Analysis

With Gaza Attack Tunnels on Israel's Radar, Hamas Eyes New Ways to Wage War

The Israeli army's tunnel-busting capability and the construction of an underground barrier has Hamas hesitating over its tactics

The cross-border attack tunnel that Israel destroyed in October.
\ Ilan Assayag

In September 2005, the commander of the Gaza Division, Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi (now a major general and deputy chief of staff), was the last Israeli to leave Gaza after the disengagement was completed. Kochavi closed the gate behind him at the Kissufim crossing, which has since become a checkpoint. Those few Palestinians permitted to leave the Strip for Israel or the West Bank do so only through the Erez crossing.

Last October, under the nose of an Israel Defense Forces observation post that remained at the site that had been the crossing, the army uncovered a tunnel that the Islamic Jihad had dug into Israel. The invasive tunnel was located slightly south of the position, some 200 meters into Israeli territory. Its exit shaft had not yet been excavated, but the tunnel had already made its way very close to the surface. The Palestinians would have needed only a few more days to ready the tunnel for use.

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When the IDF blew up the tunnel on the Israeli side, a chain reaction brought down parts of the tunnel on the Palestinian side, and 12 Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives suffocated in the rubble. Israel recovered five of the bodies; the rest were recovered on the Gazan side of the fence.

The tunnel near Kissufim was the first of three that have been discovered in Israeli territory. Last month, according to reports in the Gaza media, a fourth tunnel was bombed from the air, near the fence on the Palestinian side.

On Thursday, the IDF for the first time invited reporters to visit the Israeli side of the Islamic Jihad tunnel. At its deepest point the tunnel drops 28 meters below ground; it’s pretty narrow but allows for ease of movement. In some parts of it one must bend down a bit to pass. The concrete slabs along the sides are evidence that the excavation was at a relatively advanced stage. The IDF believes that the diggers worked in shifts of dozens of men at a time, 24 hours a day, six days a week except Fridays.

The Islamic Jihad tunnel differs from the tunnel that Hamas dug underneath Kerem Shalom, which was blown up last Saturday night. There, according to photos distributed by the IDF, the tunnel was much wider, wide enough to send through a relatively large number of operatives and weapons. Based on the route of the tunnel (from Gaza, through Israel, with the exit in Egyptian territory) the army thinks this tunnel was to be used to smuggle weapons into Sinai, but it also had branches that would have enabled an attack within the crossing itself, had Hamas chosen to go that route.

The army once conducted tours like this of another tunnel, around a year before Operation Protective Edge, but the pictures and broadcasts didn’t have much of an impact on the debate in Israel. When fighting broke out in the summer of 2014, the Israeli public was surprised by the scope and sophistication of the attack tunnels. And as the State Comptroller’s Report published last year showed, the political and defense establishments didn’t address the tunnel threat seriously enough.

Other means

Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, and it seems as if Israel is better prepared now to cope with the tunnels. The effort to discover these tunnels is continuing parallel to the construction of the underground barrier. The barrier is expected to be completed in mid-2019, but the barrier and its detection systems will already be pretty effective by the end of this year.

A senior Southern Command officer said Thursday that he believes Hamas is already aware that the project in which it had invested huge sums and intense efforts over the past few years is about to go down the drain. The officer hinted that the group is already hesitating over whether to invest any more resources in attack tunnels, preferring to divert them to other means and methods, from expanding its fleet of drones to strengthening its abilities to send a commando force through the fence above ground.

The officer sounded sober and cautious regarding the pace at which Israel’s tunnel defense efforts were progressing, and stressed that in any case, so long as the underground barrier and its detection systems were not finished, there could be no talk about a hermetic solution. This sounded more reasonable than this week’s promises by politicians that the tunnel problem would be solved by the end of the year. The remarks by Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, coordinator of government activities in the territories, about the Jewish genius and the Iron Dome that would remove the tunnel threat, seemed more suited to the style of the Arabic social networks – which was in fact the media platform Mordechai used. When translated and quoted in Hebrew or English, they smack of boastfulness.

The justified pride in the Israeli technological achievement needn’t blur the full significance of the economic data from Gaza. Earlier this week Haaretz published a warning from senior defense officials about the sharp decline in living conditions there. Over the past two months the number of trucks bringing goods through the Kerem Shalom crossing has dropped nearly two-thirds, which the IDF attributes to the reduced purchasing power of Gaza residents. The ramifications of the siege can also seen on the Egyptian side. The Rafah crossing was open only 36 days last year, and on most of those days transit was restricted to those deemed “humanitarian cases.” Only 34,700 people crossed at Rafah last year, compared to 43,380 people in 2016.

A Palestinian woman feeds her daughter as they sit by a fire on a rainy day in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, January 19, 2018.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

The Gisha organization, which monitors the situation in the Strip, issued its annual report this week, which says that 2017 was the worst year for Gaza since Operation Protective Edge. The group lists a host of new restrictions on the entry of Gaza residents into Israel. For example, it now takes much longer to receive an answer to a request for an entry permit, the number of those denied entry on security grounds has risen and additional restrictions have been imposed on bringing dual-use materials (those which could also have military uses) into the Strip. The source of this limitation is the Shin Bet security service, which is concerned about Hamas attempts to smuggle weapons into Israel, sometimes by using couriers who don’t know they are being used, as well as the smuggling of weapons from the West Bank into Gaza.

In 2003, at the height of the second intifada, then Chief of General Staff Moshe Ya’alon blamed the Shin Bet for focusing solely on preventing terror while ignoring the accompanying consequences. Today, to its credit, the Shin Bet is aware of the consequences and lists them, but still gets what it wants. Disagreements between the Shin Bet and the IDF and the coordinator of government activities are generally resolved by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who tends to be stringent.

The bottom line is that proposals to ease the pressure – from letting 5,000 more Gazans enter Israel to work in the border communities (a proposal the military supports) to extending the Ashdod-Yad Mordechai railway tracks to the Erez crossing – are being held up. The reasons are many – security risks, the desire to first reach an agreement to return the soldiers’ bodies and Israeli civilians being held in Gaza, and making larger projects conditional on Palestinian Authority involvement. The discussion on improving the situation in the Strip is proceeding slowly, as if Israel has all the time in the world.

A decline in rockets, but resurgence in attacks

Given the drop in the rocket fire from the Strip over the past two weeks, the IDF believes that Hamas has re-imposed restraint on the small Salafist groups in an effort to avoid a war. At the same time, however, Hamas is actively involved in two other points of friction with Israel – the violent demonstrations near the Gaza border fence (last weekend there were 7,000 protesters) and an effort to initiate terror attacks in the West Bank.

On Wednesday night the Shin Bet tracked down the suspects in the murder of Rabbi Raziel Shevah, who was gunned down last week near the Havat Gilad outpost. A police SWAT team surrounded a line of homes in the Jenin refugee camp were there were four suspects. As the police approached one of the homes, a cell collaborator opened fire and wounded two of SWAT team members, one of them seriously. In the ensuing confrontation the collaborator was killed and two other terrorists were arrested. Yesterday it wasn’t clear if the fourth man managed to flee the scene, or was buried under the home that the IDF demolished.

Defense Minister Lieberman told Walla news that the cell had attempted a previous attack that failed. The preliminary investigation showed that the cell members, residents of the Jenin area, were members of different Islamic groups who decided to work together simply because they knew each other. But as in a few of the deadly attacks and attempted attacks in the West Bank recently, the involvement of an external command structure was evident here. The West Bank, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, is the preferred arena of operation, while the commanders are elsewhere, in Gaza or in other countries.

In the diplomatic arena there is increasing financial pressure being brought to bear on the PA, both from Israel and the United States. This month the aid budget of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has been cut and there are other initiatives afoot, like the Taylor Force Act, that seeks to further cut American financial aid, and the reduction of payments from Israel because the PA gives financial support to Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel. There are good explanations for all these initiatives, but the accumulated pressure could be catastrophic.

The incendiary speech by PA President Mahmoud Abbas earlier this week is a bad sign. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was pleased by the fact that the speech revealed what he described as the real Palestinian positions on the peace process. But Abbas is in a dangerous mood; he’s frustrated, desperate, and at the end of his political road. In the near term, even if he stays true to his promise not to return to the armed struggle, he will continue to weaken and we will see a more overt outburst of succession struggles.