The head of the army sought to downplay concerns over the threat of Hamas tunnels infiltrating Israel to Gaza Wednesday, while admitting for the first time that the military is destroying the subterranean passages with ground-penetrating bombs fired from afar.
Army chief Gadi Eisenkot told lawmakers that while the tunnel threat was important, the Jewish state was not at risk of being subsumed by Hamas fighters infiltrating from Gaza.
“The underground threat is most serious, and that is how we treat it. But I don’t think it’s right to define them as an existential or strategic threat, and intimidate ourselves,” he said.
“We have many threats,” he added.
Eisenkot was called to the Knesset’s State Control Committee in order to discuss a scathing report by the State Comptroller’s Office about the 2014 Gaza war that accused the military of being insufficiently prepared to face the Hamas tunnel threat.
Eisenkot told the lawmakers that the military has thus far invested over NIS 4 billion ($1.1 billion) in shoring up Israel’s underground defenses.
He said that reprisal attacks launched by Israel in response to rocket fire were not targeting “sand dunes and empty bunkers,” but rather were actively thwarting the tunnels, admitting for the first time that the army has the technology to do so.
“Every missile or shell was fired was at a valuable target, at underground targets,” Eisenkot said. “We have developed a capability that allows us to strike them.”
He added that Israel also targets weapons caches and other Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip.
Eisenkot appeared to be specifically referring to two large-scale bombardments by the Israeli Air Force in response to rocket fire from Gaza.
In October and August, an Israeli military official said the army had targeted “key Hamas strategic assets” after rockets were launched at Israel.
In the August incident, the IAF said it conducted approximately 50 strikes in Gaza.
The October retaliatory bombardment was smaller, targeting “a number of terror installations belonging to the Hamas terror group.”
The military chief acknowledged that the army did have room to improve — a sentiment he also expressed when the comptroller report was published last month.
“The army has never faced a subterranean challenge with the scope and depth of what we uncovered during Operation Protective Edge,” he said, using Israel’s name for the 2014 war.
“We dealt with more than 30 attack tunnels, a third of which penetrated our territory. As a result of those capabilities, the Hamas organization managed to kill 13 soldiers and carry out activities [inside Israel],” Eisenkot said.
That threat is a clear one and one does not need to “exaggerate words and headlines” in order to see it, he added.
The origin of the tunnels — both the ones in Gaza and on Israel’s northern borders — is the Iranian regime, Eisenkot charged.
In 2016 the army invested an additional NIS 1.2 billion ($330 million) in combating the underground threat — on top of the NIS 3 billion ($830 million) that the security cabinet already approved for a security barrier along the Gaza border. Details of efforts to thwart the tunnels are still mostly kept secret.
“We prioritized the subterranean mission at the top of the IDF’s list. We directed units [to the problem] and carried out operations,” the army chief said.
Eisenkot said the details of those operations would be discussed at the portion of the Knesset committee meeting that would be held behind closed doors.
The army chief noted that in addition to the IDF’s efforts to specifically counter Hamas tunnels, the military had also made efforts to increase its general preparedness, citing a surprise exercise for reserve soldiers held earlier in the week.
Israel has fought three major rounds of conflict with Hamas since the Islamist terror group seized control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah in 2007.
The most recent such conflict, Operation Protective Edge, saw 50 days of fighting, including a ground offensive.
During the operation, the army found and damaged 34 Hamas tunnels, 14 of them crossing into Israel. The rest were inside Gaza, for use as bunkers and means of transportation around the Strip.
In all, 74 Israelis were killed, 68 of them soldiers. Thousands of rockets and mortar shells were fired by Hamas and other Islamic terror groups at Israeli towns and cities, where damage was limited by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
The UN and Palestinians said 2,251 Palestinians, including 551 children, died in Gaza, where Israel’s counterstrikes caused widespread devastation. Israel said that up to half of those killed on the Palestinian side were combatants, and blamed the civilian death toll on Hamas for deliberately placing rocket launchers, tunnels and other military installations among civilians.
Israel says Hamas, which avowedly seeks Israel’s destruction, has since rebuilt larger rocket arsenals capable of hitting the entire country, and is again digging attack tunnels.
Israel is now drawing up contingency plans to evacuate up to a quarter-million civilians from border communities to protect them from attacks from Hamas, Hezbollah or other terror groups, it was reported Tuesday.