IDF destroyed Hamas undersea tunnel for first time in last week’s airstrikes
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IDF destroyed Hamas undersea tunnel for first time in last week’s airstrikes

Previously unknown variety of tunnel was meant to be used by terror group's naval commandos to carry out sea-based attacks on Israeli targets, army believes

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

The Israeli military last week bombed a previously unknown variety of Hamas tunnel in the Gaza Strip, one that extended into the sea and was apparently meant to be used by the terror group’s elite naval forces to carry out attacks from the coast, the army revealed Sunday.

On June 3, in response to repeated rocket attacks from Gaza, the Israeli Air Force conducted a series of raids in the Palestinian enclave, striking “a military compound belonging to the naval force of the terror group Hamas in the northern Gaza Strip,” the army said at the time.

On Sunday afternoon, the Israel Defense Forces revealed that the specific target of the airstrike on the compound was the naval tunnel.

The Hamas base was located approximately three kilometers (1.9 miles) from the Israeli border. The tunnel in question did not cross the border into Israeli territory, but instead extended dozens of meters underwater into the sea, according to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus.

The military believes the tunnel was meant to allow frogmen from Hamas’s elite naval unit to travel from their base on the shore into the sea underground, and thus undetected. From there, they could travel underwater to their Israeli targets, Conricus told reporters in a phone briefing.

“We know that it was an operational tunnel that has been used, or at least trained in, before,” he said.

Hamas naval commandos, seen in a still image from a propaganda video released by the terror group during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, in the summer of 2014. (Screen capture)

The officer said the army decided to reveal that it had destroyed Hamas’s “strategic” tunnel one week later in order to “be clear what the consequences were” for rocket attacks.

“The IDF will not allow Hamas to strike Israeli targets, military or civilian, from the sea,” Conricus said.

The tunnel was discovered after “extensive intelligence work, both by naval intelligence and Military Intelligence,” he said.

Conricus would not say how long the IDF had been monitoring the tunnel before striking it, but said it had been “a while.”

He said it was a “possibility” that Hamas has more such tunnels. “We continue to monitor [the area] using all of the operational, technological and intelligence capabilities at our disposal,” he said.

Conricus acknowledged that three kilometers is a long distance for frogmen to travel. He said the military’s assumption is that Hamas’s naval forces have “civilian, off-the-shelf diving equipment” to help them reach the Israeli coast, including propulsion systems, sometimes known as underwater scooters, as well as closed breathing systems that do not release bubbles “in order to make detection more difficult.”

On May 27, the Defense Ministry announced that work had begun on a marine barrier to help prevent terror attacks from the sea.

The naval wall, described by the ministry as an “impregnable breakwater,” will extend some 200 meters (660 feet) out to sea and will serve as an additional hurdle for Hamas frogmen seeking to infiltrate into Israeli territory, as occurred during the 2014 Gaza war.

Construction equipment working on an undersea barrier near Israels border with the Gaza Strip. (Defense Ministry)

On July 8, 2014, Hamas sent four naval commandos into Israeli territory, outside Kibbutz Zikim on the southern coast.

The frogmen brought with them automatic weapons, fragmentation grenades and explosives, the latter of which they used against an Israeli tank, unsuccessfully. Some 40 minutes after they came in from the surf, the Hamas operatives were killed in a combined attack from the sea, ground and air.

Initially presented by the military as an unmitigated victory, a leaked IDF review of the incident later showed the army’s response to have been slower, and the commandos’ attack to have been more successful, than previously thought. (Their attack on the tank, for instance, was not initially reported.)

The Israeli military has long believed that Hamas is expanding its naval capabilities, both in terms of advanced technology and in training frogmen to infiltrate into Israeli territory from the sea and to attack Israeli vessels.

“Hamas is making serious developments in the underwater domain,” a naval officer told The Times of Israel last year.

Late last month, in response to a large mortar and rocket attack by terrorist groups from Gaza, the Israeli military targeted other key Hamas naval capabilities, the army had said.

Illustrative. Smoke rises following an Israeli strikes on Gaza City, on May 30, 2018, after Palestinian terrorist groups bombarded southern Israel with dozens of rockets and mortar shells. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

On May 29 and 30, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other assorted terror groups in the Gaza Strip fired scores of mortar shells and rockets at southern Israel over the course of 22 hours. The army said more than 100 of the projectiles fired were on a trajectory to hit Israel, while many more were apparently launched but failed to clear the border.

In response to the attack — the largest since the 2014 Gaza war — the Israeli Air Force bombed at least 65 targets in the Strip, including a naval armory containing “advanced maritime weaponry capable of naval infiltration and carrying out terror attacks by Hamas naval forces,” the army said.

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