Hamas digs new terror tunnels up to, but not across, border

Terror group reconstructing underground network with improvised materials, but is avoiding escalation, security sources say

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.

Gunmen from  Islamic Jihad's armed wing, the al-Quds Brigades, squat in a tunnel used for ferrying rockets and mortars back and forth in preparation for the next conflict with Israel, as they take part in military training in the south of the Gaza Strip on March 3, 2015. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)
Gunmen from Islamic Jihad's armed wing, the al-Quds Brigades, squat in a tunnel used for ferrying rockets and mortars back and forth in preparation for the next conflict with Israel, as they take part in military training in the south of the Gaza Strip on March 3, 2015. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Israeli defense officials believe Hamas has managed to dig several tunnels to be used for attacks near the Israeli border in the seven months since the end of Operation Protective Edge, security sources said on Wednesday.

The unnamed sources said that Hamas has invested considerable effort in digging a new tunnel network within the coastal enclave, as well as several tunnels meant for eventual cross-border attacks.

But according to the security sources, the terror organization is careful to avoid crossing into Israeli soil, in order to avoid an eruption of hostilities.

The evidence of digging can be seen from the Israeli side of the border, and residents of the Gaza periphery have documented the construction some several hundred meters from the border.

The Islamic Jihad and Hamas terror groups have released videos in the past months in which members are seen working in the tunnels and traveling freely through them.

But the security sources maintained that only a few attack tunnels are being dug, rather than the dozens that were operational immediately before the summer conflict and during it.

According to Israeli accounts, more than 30 tunnels were operational inside Gaza, and most of them extended into Israel, before the bloody summer conflict.

Right now, there are no known tunnels extending under the border into Israel’s territory, and the assessment is that Hamas stopped digging some distance away from the Israeli side to prevent IDF strikes.

It’s possible that some of the tunnels destroyed during the Gaza war are being reconstructed, the sources said.

The attack tunnels extending into Israeli territory prompted an Israeli ground invasion into Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, which began in July and lasted for 50 days.

Destroying the tunnel threat was one of Israel’s goals during the summer’s military campaign, which saw over 2,100 people killed in Gaza and tens of thousands more left homeless, according to Palestinian and UN tallies, and 72 people killed in Israel.

Israel says half of the dead were fighters and blames Hamas, which situated much of its attack apparatus in residential areas, for all civilian deaths. During the operation, Gazan fighters carried out several tunnel raids into Israel, killing 11 Israeli soldiers.

Reconstruction efforts in Gaza have been slowed over a lack of international funds and Israeli restrictions on certain building materials, over fears they could be used to rebuild Gaza’s military infrastructure.

The security sources said due to the strict Israeli inspections of building materials entering the coastal enclave, Hamas is investing less in concrete and cement-lined tunnels, and is accelerating the construction using other materials, similar to tunnels in the southern Gaza Strip between the Palestinian Rafah and Egyptian Rafah.

The sources added that tunnel construction near the Egyptian border has almost entirely ceased due to Egypt’s aggressive crackdown on the Hamas-run Strip.

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