Analysis

Destroyed Tunnels and Border Bombs: Hamas and Israel Dangerously Close to Another Gaza War

It would take only one mass-casualty incident – either a Palestinian terror attack or an Israeli operation – to spark a broader military clash

The site of an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, March 18, 2018.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

There’s no ignoring it: The Gaza border is heating up. The explosive device aimed at Israeli soldiers patrolling the border Saturday and the air force’s strike in response clearly show this. The background for this tension is apparently linked to the complexities of Hamas’ situation, in particular Israel’s effort to destroy Hamas’ attack tunnels.

To really understand the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

When Israel began construction of an anti-tunnel wall along the Gaza Strip about a year ago, defense officials warned that Hamas might heat up the border to disrupt the project, or might use the tunnels before they could be destroyed. Since then, the border has been more or less quiet and the intensive work on the wall has gone on uninterrupted.

Destruction of Gaza tunnels in recent months

But in recent weeks something has changed. No less than four clusters of roadside bombs have been set off against Israeli soldiers patrolling the fence. In one case, four soldiers were wounded while trying to disarm a bomb planted beside a Palestinian flag.

The army is still not saying directly who was responsible for the bombs of the past month. A few possibilities have been raised, among them extremist Salafi groups and rogue Hamas activists – or perhaps even Hamas itself planned the operations.

In any case, this kind of thing probably couldn’t keep happening without Hamas turning a blind eye, at the very least. Hamas’ “frontier defense units” control most of what goes on along the border. Hamas usually also enforces the understandings reached after Israel’s November 2012 air offensive – Operation Pillar of Defense. These understandings prohibit access to within 100 meters (328 feet) of the fence with Israel. If Palestinians are entering this zone, as part of the weekly protests each Friday and at other times, Hamas probably knows and consents to it.

Meanwhile, construction of the wall is proceeding along most of the fence. It will be completed next year at a cost of nearly 3 billion shekels ($869 million).

The tunnel near Rafiah, March 18, 2018
IDF Spokesperson
Destruction of the tunnel, March 18, 2018
IDF Spokesperson

At the same time, the army is also improving its tunnel-detection capabilities. At least four tunnels were detected and destroyed in October. The commander of the southern front, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, called the wall a “guillotine” for destroying tunnels, cutting them in the middle and putting them completely out of use. According to Palestinian reports Saturday night, a farming area east of Gaza’s Zeitoun neighborhood was bombed. Palestinian sources have used such terms in the past to describe attacks on tunnels.

In the background, Hamas’ troubles are on the rise. The attempted assassination of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah as his entourage entered Gaza last week has ratcheted up tensions between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The PA accused Hamas of compromising the security of Hamdallah and the PA’s West Bank intelligence chief, Majed Faraj. (Some of the security people riding in the entourage were lightly wounded in the blast.)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is now considering putting a more definitive stop to the transfer of funds from Ramallah to Gaza. On the Israel Television News Saturday night, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has always been suspicious of Abbas’ intentions, even accused the Palestinian president of intentionally heating things up in the Strip to drag Israel into a military confrontation with Hamas.

The bottom line is that things are escalating in Gaza. It would take only one mass-casualty incident – either a Palestinian terror attack or an Israeli operation – for the situation to deteriorate into a broader military clash. So far, Israel seems to be navigating fairly carefully. Now the need will be greater for more restraint and wisdom to prevent a real military conflict.