Latest tunnel was Hamas’s deepest; it’s not what worries Israel most about Gaza

The IDF regards the Strip as calm for now, but a perpetual potential powder keg, and Southern Command deems most rounds of fighting in past 2.5 years to have been failures

Judah Ari Gross

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

A tunnel that Israel believes was dug by the Hamas terror group from Gaza into southern Israel, which was uncovered on October 22, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
A tunnel that Israel believes was dug by the Hamas terror group from Gaza into southern Israel, which was uncovered on October 22, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Gaza Strip is a powder keg, alternately relatively calm and getting ready to blow. It is ruled by an authoritarian terrorist group, and it has an incredibly poor economy, limited access to electricity and virtually no potable water sources and only now is starting to be able to treat its sewage. It is struggling to contain a coronavirus outbreak, which the Israeli military believes is worse than the already-bad official tally indicates. And this situation does not appear likely to improve anytime soon.

While the threats from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iranian proxies in Syria are considered far more significant in terms of their potential damage to Israel, the Israel Defense Forces views the likelihood for conflict to be much greater with terror groups in Gaza.

To that end, the bulk of the IDF Southern Command’s time is dedicated to preparing for the next war under an updated fighting approach dubbed Spirit of the South — Ru’ah Darom, in Hebrew — which is meant to end the conflict more quickly and effectively than previous strategies, relying on massive barrages to rapidly knock out enemy capabilities and improved use of intelligence.

In addition to these preparations, Israel has also nearly completed construction of an underground concrete barrier studded with sensors around the Gaza Strip to detect tunnels from the enclave, a move that is expected to deny Hamas a powerful weapon in any future war.

Multi-tiered defense

Last month, the IDF uncovered a Hamas attack tunnel using its new detection system, which is due to be fully constructed in March 2021. According to the military, the 2-kilometer tunnel was the deepest one ever dug by the terror group, dozens of meters below ground. The passage extended from the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis under the border into an area of Israeli territory that lies on the Gaza side of the subterranean barrier.

For the IDF, which is confident in its new tunnel-busting prowess, this is not a major source of concern; indeed, the army sees Hamas’s tunneling efforts as serving only to drain the terror group’s resources as it digs deeper and deeper into the earth in what is expected to be a fruitless endeavor.

The military is also developing a new multi-tiered defense system around the Gaza Strip, dubbed “Smart and Lethal Border,” which relies on advanced radar and optical sensors to detect intruders and on remote-controlled, armed vehicles and drones to inspect suspected border breaches, as well as physical barriers. Using these unmanned systems allows the military to scale back the number of troops needed and keep those soldiers that are required out of harm’s way, deploying them only for more complicated missions that require a human touch.

This project is currently being tested on a six-kilometer stretch of the northern Gaza border. The pilot program should be completed in the next few months and will then be expanded to the entire 51-kilometer border.

In addition to these efforts, the IDF is seeking to preemptively destroy the weapons and military infrastructure of terror groups in the Strip, keeping them from feeling sufficiently confident in their ability to wage war against Israel.

Unmanned vehicles patrol the Gaza border on November 17, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Though the military believes it will fare well in a war against Hamas, a future fight is not currently designed to fundamentally alter the situation in the Gaza Strip. Israel still prefers to have Hamas, which is officially dedicated to the Jewish state’s destruction, in charge of the enclave over the potential for chaos and complications in the Strip should Hamas be fully overthrown.

Endless flare-ups spell trouble

The IDF also wants to keep even these smaller conflicts to a minimum, preventing them from turning into something like the 11 two-day battles that it has fought in Gaza over the past two and a half years.

IDF Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, left, speaks with officers after an attack tunnel was discovered inside Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF Southern Command sees those rounds of fighting in 2018, 2019, and 2020 as having ultimately been a failure. Typically those exchanges began following some type of violent incident along the border, leading to a strong response by the IDF, prompting rocket fire from Gaza, leading to an IDF response, and so on. After a day or two, a ceasefire would be unofficially declared.

Israel and terror groups in the Strip fought nearly a dozen of these rounds from mid-2018 to today, the latest of them in February. In each of these, tens or hundreds of rockets and mortar shells were fired at Israeli cities and towns, and the IDF retaliated with dozens of airstrikes.

To the IDF, The Times of Israel has learned, those rounds of fighting were fundamentally pointless — save for one last November, dubbed Operation Black Belt, which was kicked off with the killing of Islamic Jihad senior commander Baha Abu al-Ata and led to a wide campaign against the Iran-backed terror group, which the military believes has deterred it from the types of attacks that it had been carrying out until then. Vide: Despite internal pressure to mark the first anniversary of Abu al-Ata’s death with an attack on Israel, no such assault took place.

With the exception of that campaign, the remaining 10 or so rounds of fighting were not found to have significantly advanced Israel’s goal. They were financially costly due to the large number of Iron Dome interceptor missiles used to shoot down incoming projectiles and large amounts of munitions used on targets that could easily be reconstructed; and the large number of interceptions by the Iron Dome — 245 in 2018, 481 in 2019 and 82 so far in 2020 — also provided critical intelligence to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, and through them to Tehran.

Defense Ministry and Rafael defense contractor test an upgraded version of the Iron Dome missile defense system in January 2020. (Defense Ministry)

By reviewing the Iron Dome’s performance during these battles, the terror groups could potentially identify weaknesses in the system that could be exploited in future combat.

It is not immediately clear how the IDF plans to act differently in light of this determination, though an indication can be found in the events of this August when despite growing tensions and violence along the border, as well as rocket fire at southern Israel, no intensive battle took place, and Israel and Hamas instead brokered a truce that has lasted — more or less — until now.

This picture shows lightning above buildings during a thunderstorm in Gaza City, early on November 15, 2020. (Mahmud Hams / AFP)

That calm was broken last Sunday when two rockets were fired toward central Israel. Hamas quickly sent word to Israel that the projectiles were not launched deliberately, but were the result of a technical malfunction — they were triggered by a lightning strike. As the IDF did not see indications that Hamas was looking for a fight and in light of the strange hour of the attack — shortly after 2 a.m. — the military has generally accepted this explanation, though it continues to monitor the situation to see if the rockets were in fact fired intentionally.

Long-term ceasefire unlikely

Though negotiations are ongoing to broker a long-term, comprehensive ceasefire with Hamas, the military believes that these talks — like those that preceding them — will ultimately reach an impasse and break down, The Times of Israel has learned. Hamas is unlikely to give up its arms and abandon the so-called “resistance,” which is its raison d’être; and Jerusalem is not prepared to offer major concessions until that happens, believing — justifiably — that Hamas would take advantage of any significant reduction in the blockade on Gaza to expand its war against Israel.

The military similarly does not have high expectations for an agreement to secure the release of the remains of two fallen IDF soldiers and two live Israeli civilians who are currently being held by Hamas in Gaza, as the terror group is unlikely to do so without Israel agreeing to set free its operatives, something Jerusalem is unlikely to do.

A health worker in personal protective equipment collects a nasal swab sample as others watch after the Friday prayer at the main road at Jebaliya refugee camp, Gaza Strip, Oct. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

With little hope for a major change in the dynamic in Gaza, the IDF and the Defense Ministry’s coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT) is therefore working to improve conditions in the Strip — to a certain extent — seeing that as a way to keep the situation calm.

This includes encouraging Qatar to continue sending economic aid to the Gaza Strip and other international organizations to also provide humanitarian assistance to the beleaguered enclave.

In recent days, the Strip has seen a major spike in coronavirus cases, with nearly a quarter of tests coming back positive, bringing the total number of active cases in Gaza up to 3,806, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

The IDF believes that this figure is significantly lower than the true number, with people in Gaza too scared to get tested. Despite efforts made by Hamas and the international community to better prepare Gaza for an outbreak — nearly doubling the number of ventilators, increasing testing capability to 3,000 per day, and adding 500 hospital beds — the Strip’s health care system could easily be overrun, a situation with significant national security implications for Israel.

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