Israel turns a blind eye to tunnel construction, and the next Gaza war
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Analysis

Israel turns a blind eye to tunnel construction, and the next Gaza war

Inch-by-inch, Hamas tunnelers are working their way towards Israel, bringing the next round of fighting with them

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.

Soldiers from the Givati Brigade seen at the entrance to a Hamas attack tunnel on July 23, 2014, during Operation Protective Edge. (Israel Defense Forces/Flash90)
Soldiers from the Givati Brigade seen at the entrance to a Hamas attack tunnel on July 23, 2014, during Operation Protective Edge. (Israel Defense Forces/Flash90)

The writing is on the wall. The warning signs of the next war in the Gaza Strip are getting stronger. And this time, no ministers will be able to protest: “I didn’t know, I didn’t hear, I didn’t see.”

On Sunday morning, The Sunday Telegraph reported that Iran has transferred tens of millions of dollars to the military wing of Hamas to help it rebuild the tunnels in Gaza that were destroyed during Operation Protective Edge.

According to intelligence sources quoted by the British paper, Tehran is also funding the resupply of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades’ rocket inventory, which it depleted by firing endless barrages of munitions at Israel during the 2014 summer conflict.

This is only the most recent of many reports in the past few weeks. Just a few days ago, the head of the IDF Southern Command, Major-General Sami Turgeman, said in an interview with the Hebrew language daily Yedioth Ahronoth that Hamas is currently digging new tunnels. Less than two weeks ago, the Times of Israel reported that according to various assessments the tunnels have already reached the Israel-Gaza border.

An interview with MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) published in the Hebrew-language Haaretz, in which he reviewed the conclusions of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Operation Protective Edge, also can’t be ignored. In Shelah’s opinion, the principle failure was the lack of a realistic, strategic policy for dealing with both Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah to the north.

The reports all add up to indicate it’s only a matter of time before the next round of fighting begins. Nothing has been solved in the Gaza Strip; on the contrary, the economic and social situation has only deteriorated in the eight months since the fighting ended. An old friend from Gaza, ‘A’, whose home was destroyed during the last conflict, said that as of last week he and his extended family – more than 30 people – are still living in a UNRWA school in the northern Gaza Strip because the rebuilding of his home has not yet begun.

“There are building materials that arrived from Israel, but we have no money to buy them,” he said.

The tremendous efforts that Israel and Egypt are making to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, have seen results, but Hamas has the ability to improvise and produce rockets and anti-tank missiles using whatever materials are readily available. Some of important materials are not allowed into Gaza, but there are always alternatives.

Commander of the South Front Command, Major-General Sholmo (Sami) Turgeman, on August 5, 2014. (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)
Commander of the South Front Command, Major-General Sholmo (Sami) Turgeman, on August 5, 2014. (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

A lot has been written about the cement that is imported into Gaza and the question of whether or not it is used for constructing attack tunnels. Hamas has apparently realized that if it uses the cement to line the tunnels, Israel will stop allowing the material into Gaza and an accusatory finger will be pointed at Hamas for not rebuilding Gaza. Recently, therefore, Hamas has switched to using wood in the construction of some of the tunnels, local sources said.

This is not a new technique but one that has been used alongside the cement and steel beams. As the cement and steel supplies dwindle, the terror group increases its use of wooden beams.

However, when Israel recently noticed the widespread use of a particular kind of wood to build the tunnels, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Major-General Yoav Mordechai said he was forbidding its transfer into Gaza. So Hamas demanded it from the local traders. When the traders refused, a few of them were arrested, in particular in the refugee camps in the center of the Gaza Strip, and their merchandise was confiscated.

The tunnels that Hamas is currently digging toward Israel – and perhaps even into Israeli territory in the area of the Gaza periphery – will self-evidently be used in the next round of fighting. The defense establishment and policy-makers prefer to ignore this phenomenon rather than containing it, mostly because of the danger of a flare-up.

Once again, it is the misguided strategy of maintaining the status quo that reigns. Not peace, and not war. But ignoring the preparations for war now only ensures that the next escalation, when it inevitably comes, will be tougher and more difficult than the previous conflicts.

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