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The discovery of a tunnel along the border of the Gaza Strip seems to send Israel and Hamas back in time, to the days when military tension between them was far greater. But conditions today – the coronavirus, Hamas’ desperate need for financial aid for Gaza and Israel’s desire to secure a deal for the return of its missing and captive soldiers and civilians – are completely different.
Consequently, there’s a reasonable chance that despite the important military asset the Palestinians have lost, the tunnel’s discovery won’t lead to a violent escalation.
Israel began building its anti-tunnel barrier on the Gaza border in 2017, as a belated lesson from the surprise of Hamas’ tunnels during Operation Protection Edge in the summer of 2014. Most of the barrier, both above and below ground, is already finished, and it’s slated to be completely done by March 2021.
The cost, at around three billion shekels ($890 million), has been enormous. It’s hard to imagine the army getting approval for such an outlay – most of which was on top of the regular defense budget – during the current economic crisis.
But even while still under construction, the barrier has begun repaying this investment. To date, around 20 tunnels have been discovered, some of them thanks to technologies deployed while building the barrier. That’s what happened with the latest tunnel, which was dug from a point east of Khan Yunis to one near Kissufim, inside Israel.
The tunnel, which was comparatively deep underground, penetrated a few dozen meters into Israel, but it didn’t get past the barrier. Instead, it runs along the border, and in some places a bit east of it. And since it didn’t pass the barrier, it posed no danger to Israeli communities in the area, which are on the barrier’s other side.
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Israel Defense Forces Spokesman Hidai Zilberman said Tuesday night that the tunnel seems to have been a work in progress and was discovered before it was finished. In other words, this is a relatively new tunnel that has been built over the past few years, despite construction of the barrier on Israel’s side of the border.
Zilberman declined to identify the organization that dug it, saying intelligence hasn’t yet provided a definitive answer. But it’s reasonable to assume that Hamas was behind the project. Digging tunnels is a fairly expensive business, and of all the organizations in Gaza, the one running the government is the one most likely to be able to afford it. To date, only a few tunnels have been dug by Islamic Jihad.
As in most struggles between terrorist or guerrilla organizations and regular armies, there’s a kind of “learning competition” here, in which the weaker side tries to identify the stronger side’s weak points and the stronger side tries to correct them. That’s what has happened in Gaza for years.
Until 2011, rockets were the main weapon of the Palestinian organizations in Gaza. But the moment the Iron Dome antimissile system entered operation and it became clear that the IDF could intercept most launches at populated areas of southern Israel, the Palestinians began working on alternatives.
Though they have enjoyed only partial success, they did manage to penetrate Israel through several tunnels and kill soldiers during Protective Edge. That operation, which began in response to rocket fire, later morphed into an anti-tunnel operation. By its end, around 30 tunnels had been located and destroyed.
As noted, another 20 tunnels were discovered while the barrier was being built, and its completion is expected to make it hard for additional tunnels to penetrate Israel. But it’s clear that organizations in Gaza are already working on alternative weapons that could bypass Israel’s defensive deployment. Among other things, they will presumably try to exploit the skies through increased use of drones.
For now, however, Israeli intelligence thinks that most of Hamas’ military efforts are aimed at building up its forces – that is, preparing them for a future conflict – rather than a near-term escalation with Israel. As 2020 draws to a close, it seems that at least for the near future, Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has made a strategic choice. He wants to improve the desperate situation of Gaza’s residents, and he’s focused on doing so through economic means.
Sinwar wants to secure ongoing aid from Qatar beyond the $30 million a month it has promised to give to Gaza through the end of this year. And the entry of new/old players like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia might produce additional sources of income.
To the outside world, Israel is careful to strike a hardline pose against Hamas. But looking back over the years, an open strategic preference is apparent: Successive Netanyahu governments have preferred to manage the conflict against Hamas while avoiding more costly clashes insofar as possible, even if the latter might have produced a fundamental change in the situation.
Now, given the combination of the distress caused by the coronavirus and the distress of the families of Israel’s MIAs and captives in Gaza, there is seemingly an opportunity to reach an agreement that would ensure longer-term quiet in the Gaza Strip. Defense officials, and especially IDF officers, favor approving large-scale infrastructure projects in Gaza in the hopes of achieving a long-term cease-fire.
But the government, preoccupied by the coronavirus and riven by the political crisis, has so far been hard-pressed to authorize any move that could lead to that result, especially if it requires freeing Palestinian prisoners.