After investing significant resources in the construction of attack tunnels that extend from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, the Iran-backed terrorist group Hamas has successfully rebuilt an underground network that may rival the one Israel discovered and destroyed in 2014, a prominent Israeli defense analyst has said.
Amos Harel wrote in Haaretz on Tuesday that Israeli forces uncovered 32 Hamas attack tunnels during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, a third of which breached Israeli territory. “The IDF announced that it had succeeded in destroying all of these tunnels,” Harel observed, “but since the war ended, the digging has resumed. Hamas is investing great efforts and huge sums in the tunnel project. It is reasonable to assume that the number of tunnels crossing under the border is close to that on the eve of Protective Edge.”
Harel indicated that Hamas does not seem interested in pursuing another escalation with Israel at the moment, but added that two other scenarios may be driving the terrorist group’s efforts to rebuild its cross-border capabilities.
The first is that a successful Hamas attack in the West Bank will spur an Israeli response against the group in Gaza, which will lead the parties into a confrontation they don’t really want – in the same way that the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank contributed to the escalation in mid-2014. The second is that an Israeli effort to locate and destroy the tunnels will lead the heads of Hamas’ military wing – Mohammed Deif, Marwan Issa and Yahya Sanwar – to stage a preemptive strike, despite the heavy price the Strip is liable to pay.
Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in July of 2014 after Hamas terrorists kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers—Eyal Yifrah, Naftali Fraenkel, and Gilad Shaar—and launched hundreds of rockets and mortars towards major Israeli cities.
Hamas used tunnels to carry out several lethal ambushes over the course of the operation, leading the IDF to shift its focus midway and dismantle the sophisticated tunnel network that snaked underneath Gaza. During one notable assault, terrorists emerged from a tunnel near two kibbutzim and the city of Sderot. The group was detected and killed before they could reach nearby residents.
The Washington Post published an overview soon after on the resources that Hamas used to build its tunnels, observing that “while the Gaza Strip remains mired in poverty — the 2011 per capita income was $1,165 — Hamas is thought to have sunk more than $1 million into the excavation and maintenance of every tunnel.”
Jonathan Doha Halevi of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs also explained that the tunnels had changed the balance of power between Israel and Hamas.
The attack tunnels create a new equation in the power balance between Israel and Hamas. They give Hamas an ability to infiltrate Israel and carry out strategic attacks involving mass killing, along with an ability to launch missiles from locations concealed within civilian population centers that serve, in effect, as human shields. Should Hamas retain in the future 20 tunnels, and dispatch 50 operatives in each, they could deploy 1,000 men behind Israeli lines. The tunnels would allow Hamas to wreak havoc if they are left in place.
Halevi’s assessment echoed that of senior Israeli officials, with IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner telling Vanity Fair in October 2014 that Hamas “planned to send 200 terrorists armed to the teeth toward civilian populations. This was going to be a coordinated attack. The concept of operations involved 14 offensive tunnels into Israel. With at least 10 men in each tunnel, they would infiltrate and inflict mass casualties.”
Only three months after the conclusion of the 50-day conflict, Egyptian authorities warned that Hamas was already spending the equivalent of $140 million annually to rebuild its tunnel infrastructure. In December 2014, sources inside Gaza reported to Ynet that “Hamas has been commandeering building materials from Israel transferred into the Gaza Strip for reconstruction for the purpose of rebuilding its offensive ‘terror tunnels’.” Similar reports surfaced again in April, when Hamas was also said to be rearming with Iranian support.
Abd al-Rahman al-Mubasar, one of the five Hamas terrorists who guarded Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit after he was taken captive in 2006, was killed by a collapsed tunnel in Gaza last month.
Egypt has been attempting to combat Hamas tunnels out of concern that the terror group is using them to help ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula, which has been attacking Egyptian troops. Recent reports indicate that Hamas is both funding and coordinating operations with ISIS’s Sinai branch.
Cairo declared last year that it would create a buffer zone in the Sinai along its border with Gaza. It has also been flooding Hamas’ tunnels, often leading to their collapse. The Egyptian military announced the destruction of 20 newly-discovered tunnels last month.
[Photo: Israel Defense Forces / Flickr ]