IDF officials confirmed Tuesday that Hamas had planned to carry out a massive assault by penetrating Israeli communities via tunnels under the border from the Gaza Strip, and then killing or kidnapping as many people as possible.
IDF Spokesperson Peter Lerner said the terror group planned to use the tunnels to attack civilian areas in Israel and “inflict mass casualties,” in a report published Tuesday by Vanity Fair.
“Hamas had a plan,” Lerner said. “A simultaneous, coordinated, surprise attack within Israel.”
The assault was based on using tunnels, dug under the border by Hamas, as a means of entry into Israel.
“They planned to send 200 terrorists armed to the teeth toward civilian populations,” Lerner said. “This was going to be a coordinated attack. The concept of operations involved 14 offensive tunnels into Israel. With at least 10 men in each tunnel, they would infiltrate and inflict mass casualties.”
Lerner confirmed his statement to The Times of Israel, saying the IDF’s Military Intelligence had painted a picture of Hamas intentions to use the tunnels in a coordinated and strategic manner.
“We have no specific date but they absolutely intended to use strategic points of access for multiple coordinated attacks,” he said.
Some of the details had earlier been reported by Israeli news site NRG, citing an unnamed security official. However, officials had refused to confirm the report, which set the date for the attack at the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah in early fall.
Lerner said the hesitation to confirm the report surrounded the date. “The sensationalism was around Rosh Hashanah,” he said. “There was no specific date.”
An unnamed security official told Vanity Fair that while it was possible the attack had been planned for Rosh Hashanah, Hamas was forced to abandon its strategy once a summer war was launched, during which Israel destroyed dozens of the tunnels.
Lerner’s statements were supported by unnamed military intelligence officials who noted that Hamas aimed to inflict massive damage on IDF and civilian targets while also scoring a morbid publicity coup, according to Vanity Fair.
“First, get in and massacre people in a village,” one official explained. “Pull off something they could show on television. Second, the ability to kidnap soldiers and civilians using the tunnels would give them a great bargaining chip.”
In 2006, Hamas operatives used a tunnel to kill two soldiers and capture a third, Gilad Shalit, who they eventually traded for over a thousand prisoners.
Destroying the tunnels was one of Israel’s main objectives during Operation Protective Edge, the 50-day conflict fought between Israel and Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip.
Israel said it destroyed 38 tunnels, many of which crossed into Israel and were planned for Hamas attacks.
During the war, Hamas gunmen emerged from the tunnels on several occasions to ambush IDF forces, killing several soldiers.
Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal told Vanity Fair the tunnels were only for defensive operations against Israeli forces.
“The tunnels may have been outwardly called ‘offensive tunnels,’ but in actual fact they are ‘defensive’ ones’,” he said, according to the magazine report.
Mashaal dismissed the fact that many of the tunnels led to Israeli civilian communities near the border as being circumstantial.
“There are Israeli towns adjacent to Gaza,” he noted. “Have any of the tunnels been used to kill any civilian or any of the residents of such towns? No. Never! . . . [Hamas] used them either to strike beyond the back lines of the Israeli army or to raid some military sites . . . This proves that Hamas is only defending itself.”
Exactly when the planned attack was supposed to go ahead remains unclear.
Lerner suggested that the massive attack scenario played itself out, to a lesser degree, on July 21, when two Hamas squads, operating in tandem, emerged near Kibbutz Erez and Kibbutz Nir-Am during the 50-day campaign in and around Gaza this summer.
Several days later, NRG reported that Hamas, before the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, had been planning a mega attack inside Israel. The plan, a security source reportedly told the site, was to push 200 terrorists into Israel, attacking multiple sites and taking multiple hostages during the Jewish new year holiday of Rosh Hashanah.
Ultimately, the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers set in motion a chain of events that led up to the conflict during which the Hamas plan was disrupted as Israel worked to locate and smash the tunnel infrastructure.
Israel blamed the kidnapping on Hamas, but Mashaal said that while the abduction was carried out by “Hamas field operatives,” the group gave no orders for the attack.
Some 2,100 Gazans were killed during the summer conflict, according to Palestinian and UN tallies. Israel says about half of the casualties were fighters.
Seventy-two people were killed on the Israeli side, including 66 soldiers and six civilians, as Hamas shot thousands of rockets into the country. Eleven soldiers were killed in attacks by Hamas gunmen emerging from the tunnels during the summer conflict.