OUTSIDE GAZA CITY — Moments after The Times of Israel arrived in an area deep in the northern Gaza Strip this week, troops of the Israel Defense Forces’ Combat Engineering Corps found an opening to yet another tunnel belonging to the Hamas terror group — the 91st found in the area since Israel’s ground operation began.
In terms of its size, where it led and what it was intended for, the tunnel was much like the other 90 found in the area.
What set it apart, though, was its location. The shaft had been uncovered by soldiers of the Combat Engineering Corps’ 614th Battalion as they carried out a second round of sweeps in a single-family home — with an outdoor swimming pool — in an upscale beachside neighborhood.
Inside a bedroom scattered with brightly colored clothes, underneath one of three child-sized beds, soldiers had found a portal to where monsters were hiding.
“It’s not ethical, the way that Hamas works,” said a reservist engineering officer — whose identity is censored from publication — while showing The Times of Israel and another journalist the tunnel.
“They use a children’s room to hide a tunnel, below a child’s bed… This is the reality,” he said.
Being careful not to fall down the shaft, The Times of Israel was given a view of the tunnel, which had two branches — one heading west toward the coast, and the other southeast toward Gaza City, where Hamas’s main tunnel network is believed to be.
That network forms the Gordian knot of Israel’s Gaza offensive; it’s the key to crippling Hamas, but also a massively dangerous and complicated undertaking for the IDF.
With tendrils of underground fortifications running beneath crowded residential neighborhoods, the army says it has little choice but to bring the fight to the homes, hospitals, schools and clinics believed to shield the network. On October 7, Hamas terrorists forced their way into Israeli homes and turned bedrooms into war zones. In a dismal twist, the terror group’s cynical use of Gaza civilians as human shields has now brought Israel’s soldiers into Gazan children’s bedrooms.
The IDF has indicated it does not have plans to engage in tunnel warfare, as the passages are likely to be booby-trapped. Instead, it is demolishing the tunnels as they are being found.
The Combat Engineering Corps has been tasked with clearing routes — using armored D9 bulldozers — for ground forces to maneuver in the Gaza Strip, as well as locating and destroying Hamas infrastructure, including tunnels, rocket launchers, and other sites not struck by the Air Force.
The officer said the combat engineering forces have been double-checking each building for tunnels and weaponry, as the military progresses into Gaza City at a slow, methodical pace.
“We know that first search, sometimes it’s a very quick search, and the second one is like surgery. We are going corner to corner until we find everything,” the reservist engineering officer said.
Twenty-eight rocket launch sites — including dozens of launchers and rockets — and 91 tunnels had been found in the northern Gaza area alone within the first 10 days of the ground offensive. Another 40 tunnels and dozens more rocket launchers were located south of Gaza City.
Lt. Col. Adoniram (his surname was withheld by the IDF for security concerns), the commander of the 614th Combat Engineering Battalion, told The Times of Israel that most of the tunnels and rockets they had found were deep within civilian sites.
“We encounter a lot of weapons, a lot of tunnels. Here you saw one under a children’s room. We found them in playgrounds, we found them in kindergartens, and in mosques. Tomorrow morning someone will say ‘Why did they attack a mosque?’ This is why,” Adoniram said.
Like the tunnels, the rocket launch sites could also be hard to find; they are often hidden underground, deep inside residential areas.
“From our point of view, every square meter can hold a tunnel,” Adoniram said.
“We scan thoroughly, and there is intelligence, and the intelligence is very good. And there are means by which we both locate and destroy [the tunnels],” Adoniram said.
“There is a lot more to do, there is the entire Gaza City,” he added.
Just then, he was cut off by a large blast. About 100 meters away, his soldiers had detonated a Hamas rocket.
It had been found while the troops were excavating between buildings in the upscale neighborhood.
The drive in an open-top humvee to the frontlines in northern Gaza was strangely peaceful, save for the explosions at random intervals — from Israeli strikes and Palestinian rocket fire flying over our heads toward Israel — and the waves of dust kicked up by tanks and armored personnel carriers passing by.
The neighborhoods along the northern coast of Gaza are ghost towns. There were no civilians, and not a car in sight.
Adoniram said that his unit had not encountered civilians at all in its area of operations. Many had fled south or were sheltering at schools or hospitals. By the UN’s estimate, some 1.5 million of Gaza’s population of over 2 million was internally displaced.
“I know there were other areas where there were civilians. I know that Hamas also used those civilians who remained as human shields,” he said. He had heard tell of an incident in which civilians who approached troops to ask for water had been used as cover for gunmen to open fire at the soldiers.
There had been some engagement with Hamas operatives in the area, but much fewer than they had anticipated, Adoniram said. Most fighters were believed to have fled underground when ground troops entered.
Weeks of airstrikes and artillery had left their mark. Not a single building in the area remained intact, and many were just concrete skeletons.
The home where the tunnel had been found was still relatively upright but soon would be just rubble.
Soldiers fished a Hamas flag and a camouflage jacket out of the tunnel entrance that had been found in the bedroom, and then planted a large amount of explosives inside.
While combat engineers rigged up the tunnel to be destroyed, The Times of Israel and other troops moved to a safe distance — about 200 meters away.
In an empty pool, soldiers of the Nahal Brigade’s 50th Battalion had set up a spot to rest in the shade.
The pool was awash with trash left by the troops.
A combat engineer blamed an overabundance of supplies, pointing to crates of tin cans, granola bars, toothbrushes, and fast food packages.
“They brought us burgers last night, and there’s some Aroma” food, he said, referring to Israel’s largest coffeehouse chain.
The soldiers, who had not been on their phones for close to a month, were desperate to hear news from Israel.
As the soldiers chatted about what was happening back home, a massive blast sounded, with a cloud of dust, smoke, and debris filling the air. Soldiers ducked for cover from falling shrapnel.
With the tunnel destroyed, the combat engineering troops began to search for additional hidden entrances that may have been forced open by the blast.
Adoniram said that there would be a lot more tunnel-clearing work once the military pushes further into Gaza City.
“The goal is that when we leave here, there won’t be a single tunnel” left in Gaza, he said.
But could they be sure there wasn’t more hiding underground in each place they examine, once they advance onward?
No, Adoniram admitted. He could not be fully sure, but troops are being as exhaustive as they can.
“It is also a matter of pace. As long as the pace of progress is orderly and on our timeline, then it will be thorough,” he said. “Right now, we are working thoroughly.”