Until this latest war, if you asked most Israelis about the threat from Gaza, they would probably start talking about Hamas rockets.
But that has changed over the last few days of fighting, for two reasons. One, the much-heralded success of the Iron Dome missile defense system has all but neutralized Hamas’ rocket threat. Two, and far more troubling for Israelis, they have awakened to the true extent of the subterranean threat from Gaza: the tunnels that snake underneath the densely populated coastal territory into Israel proper.
The tunnels discovered so far by the Israel Defense Forces are reinforced by concrete walls and ceilings. Some are 90 feet deep and extend more than a mile in length, terminating inside Israel not far from residential neighborhoods. Israeli troops have discovered phone lines, electricity wires, pulley systems and stockpiles of explosives and weapons in the tunnels.
Many of the tunnels have multiple branches and a multitude of exit points, which explains why the precise number the IDF says it has found keeps fluctuating. As of July 22, the number was 66 access shafts among 23 tunnels.
The tunnels begin inside buildings in Gaza, where it is easy to conceal digging from outsiders, including the omnipresent Israeli drones that scrutinize goings-on in the coastal strip.
Their end points inside Israel are difficult to detect because the terminus often isn’t dug out until Hamas fighters are ready to pop up and perpetrate an attack.
Israel has yet to figure out an effective way to address the multitude of threats the tunnels present.
Hamas could use them to kidnap Israeli soldiers, as it did with Gilad Shalit in 2006, or even to kidnap civilians. Israeli troops have found Hamas infiltrators in recent days armed with tranquilizers and handcuffs for just such operations.
For its part, Hamas has made clear that one of its main goals is to pull off a successful kidnapping. An abducted Israeli could be used to bargain for the release of Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli prisons.
Infiltrators also could use the tunnels to sneak behind enemy lines and perpetrate attacks inside Israeli cities, towns or kibbutzim.
The “terror tunnels,” the IDF said in a statement, are meant “to carry out attacks such as abductions of Israeli civilians and soldiers alike, infiltrations into Israeli communities, mass murders and hostage-taking scenarios.”
With so many Israeli troops active in the area around Gaza, Hamas also is using the tunnels to ambush IDF soldiers. Four Israeli soldiers were killed July 21 after an infiltration; two died July 19 during an earlier infiltration.
For now, unlike with the rocket fire, there’s no technological fix to the tunnel problem. Instead, Israel’s primary method is decidedly low-tech.
Israeli ground troops are looking for tunnel openings in the buildings they’re searching inside Gaza. Troops in Israel near the border are mobilized and on the lookout for new infiltration attempts. Residents of the Israeli communities near the border area have been warned to stay inside on lockdown.
Before Israel launched its ground invasion on July 17, the Israeli government seemed reluctant to send troops into Gaza and pay the price in Israeli blood, Palestinian collateral damage and international censure that a ground invasion probably would entail. But now that Israel has awakened to the true extent of the tunnel threat and Israeli troops are already fighting and dying in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems determined to have the IDF destroy as many tunnels as it can.
If the war ends before the tunnel threat can be addressed adequately, the IDF’s job in Gaza will have been left unfinished. Though Israelis are agonizing over the death toll on their side — which already has exceeded the toll from the last two Gaza conflicts combined — they don’t want those soldiers to have died in vain.
With the Palestinian death toll soaring since the launch of the ground invasion, international pressure for a cease-fire is growing. On July 20, President Obama called for an “immediate cease-fire,” and the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session to demand an immediate end to the fighting. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Cairo July 21 to try to negotiate some kind of an end to the crisis.
It remains to be seen how long Netanyahu can withstand the pressure, or how the fighting that lies ahead will affect the calculus.
For its part, Hamas doesn’t appear to want to stop fighting either. It views every Israeli death as a triumph and every Palestinian civilian death as fodder with which to build international criticism of Israel.
One of the remarkable things about Israel is that even though it is buffeted by threats on nearly every side and often finds itself engaged in bloody battles, for the most part the fighting happens elsewhere — in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon.
But now the existence of tunnels through which terrorists can infiltrate the country again threatens to bring the war into Israel, and that’s a frightening thought for Israelis.
With the Israeli death toll rising fast, this war already has turned into a nightmare for many Israelis, particularly those burying their loves ones. But there’s a reason IDF troops are still pushing hard in Gaza: They’re working to avert something worse.