IDF destroys Gaza attack tunnel crossing into Israeli territory

Six weeks after blowing up a Palestinian Islamic Jihad tunnel, army says it has demolished a second, ‘substantial’ one belonging to Hamas

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

The Israel Defense Forces this weekend destroyed an attack tunnel coming from the southern Gaza Strip that entered Israeli territory, the army announced on Sunday.

The military said the kilometer-long tunnel was constructed by the Hamas terrorist group. It began in the Gazan city of Khan Younis and extended “hundreds of meters” inside Israeli territory. Israel demolished another cross-border tunnel, which was being dug by the Islamic Jihad terror group, six weeks ago.

IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus would not specify where exactly the newly destroyed was located in Israel, but said it ended in open farmland, approximately one kilometer (0.6 miles) from the nearest Israeli community.

Israeli troops prepare to destroy a Hamas attack tunnel that entered Israeli territory, on December 9, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

“We monitored this tunnel for a long period of time,” Conricus said.

The decision to destroy it was made several weeks ago. According to the officer, some of the closures set up around the Gaza Strip in the past month were connected to the tunnel discovery, while others were put in place for fear that terrorist groups would try to carry out sniper and anti-tank missile attacks on Israeli civilians who got too close to the area.

The spokesman noted that the tunnel did not pose an immediate threat to Israeli civilians and that it did not have an exit point at the time of the destruction.

He said the tunnel appeared to be a “very substantial” one for Hamas, “based on the level of detail.”

Conricus would not say what aspects of the tunnel specifically made the military believe that it belonged to Hamas, though photos from inside it showed a similar construction to the group’s tunnels that were found during the 2014 Gaza war, notably the assembly-line produced concrete linings with a curved roof.

He added that the army holds “Hamas responsible twice — once, because it is responsible for any aggressive action coming from the Gaza Strip, and twice, because this was a Hamas terror tunnel.”

On October 30, the IDF blew up an attack tunnel belonging to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group. In the blast and its aftermath, some 14 terrorists were killed, including two senior commanders and five who were digging inside Israeli territory at the time of the demolition.

In response to October’s tunnel demolition, Islamic Jihad vowed to avenge its operatives. A month later the group shelled an army post northeast of the Gaza Strip, which resulted in some equipment damage, but no Israeli injuries.

In this weekend’s blast, no Palestinians were reported killed, Conricus said.

However, he warned, in the future, tunnels “can become death traps for terrorists digging them.”

Palestinian protesters clash with IDF soldiers along the Israel-Gaza border on December 8, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

The officer said the military did not see a connection between the tunnel demolition and ongoing, low-level protests in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which Hamas is actively encouraging, against US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“We see these as separate events,” Conricus said. “There is no direct link, other than that the Hamas terrorist group is behind both of them.”

He credited the discovery of the tunnel to a “new system that the IDF now has,” which is the result of collaboration between various engineering, intelligence and ground forces units. “I am confident there will be more achievements in the future,” he said of the system.

The tunnel was destroyed using a different method from the one destroyed in October, which was blown up with explosives.

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The army would not elaborate on the nature of the new technique.

The military is currently constructing an underground barrier around the Gaza Strip that is meant to both prevent future attack tunnels and discover ones already constructed.

A Hamas attack tunnel that entered Israeli territory, which was destroyed by the IDF on December 10, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

Conricus said that as the military’s “toolbox” for underground warfare improves, the danger of border-crossing tunnels, which terrorists can use to infiltrate Israeli territory and carry out attacks, is becoming significantly diminished.

“I’m cautious to say we’re past this threat, but we are advancing to that,” he said.

Military analysts suspect that Hamas is focusing more of its attention on developing an underground tunnel network within the Gaza Strip, as opposed to border-crossing tunnels.

Illustrative. A hydromill at a construction site in Tel Aviv. (Sharshar/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The new underground barrier, which is estimated to cost upwards of NIS 3 billion ($851 million), is being built inside Israeli territory. The current metal fence surrounding the Strip, which lies exactly on the border, will remain in place while the new fence is built a few dozen meters inside Israel.

In order to construct the underground barrier, workers are using a German hydromill, a powerful piece of drilling equipment that cuts deep, narrow trenches into the earth.

In addition to opening up the ground where the barrier will be constructed, the hydromill is expected to expose any previously undiscovered or newly dug Hamas tunnels that enter Israeli territory.

The space left behind by the hydromill — and any Hamas tunnels that get in the way — is then filled with a substance known as bentonite, a type of absorbent clay that expands when it touches water.

This is meant to prevent the trenches from collapsing, but also has the additional benefit of indicating the presence of a tunnel, as the bentonite would quickly drain into it.

Workers then pour regular concrete into the trench. Metal cages with sensors attached are then lowered into the concrete for additional support.

Palestinian terrorists from the 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)

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.

In the more than three years since the operation, the army has revealed that it found and destroyed at least four attack tunnels entering Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip, in April and May 2016, and in October and now December 2017.

In the time since the 2014 war, on average between one and two rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel each month, including several that were fired on Friday night, hitting a kindergarten and an open street in the southern town of Sderot, and causing damage but no injuries.

Those rockets have been fired by fringe Salafist groups, not by Hamas, which took control of the Strip in 2007 and has ruled the coastal enclave ever since. That fact is generally credited to the Hamas trying to maintain the relative calm so that it can use that time to better prepare for a future conflict with Israel.

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