Tensions in Gaza Are Rising as Israel Gains Edge Over Hamas Tunnels

Hamas is under pressure twice over, from both the worsening domestic situation in the Strip and the militant organization potentially losing its main threat against Israel.

Palestinian Hamas militants march in front of a mock burnt Israeli bus during an anti-Israel rally in Gaza city April 28, 2016.
Reuters

The Gaza Strip is once again simmering. Two weeks after the Israel Defense Forces announced the discovery of a Hamas attack tunnel that crossed the border and emerged near Kibbutz Holit, tensions along the border remain high.

On Tuesday, Israeli army vehicles near the northern section of the Gaza-Israel border were hit by small-arms fire from the Strip. There were no casualties, but this happened just a few hours after the prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff had ended a visit to the southern section of the border. The shots were apparently fired by members of a Salafi organization, in violation of the orders from Gaza’s Hamas government to avoid direct military conflict with Israel.

But even though Hamas has deployed hundreds of people along the border to prevent attacks on Israel, it also continues to threaten Israel. At a rally in Gaza last Thursday, a Hamas spokesman declared “for the last time” that “the choice is ending the siege of Gaza or an explosion.”

Hamas has also launched a billboard campaign with similar messages. One billboard informs Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Hebrew that “your soldiers are still in Gaza.” It shows Netanyahu’s picture alongside pictures of two soldiers killed in Gaza in 2014 whose bodies Hamas still holds, and two civilians the organization seized after they entered Gaza.

Other billboards show Hamas’ military wing conducting exercises “behind enemy lines,” or pictures of a missile with the caption “the Qassam threat.”

Hamas is under pressure twice over. First, its domestic situation in Gaza is difficult.

Hamas has had trouble providing even a minimal level of basic services like electricity, water and sewage; it also hasn’t managed to improve its tense relationship with Egypt.

Second, Israel says it has developed new technology for locating Hamas tunnels. Since the last Gaza war ended in the summer of 2014, Israel has invested some 600 million shekels ($160 million) in developing this technology, and that number is expected to grow. Moreover, Washington has promised it an annual special grant of $120 million for the next three years for the same purpose.

In the last war, the tunnels were Hamas’ biggest success. Its massive rocket fire at Israel was ineffective, causing limited casualties, because most of the rockets either landed on open ground or were shot down by the Iron Dome antimissile system. Its most lethal weapon actually proved to be short-range mortar shells, which it fired at kibbutzim and army staging areas near the border.

The attack tunnels, in contrast, surprised Israel, embarrassed the IDF and caused casualties. These tunnels will also apparently be Hamas’ main weapon in the next war; hence its massive investment of money and manpower in rebuilding its tunnel network.

The prospect of an Israeli technology capable of detecting the tunnels thus threatens both its future achievements and its fighting ethos, which may be one reason for its renewed threats against Israel. But these threats are also a message from Hamas’ military wing to its political leadership, which opposes another war.

None of these developments will necessarily lead to another round of fighting, but they are raising tensions on both sides of the border in the run-up to Israel’s Independence Day next week. And Israeli nerves are further stretched by continued attacks in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The number of such attacks is small compared to a few months ago, but they will continue to happen occasionally despite increased efforts to prevent them by both the IDF and the Palestinian Authority security services.