Israeli Oversight Lets Hamas Build Tunnels, New Reports Reveal

Yaniv Kubovich
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An Israeli army officer in a tunnel allegedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks, at the Israel-Gaza Border, in 2014.
An Israeli army officer in a tunnel allegedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks, at the Israel-Gaza Border, in 2014.Credit: Jack Guez / AP
Yaniv Kubovich

Israel's supervision of the equipment and materials that enter the Gaza Strip for humanitarian reasons is flawed and has enabled Hamas to build attack tunnels, reports released by the defense establishment show.

The reports, which deal with Hamas empowerment and were presented recently to security and political officials, state that the oversight problems stem from reduced manpower for the oversight units and problematic behavior within them.

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The reports also say that the lack of a state budget led to a freeze in funding to strengthen these oversight units, undermining their enforcement ability and allowing Hamas to build hundreds of kilometers of tunnels the length and breadth of the Gaza Strip.

Without a swift correction of the situation, Hamas will have no problem repairing its “metro,” which was only partially destroyed during Operation Guardian of the Walls last month.

“There is no project in Gaza that (Hamas leader Yahya) Sinwar doesn’t sign off on, approve. No truck enters from Israel or Egypt without the approval of senior Hamas figures, who understand that this is their main smuggling route,” said a source in one of the ministries involved in the surveillance apparatus.

Trucks transporting humanitarian equipment to Gaza at the Kerem Shalom crossing last month.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“The Hamas tunnels were built with materials that entered from Israel, we can say that now with certainty,” he added. “Without strengthening COGAT’s (Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) operations in Gaza, the rebuilding of the tunnels that were damaged in Operation Guardian of the Walls will begin soon, when the new government decides to continue the arrangement and rehabilitate Gaza. There is no doubt that this is anarchy.”

As part of understandings reached by the two sides to end that operation, the defense establishment set up a team to establish a supervision unit for transferring equipment, cement, metals and other materials that would bypass Hamas. A similar unit, called Shofar, was set up in 2014 after Operation Protective Edge between the United Nations, Palestinian Authority and Israel. Its aim was to allow the entrance of construction materials into Gaza so that destroyed structures could be rebuilt, while ensuring that Hamas didn’t divert them to tunnel building and increasing its military strength.

From the start of Operation Guardian of the Walls, the government and military realized that despite the Shofar mechanism, Hamas had managed to build its warren of tunnels and significantly increase its array of rockets. The reports say that most of the material Hamas used came in through Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing; only a small portion was transported from Egypt via the Rafah Crossing.

The Shofar mechanism was meant to monitor more than 120,000 buildings and infrastructure installations that had been damaged in Gaza since 2014 and needed repair. Every rehabilitation project must go through the mechanism.

Buildings demolished in Gaza last month.Credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

First, a request is sent to the Israeli representative in COGAT, which is required to confirm that it’s a humanitarian project. The plans are then forwarded to the Palestinian representative in the system, Hussein al-Sheikh, the PA minister for civilian affairs and the PA’s liaison with Israel. Then the plans go to the UN, which gives its approval to COGAT. It then examines the order for material to see if these are indeed the quantities being transferred to Gaza, and that no dual-use materials are being transferred that Hamas could use for its own purposes.

In recent years, political figures have worked to weaken the status of COGAT’s Gaza Strip Rehabilitation and Oversight Department. Budgets weren’t transferred, appointments to expand the system as its needs grew weren’t approved, and a number of controversial appointments and flawed priorities led to erosion of the unit, to the point that in recent years it has struggled to function.

The current head of the department is a young second lieutenant who only recently completed an officers’ course and isn’t considered experienced enough to manage the huge scope of projects and materials he’s meant to oversee. Nor are the construction, electric and materials engineers once employed by the department working there anymore. This made Israel’s part of the unit incapable of doing its job properly, and Hamas knew how to exploit this.

“What’s going on there is a crime,” said a source who was once part of the Shofar mechanism. He claims that several people on various occasions issued warnings about how things were being managed.

“Even the smallest project, like a school or a clinic, requires tens to hundreds of tons of incoming materials – iron, concrete, electric (equipment), etc.,” he said. “When a second lieutenant is presented with a bill of quantities, does he know if 80 tons of iron are needed or 50 tons? Does he know if metal pipes are needed for sewage systems or plastic pipes? Does he know if the machine that Israel lets into Gaza for agriculture, textile or food production can also be used in the rocket production process? This is an issue for professionals, for serious engineers. But someone decided to ignore the issue and let COGAT deal with it on its own.”

A civilian source familiar with the issues and who has seen the recent reports told Haaretz: “Everyone knows the issue, all the government ministries that should have been involved know about it. We warned about this situation, but nothing was done to strengthen COGAT.”

The reports estimate that in 2020 alone, irregular quantities of tens of thousands of tons of iron were reported being transferred for hundreds of projects underway in Gaza as part of the arrangement. A former senior security official who is very familiar with the issue told Haaretz that these anomalies were usually caught by the UN, which identifies discrepancies between the quantities that are supposed to enter and those that have entered.

According to this source, “In every project in Gaza, the contractors are required to place cameras to document the site, but the one officially overseeing the documentation is the UN, which has only a few foreign workers employed there; the rest are all Gazans employed by the UN.”

He also says the Rafah crossing is a weak point. “An average of 160 trucks pass through Rafah every day, and it’s difficult to know what they are carrying,” he says. “Every day that the Kerem Shalom crossing is closed, materials like cement, iron and heavy mechanical equipment pass through the Rafah crossing.”

Southern Command officials are well aware of the problems, and requests have been made in the past to strengthen the mechanism, based on the knowledge that Hamas is aware of the breaches in the oversight process and is using them to build tunnels and manufacture weapons.

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