Israel and Hamas Are in an Underground Race Against Time in Gaza

Frequent accidents suggest the militant group is in a rush to build its attack tunnels, while Israel is stepping up efforts to thwart the threat; But a new war in Gaza isn't yet inevitable.

Hamas operatives inside an underground tunnel in Gaza on August 18, 2014.
Mohammed Salem, Reuters

Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Sheikh Ismail Haniyeh, was forced to reveal a small part of his group’s intentions on Friday, following the collapse of a tunnel that killed at least seven members of its military wing.

In his Al-Omari Mosque speech eulogizing the dead, Haniyeh said the military wing had dug tunnels around Gaza “in order to defend the Palestinian people and liberate the holy sites.” He also took pride that the tunnels were “double the length” of those dug in the Vietnam War, and explained that the present period of calm was not a time of rest in Gaza, but is being exploited by Hamas fighters making preparations for the next military campaign.

Haniyeh claimed the tunnels delivered “a strategic victory” over Israel during the last war (Operation Protective Edge) in the summer of 2014. He praised the fighters of “eastern Gaza” who are busy digging tunnels into Israeli enemy, while in “western Gaza” they are continuing their daily trials of firing rockets into the Mediterranean.

Last week’s dead included three members of Hamas’ elite unit for fighting in the tunnels, according to media reports. They weren’t the first to die in such circumstances. Over the past year, at least 12 militants have died in tunnel accidents, with four still missing from Wednesday’s reported incident.

In recent weeks – since Haaretz’s first report about Hamas rebuilding its network of attack tunnels – the two sides have traded statements. Senior Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and Education Minister Naftali Bennett (who is a member of the security cabinet), have commented on the possibility that Hamas will again attack via the tunnels.

“Hamas is ready for the next round,” an officer from the IDF’s Gaza Division told residents from a regional council in the Gaza border region. Hamas responded with threats via the Palestinian press.

What’s happening on the ground is equally interesting. The large number of accidents and problems Hamas has run into underground could show that someone in Hamas is in a rush to prepare their offensive tools ahead of a possible decision on an attack. On the Israeli side, last week we saw pictures of intensive efforts to locate such tunnels east of the border with Gaza.

It would appear the two sides are in a race against time: Hamas is in a hurry to finish its preparations, while Israel wants to locate the attack tunnels that Hamas may use in the not-so-distant future.

Hamas’ intention to restart its tunnel network was clear as soon as Operation Protective Edge ended, in August 2014. It refused all attempts at brokering a deal that would remove the blockade on Gaza in return for its disarmament – which would have included ending arms smuggling and tunneling. As Haniyeh seemed to say on Friday, the tunnels are an essential strategic card in every round of fighting with Israel.

Retrospective analysis of the 2014 war shows that the attacks through the tunnels – and the entry of IDF troops into the outskirts of Gaza to demolish them – led to most of the casualties on the Israeli side.

Israel has found an effective defensive solution to most of the rockets fired by Hamas with its Iron Dome interception system. Most of the other casualties were the result of mortar fire at communities close to Gaza, for which there was no technological solution at the time.

Since then, it can be assumed that Hamas’ dependence on the tunnels as an offensive weapon has only grown. At first, there was the crisis with Iran, Hamas’ main weapons supplier (a split that has since been partially healed), and later Egypt began destroying and flooding the smuggling tunnels under Rafah. That’s why Hamas has been forced to rely mostly on its own production of homemade rockets, whose range is limited and damage-potential comparatively minor.

In a possible future confrontation, it can be assumed that the organization will try to initiate other surprises – as it did a year and a half ago when it tried to attack using drones and its naval commandos. But Israel proved its ability to prevent such attacks in 2014. Also, a few months ago the Egyptians arrested four Hamas naval commandos in Sinai, on their way to training overseas – which most likely seriously damaged the unit’s operational capabilities.

In its military thinking, it seems Hamas is coming close to the same operational ideas that Hezbollah reached after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, even if they have not all been implemented yet. Declarations by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and other senior members have emphasized the need to open with a surprise move that would put the organization in a clear position of superiority from the start.

Hamas didn’t succeed in creating such a surprise in 2014, because the war broke out after a week of escalation along the Gaza border. This started after the murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank by a Hamas cell.

If Hamas' military wing decides to launch an attack, it may try to leave the political leadership out of the loop due to concerns its maneuvers would be otherwise mitigated, and to ensure Israel doesn't discover the plans. 

The drawbacks of such a maneuver for Hamas are fairly clear. The Gaza Strip has yet to recuperate from the destruction caused by the last war with Israel; thousands of homes remain to be rebuilt. Another round would cause even greater harm. The IDF's military and intelligence advantage is obvious, and without a major stockpile of precise and lethal rockets, the extent of the damage Hamas would cause Israel's home front is likely to be limited. But the siege on Gaza, alongside the political constraints Hamas is experiencing, may spur it into action, especially if the military leadership is tempted to believe that kidnapping Israelis would force Israel to agree to another prisoner swap. 

Two occurrences may speed up the deterioration in Gaza. One is an effort by Hamas to carry out a pre-emptive strike through several tunnels at once, for fear that Israel would discover and destroy the underground paths. The second is a successful effort to carry out major terror attacks in the West Bank and in Israel proper, which would provoke Israel to strike Gaza. But a new war in Gaza isn't yet inevitable. Preventing it from breaking out depends in part on the Israeli side, in measured conduct on the part of its political leaders as well as the success of the IDF and the Shin Bet to thwart Hamas' attacks.