Hamas can probably still carry out attacks through its tunnels, but in no more than a handful of locations near the Gaza Strip, a senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces’ Gaza Division said Thursday. By today, about 90 percent of the known tunnels from Gaza should be destroyed, he added.
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“There’s a possibility of additional shafts, but if there are any, there are very few,” the officer said.
In the two weeks since the ground operation in Gaza began, the officer said, the IDF has dealt with 80 to 90 percent of the tunnels it knows about – tunnels Hamas spent years digging. The army plans to continue its efforts to locate and destroy the tunnels overnight, and after that, it will have “more or less completed [destroying] 90 percent of the tunnels,” he said. “We will reach [a situation where] Hamas’ ability to make use of them is very small.”
Meanwhile, the IDF Southern Command is making preparations for the defense of communities near Gaza after the operation ends. The regional councils in this area have been demanding that defenses inside their communities be beefed up.
The IDF had already begun boosting its deployment in these communities a few weeks before Operation Protective Edge began, due to intelligence warnings about a planned attack via the tunnels in the vicinity of Kerem Shalom and Sufa. It deployed additional intelligence collection devices such as radar, drones and observation balloons. It also stationed infantry forces in communities considered to be particularly at risk, changed its modus operandi near the border with Gaza and altered the way outposts near the border fence were manned.
Tanks escorting farmers
Today, with the fighting at its peak, Israeli farmers who work land near the Gaza border are sometimes taken there in a tank just to open a water valve, the officer said. Nevertheless, he stressed, the IDF has no intention of turning border communities into military outposts.
“I think that when the residents return here after the operation, they will feel safer,” he said.
The defense establishment will have to prepare for the possibility that Hamas will try to carry out attacks via the tunnels in the future, the officer added. But based on an analysis of the six tunnel attacks Hamas has tried to perpetrate in Israel over the last few weeks, the army has concluded that Hamas is more likely to target IDF forces than civilians.
The officer also expressed hope that even after Protective Edge ends, the IDF will be able to carry out pinpoint operations to deal with any tunnels discovered in the future.
“This operation has set Hamas back by four years on the issue of the tunnels,” he said. “In recent months, we’ve seen strong motivation on the organization’s part to finish digging more and more tunnels into Israeli territory." The pace of the digging, said the officer, had accelerated.
Over the next year or two, he said, the IDF will be able to detect new tunnels more effectively and “discover every route dug into Israeli territory.” Prior to the current operation, not enough “national attention” was paid to this threat, despite the discovery of several tunnels from Gaza into Israel, he said.
On Tuesday, in one of the most serious incidents of the war so far, three soldiers from the Maglan unit were killed and another 27 wounded during an IDF operation at a UNRWA clinic. The army’s subsequent analysis concluded that Hamas had planted 12 barrels of explosives underground at the site well in advance. Each barrel contained 80 kilograms of explosives, so altogether almost a ton of explosives went off under the soldiers.
But regarding Monday’s tunnel attack near Nahal Oz, which killed five soldiers and only one Hamas militant, the senior officer acknowledged that this was an IDF failure, saying the incident should have ended very differently. “Five to seven terrorists should have died; we have better capabilities than that,” he said. “I would expect an [IDF] force to be properly prepared, and that the [intelligence] collection network would be bolstered by lookouts in this sector.”
The entire incident lasted less than seven minutes, during which the Palestinians tried to snatch the soldiers’ bodies. Searches conducted after the battle found a bulletproof vest belonging to one Hamas operative, and the IDF said the soldier on guard in the pillbox, who wounded this militant, thereby prevented the planned abduction of the bodies from taking place.
Another attack, on July 7, in which 13 terrorists infiltrated into Israel via a tunnel from Gaza, was known beforehand to the IDF, who had been prepared for it due to an intelligence tip-off. As soon as the first militant was spotted emerging from the tunnel, the patrol was ordered to turn back. An air force jet on standby due to the advance warning then bombed the tunnel, killing some of the Hamas men.
The Gaza Division officer said Hamas has been preparing for this war – which it initially termed “the June war” and then “the wrath of July” – since late 2013. Consequently, the IDF had also been preparing, with orders coming down from the chief of staff to get ready for a possible round of fighting against Hamas in July.