Discovery of Hamas Tunnel Explains the Drums of War - and Politics

Though the political rivals of Benjamin 'Mr. Security' Netanyahu have pounced on the discovery of new attack tunnels to criticize his government, the prime minister would rather put off the next confrontation. What happens next depends on Hamas' behavior.

The Israel Defense Forces looking for new tunnels at Nahal Oz, near the border with the Gaza Strip, April 18, 2016.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

After the veil of censorship was lifted on Monday morning, we can belatedly explain why the war drums suddenly started beating at the end of last week. The discovery of a Hamas attack tunnel, which had been dug a few hundred meters into Israeli territory from the southern Gaza Strip, was behind frequent media reports regarding tension along the Gaza border. One can assume that Hamas watched the Israeli efforts to locate the tunnel with interest and tension, although at this point it seems unlikely that the Israel Defense Forces’ success will lead to another military confrontation.

The IDF is not saying – and may not know – whether the tunnel it found between Sufa and Holit had survived Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, whether it is an extension of a tunnel that had been started previously, or whether it’s totally new.

Intelligence and technological prowess notwithstanding, the discovery of the tunnel actually poses a problem. If this is indeed an old tunnel, then the government declaration that Israel had located and destroyed all the attack tunnels by the end of the 2014 war was unfounded, and merely reflected the public’s desire to end the war and hear that the mission to eradicate the tunnels was successful.

If the tunnel was dug recently, or even if only the part east of the border fence is new, it proves that Israel’s last military operation didn’t convince Hamas to stop taking such risks, and that it still sees the tunnels as a primary method of attack in the future.

The exposure of the tunnel is also politically charged. Within 24 hours at the beginning of last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arranged victory appearances for himself in two key security arenas. The first was at the weekly cabinet meeting, in which he cited the sharp drop in the number of attacks being committed by Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem. He attributed this to his government’s leadership and the effectiveness of the security forces. The next day, during a visit to a paratroopers reservists’ exercise on the Golan Heights, he saw fit to reveal that Israel had launched dozens of attacks in recent years to prevent the smuggling of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

He made these remarks, it seems, to strengthen his image as “Mr. Security,” to fend off the complaints about the lengthy period of stabbing and car-ramming attacks, and to dim the harsh impression that many of his voters got from his initial condemnation of the shooting by the soldier in Hebron last month (damage that he tried to repair with his exceptional phone call to the detained soldier’s father).

But if he can talk tough and display strength on the Golan and in the West Bank, what will the premier do on the Gaza border, where Hamas is showing contempt for Israel’s sovereignty and digging under the border fence into our territory? It’s a weak spot that Netanyahu’s political rivals have pounced upon.

And it wasn’t just Naftali Bennett – although the Habayit Hayehudi leader hastened to issue an apocalyptic statement entitled, “That which we most feared has happened,” in which he called for taking “all action necessary” to prevent a “Yom Kippur of terror” scenario. Members of Yesh Atid and Zionist Union, senior and junior alike, competed to issue militant messages that condemned the government’s inaction against the Gaza tunnel threat.

Bennett is one thing, but the opposition MKs are playing a dangerous game here. The prime minister’s reluctance to take military gambles is known, but he is also very attentive to possible political damage. In November 2012, under the combined threat of Hamas provocations and an election campaign in which he was attacked for neglecting the Gaza border community residents, Netanyahu launched Operation Pillar of Defense, a limited campaign in Gaza.

Operation Protective Edge, which followed 18 months later, has subsequently been explained as the result of a mutual miscalculation by both Israel and Hamas. But its launch was also influenced by the public mood after the kidnapping and murder of three hitchhiking Israeli youths in Gush Etzion.

This time, it appears that Netanyahu sees eye-to-eye with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and the senior IDF brass, who prefer to put off the next confrontation for as long as possible. But a lot of what happens next will depend on Hamas’ behavior.

The Israeli assessment is that Hamas’ political leadership, particularly the Qatar-based Khaled Meshal, isn’t interested in another war right now. The risk lies with the heads of the organization’s military wing – Yahya Sanwar, Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa – whose relationship with the political leadership is tense and who don’t necessarily submit unquestioningly to its authority. From the military wing’s perspective, the advantage of surprise that Hamas had in the summer of 2014 was squandered because its campaign was unnecessarily delayed by the political leadership.

This military troika is liable to have another consideration for launching a war: the fear that Israel has indeed found a technological solution that will lead to the systematic destruction of Hamas’ attack tunnel network. And hovering in the background is the deteriorating economic situation in the Strip. At what point will the living conditions there – a near-complete closure of the Rafah crossing by the Egyptians; high unemployment; lengthy electrical outages; spotty water supply; crumbling sewerage infrastructure – become unbearable enough to spur Hamas to act? Right now, it doesn’t seem as if a critical mass has been reached that will lead to an outburst – but it’s clear Israel is working on borrowed time.