Hamas Tunnel Threat Burrows Into Minds of Israeli Military, Political Leaders

Hamas may have told Israel it isn’t looking for another war in Gaza, but it’s clearly desperate to advance its attack tunnels. It’s also delighted to be sowing seeds of discontent and concern among the Israeli public.

Drilling machines search for Hamas tunnels on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza, February 11, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

Security cameras at the Kerem Shalom crossing, at the southern corner of Israel’s perimeter with the Gaza Strip, constantly scan Palestinian areas across the border. A few hundred meters to the north, one can see the place where in July 2014 the Israel Air Force bombed a tunnel Hamas had prepared for a terrorist attack. Seven of the group’s operatives were killed and the incident launched Operation Protective Edge, the last round of hostilities between the two sides.

A bit further to the north, at the kibbutz for which the crossing is named, there is an observation point that was attacked in June 2006. Then, Hamas militants emerged from a tunnel and attacked several military targets from the rear, including a tank. Two of its crew members were killed and the third, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, was captured.

The crossing is in many ways the last lifeline for the Gaza Strip, where 1.8 people live in an impossible vise, caught between onerous economic conditions, external pressure by Israel and Egypt, and a harsh, oppressive regime. Every day, an average of 850 trucks from Israel and the West Bank cross here, bringing supplies to Gaza. The annual flow more than doubled in 2015, compared to the previous year. Half of the supplies are needed for daily life. The other half includes mainly construction materials intended for the rehabilitation of Gaza. In the last few months, 1.5 million tons of such matériel has crossed over from Israel.

In those same months, a large sand dune has risen on the eastern outskirts of Rafah, two kilometers (1.25 miles) from the crossing. Many of the building materials are unloaded there and don’t reach their intended destinations (civilian construction site). It’s quite possible this is the place where Hamas lays its hands on the materials it needs for its flagship project – the tunnel industry.

Preemptive strike?

This past week, again, Hamas’ tunnel project was the focus of much attention for Israel’s intelligence agencies. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot even expressed this publicly on Tuesday, during his lecture at an evening dedicated to late army chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. Eisenkot said dealing with the tunnels was the IDF’s primary task last year, and will continue to be so in 2016.

He revealed that nearly 100 pieces of heavy engineering equipment are currently trying to locate tunnels along the border. He also reminded listeners that the search for a solution to the problem had begun after that first tunnel attack in 2006. (Eisenkot suffered a rare lapse of memory here, since a Hamas squad had already entered the Israeli side of the Erez border crossing in January 2004, killing a reserve soldier.) As the chief of staff was speaking at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a skinny student wearing glasses passed by in a nearby hallway – Gilad Shalit himself.

Eisenkot referred only in passing to a controversy that briefly roiled the political scene, following a news story on Channel 2 TV News last Monday. Reporter Amit Segal disclosed that Education Minister Naftali Bennett had proposed that the cabinet discuss the possibility of attacking Hamas’ tunnels inside Gaza. The discussion of preemptive strikes should be held in the appropriate forums, commented Eisenkot, implying that the media was not the right place.

Segal’s story did, however, reflect a wider trend: after a one-year hiatus, the tunnel issue is taking center stage again.

Alex Kolomoisky

Discussion of the issue concerns three interrelated areas. First, the question of how to deal with the current threat, based on the assessment that Hamas has succeeded in rehabilitating its attack tunnel network, with several of these possibly already reaching into Israel. Bennett, apparently, is again recommending an aggressive initiative, a proposal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon are opposing for now – out of concern that it would most likely lead to another extensive round of hostilities.

The second issue relates to advancing defensive solutions to the tunnel problem. The defense establishment has already formulated a technological method to detect the tunnels, as well as an estimate of how much it would cost (2.6-2.8 billion shekels – $670-720 million). It hasn’t yet been determined where this money would come from, and a binding timetable hasn’t been defined.

The government is being assailed on this issue by opposition party Yesh Atid, particularly MKs Haim Jelin (a resident of the Gaza border area and head of the State Control Committee) and Karin Elharrar. They oppose unnecessary delays that they say could lead to bloodshed.

A watchdog with teeth

The third issue is the start of the debate about the state comptroller’s report into the government’s previous response to the tunnels. A draft of the report was sent to the offices of senior cabinet members last week. Joseph Shapira was primarily chosen as state comptroller for the expectation that he would be lenient on the rulers. But a sharp response to the report from Netanyahu’s mouthpiece – aka the free daily newspaper Israel Hayom – attests to the fact that there’s real concern over issues at the prime minister’s residence, especially after this week’s courtroom victory for former residence manager Meni Naftali (who was awarded 170,000 shekels in a civil case after a judge found that the Netanyahus had violated his employee rights).

The draft report sent by Shapira doesn’t deal in detail with the cabinet’s conduct regarding the tunnels. Nonetheless, he seems to have grown some teeth. Shapira’s sharp tone is causing concern not only to Netanyahu but within other senior bureaus, including ones of former and current IDF generals.

After Netanyahu issued a public threat to Hamas regarding the tunnels at the end of last month, the organization’s leadership transmitted a message to Israel, through Egypt and Qatar, indicating that it had no wish to launch another war. Senior Hamas officials repeated this in conversations with journalists this week. Israel also sent similar messages in briefings given to media outlets.

Despite this, the high frequency of collapsing tunnels – another militant was killed Tuesday following the fourth-such collapse in recent weeks – reflects an intensified Hamas effort to excavate tunnels, not only the hazardous winter weather. Israel has cause to be jittery, given that its intelligence assessments regarding developments in the Gaza Strip have been proven wrong before (particularly with regard to the frequent assessments of impending cease-fires during the last war – Military Intelligence repeatedly forecast a desire by Hamas to end the fighting, but the group somehow chose to ignore these assessments).

Hamas continues to dig tunnels – as was forecast at the end of Operation Protective Edge in August 2014 – because they give it an operative advantage with strategic potential. In defense, they grant it mobility and survivability. In offense, meanwhile, they afford it the capacity to transfer forces to the Israeli side, bypassing the border fence and Israel’s technological superiority in a head-to-head ground confrontation. Thus, there is no chance the organization will relinquish this option for now.

However, the decision to make use of its tunnels is another matter. Their advantage lies in the surprise component. As soon as a tunnel is known to the IDF, it will be hard to use in a surprise attack. Hamas can use a tunnel in a focused attack or initiate a simultaneous attack through several tunnels. The goal is clear: a killing spree in a settlement or an IDF outpost near the border, with top priority given to taking hostages. This is an area Hamas identifies as an Israeli weak spot (a lesson learned in the Shalit affair, although it seems Israeli public sentiment has changed since then given the number of prisoners released – 1,027 – in exchange for one Israeli soldier). Hamas believes that such a scenario will allow it to deal with a problem that weighs heavily on Palestinians: the prolonged incarceration of thousands of prisoners in Israel.

Even now, the prolonged tunnel discussions in the Israeli media benefit Hamas. It undermines the sense of security among Israeli residents along the border, and sows divisions in the already problematic issue of trust between politicians and the defense establishment.

Just like on the eve of Operation Protective Edge 19 months ago, one of the difficulties facing Israel is the fact that intelligence warnings are not necessarily precise or clear-cut, and in many case are open to interpretation – including a potential series of misunderstandings between the two sides.

The most effective way for Israel to neutralize Hamas’ offensive tool, without getting bogged down in an all-out war in Gaza, will be to create and deploy a technological solution that will locate the tunnels coming up in Israeli territory. This will also involve fixing timetables.

It’s clear that constructing a border barrier, if and when approved, will take a significant amount of time. Furthermore, if Hamas’ leaders sense that Israel is about to block its greatest strategic card, they may consider it best to use their weapon before Israel removes its capabilities.