Hamas' Strategic Tunnels: Millions of Dollars to Spirit Kidnapped Israelis Into Gaza

Egyptian pressure on Hamas is working to deter it from attacking Israel - for now.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

After several bloody attacks in the West Bank in recent weeks, the Israel Defense Forces announced Sunday it had uncovered a Hamas tunnel leading from Gaza into Israel, one that was planned for use in abductions.

Meanwhile, the Shin Bet security service said it solved Friday’s brutal murder of Col. (Res.) Seraiah Ofer at his Jordan Valley home, and arrested two suspects who allegedly confessed. The pair are Hebron residents who visited Ofer’s home two weeks ago, said the Shin Bet, which did not tell if the suspects planned to murder Ofer or, rather, that they killed him when he caught them in the middle of a robbery attempt. This question will probably be resolved as the investigation continues. At present it seems the motive for the murder lies somewhere between criminal and nationalist, like some of the other events in the West Bank in recent weeks.

Regarding the digging of the tunnel from Gaza, whose eastern exit is close to Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, it seems like a project that only Hamas, of all the Gaza organizations, is capable of carrying out. The work on the 1,800-meter tunnel – stretching 300 meters into Israel – lasted months and is part of a broader tunnel-building project that is estimated to have cost millions of dollars. In fact, the IDF uncovered what it calls a "shelf attack," a long-range effort by Hamas intended to be used at the right time for the organization – for an attack or an abduction that would give Hamas the means to pressure Israel.

A year ago, several days before last November’s Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip, the IDF uncovered a similar tunnel in the same area after an explosion blew up a military vehicle, moments after soldiers exited it. One must assume that Hamas initiated the construction of similar tunnels on the eastern border of the strip. On the western border, in Rafah, the Egyptians uncovered in recent months dozens of tunnels used for smuggling. Still, while the tunnels leading to Egypt were used on a daily basis, and meant to serve as Hamas' oxygen supply to the Gaza Strip – until the military coup in Cairo put an end to their use – the tunnels to Israel were aimed to achieve a different goal.

Gantz had hinted at discovery

The Gaza Palestinians were well aware of the potential value of these tunnels. When the IDF was still stationed in Gush Katif, similar tunnels were used for huge attacks from under the Israeli posts. The kidnappers of GIlad Shalit in 2006 entered Israel through a tunnel and surprised the tank crew from behind – a guerilla attack that cost Israel two deaths and the liberation of 1,027 terrorists, including dozens who had been convicted of murder. The IDF’s working assumption is that such tunnels will be made operative whenever there is an escalation in the area, whether initiated by Hamas or by Israel, and will be used for attacks and abduction attempts. If Hamas initiates such an escalation while holding several Israeli citizens or soldiers, it would be in a much stronger position.

IDF commanders believe the new tunnel was completed in July. The first opening in Israel was discovered last Monday (IDF chief Benny Gantz dropped a hint on Tuesday when, in his address at Bar-Ilan University, he spoke of the possibility that a future war would begin after "an explosives-laden tunnel would be detonated under a kindergarten near the border.") No signs were found that Hamas planned to use the tunnel in the immediate future. At the moment, at least, it seems that the pressure applied by Egypt on Hamas – by closing the Rafah crossing every so often and threatening the organization's leadership in the Gaza Strip – is succeeding in deterring Hamas from attacking Israel. Still, if Hamas decides to try to overcome its present distress by reigniting the front against Israel, using the tunnels to launch an attack could be one of its main options.

Israel has already announced in response that it would halt the entrance of concrete for private purposes, arguing that it was used for digging the tunnels. This claim isn't entirely accurate: obviously Hamas used construction materials for digging the tunnels, but this specific tunnel made use of materials smuggled from the Sinai Peninsula, before the coup in Egypt. The newly discovered tunnel was completed two months ago, according to the IDF investigation, while concrete for private use began to enter the Gaza Strip only within the past few weeks.

An IDF officer inspecting a tunnelCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
IDF soldier peers into the tunnel
IDF soldier looks into a tunnel's opening
An aerial view of the Gaza home from which the tunnel was dug
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IDF soldier peers into the tunnelCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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IDF soldier looks into a tunnel's opening Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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An aerial view of the Gaza home from which the tunnel was dugCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
The Gaza mega-tunnel

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