza. Now, indeed, the demand from some government quarters has moved to the other extreme, calling for the IDF to stay inside Gaza for an extended period and “finish the job.”

If, however, Israel announces in a few days that it has destroyed the attack tunnels and the IDF withdraws its forces into Israel, what then? It’s obvious that Hamas will rebuild the tunnels at an accelerated pace. In the next round, let’s say in another two years, IDF forces will not have to deal with 40 tunnels, but double or triple that number. They’ll be so big that a Hamas policeman will need to stand at major intersections underground… or maybe they’ll install traffic lights for all the terrorists.

Two things could prevent a repeat conflict with a stronger Hamas in the future: One, a “root canal” operation that would indeed include taking over the Strip and taking out Hamas’s leadership. Such an operation would cost the lives of hundreds of Israeli soldiers, and no politician wants to be held responsible for that. Or two, to burn deterrence into Hamas’s consciousness, as Israel did with its focus in the 2006 Second Lebanon War on Beirut’s Dahiyeh neighborhood, a Hezbollah stronghold that turned into a painful reminder for its leaders of the dangers of tangling with Israel.

At this stage, we’re neither here nor there. Israel has no intention of sending its troops to utterly uproot Hamas, and it’s doubtful that Hamas has been sufficiently deterred from planning future military malice against Israel.

The Palestinian public, however, is sick of the fighting, and it has had its consciousness burned aplenty. The question is whether the leaders of the Hamas military wing, which fires its missiles at Israel from the heart of Gaza’s populated neighborhoods, care at all about that. Its conduct in Shejaiya, where the warfare was devastating for local Gaza residents, strongly suggests that it does not.

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