Analysis |

After Years of Neglect, Israel Forced to Address Tunnel Issue

Israel should grant a generous civilian concession to Hamas for a cease-fire, finish destroying the tunnels and get out of Gaza.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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In this image made with a long exposure, the sky and the city are lit by Israeli forces' flares in the northern Gaza Strip, July 18, 2014.
In this image made with a long exposure, the sky and the city are lit by Israeli forces' flares in the northern Gaza Strip, July 18, 2014.Credit: AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

During one of the hardest moments of the Yom Kippur War, on a front in the Golan Heights, a senior officer and a soldier from the 188 Armored Corps division were killed. On Saturday, near Ein Hashlosha, the disaster almost repeated itself. Two soldiers were killed by Hamas fire and other officers were wounded, with varying degrees of severity. We can imagine Hamas’ glee and self-congratulation if senior officers had been added to the list of casualties, all because of one unit that infiltrated Israel through a single tunnel.

The Israel Defense Forces elected to describe the event in positive terms, as thwarting a mass terror attack on a military or civilian target. But the reality behind the kudos is deeply worrying. Just eight months ago the Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, decided to put an end to the innumerable, overlapping ways the tunnels were being handled and cast responsibility for them on the head of Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Sammy Turgeman. The ground forces (including the Engineering Corps), R&D units and intelligence, including its data collection and technology divisions, were harnessed to the mission, led by Turgeman. That ended almost eight years that had been partly frittered away since one of Gantz’s predecessors, today the defense minister, took personal affront at criticism of the IDF’s sluggishness under his command in fighting the tunnels, and refused to devote any urgent effort to the mission.

The challenge that the tunnels presents is indeed complex. But it is not beyond the state’s ability to handle it, if it decides to give the problem national priority. Note the success of Iron Dome, which also arose despite the fierce opposition of Moshe “The Rockets Will Rust” Ya’alon. The dreadful delay in devoting effort to underground battles, despite the general understanding of the danger the tunnels pose, means that the only solution now is a broad, aggressive one. The operation in and of itself is justified and essential, but it has nothing directly to do with the aerial exchanges between Israel and Hamas over the preceding week and a half – though a surprise operation against the tunnels by the border might have provoked Hamas into firing rockets.

The campaign against the tunnels does not affect Hamas’ ability to fire rockets at Tel Aviv. Worse, the tunnel used by the 13-man Hamas unit near Kibbutz Sufa, at daybreak on Thursday, was mentioned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and diplomatic officials took pride in keeping it secret until Thursday evening. Netanyahu’s announcement said he and Ya’alon had “directed the IDF to commence a ground operation, to hit the terror tunnels crossing from Gaza into Israeli territory. Hamas terrorists infiltrated before dawn in just such a terror tunnel,” etc. The IDF, on the other hand, opted for accuracy. Regarding the purpose of the mission, its spokesman settled for “a focused operation to destroy terror infrastructure.” The word “tunnel” isn’t even mentioned.

Netanyahu may have chosen a misleading representation in order to calm down Washington, which is concerned that a ground campaign will increase the death and destruction among the Gazan civilian population. But his feint, taken with the open preparations over the last 24 hours to escalate the ground invasion of Gaza, has the whiff of a southern version of the Second Lebanon War quagmire. Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Gantz may be dragged into this kicking and screaming, but the result is dangerous – feints, the rising costs of war and with them, the intensifying determination on Hamas’ side to hold out and continue attacking.

Israel operates according to two clocks – military and diplomatic – while Hamas has its eye on the yearly calendar. Each day that passes without a resolution of the threat from Hamas – which isn’t possible without the sort of destruction the world opposes – enhances Hamas’ prestige, despite its low status in the Arab and international arenas.

The other day a senior Israeli army officer joined those recommending that Hamas be given – alongside the blows designed to make it “despair of using firepower” – a civilian achievement in the form of improved life in Gaza. Such a thing is possible, if Israel were to allow world banks to transfer from Qatar to Gaza some $20 million a month to pay government workers’ salaries. A channel available to Netanyahu for this purpose is the close working relationship between the head of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo, and his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, head of the Turkish intelligence agency MIT.

It may seem undesirable for Israel to base a cease-fire on Egypt, rival of Turkey and Qatar, but Israel needs a cease-fire right away, before it stumbles into a quagmire. It should grant a generous civilian concession to Hamas for a cease-fire, finish destroying the tunnels and get out of Gaza.

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