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Hamas’ tunnels: new front in terror war against Israel

by uriel heilman , jta

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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.

Israeli paratroopers at the entrance of a tunnel they discovered in northern Gaza on July 18  photo/jta-flash90
Israeli paratroopers at the entrance of a tunnel they discovered in northern Gaza on July 18 photo/jta-flash90
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.


Posted by sudhama
07/25/2014  at  07:10 AM
tunels schmunnels

lol!!! so now that the world no longer believes it’s claims of threats from homemade rockets, as we saw mike bloomberg prove how safe israelis were from rockets by flying in, and essentially eating crumpets while engaging in boring political banter with wolf blitzer on a hill overlooking tel aviv - with no sirens ringing or rockets in the air, and israelis sitting on couches drinking beer and tweeting while watching palestinian children get turned into piles of blood, they try to shift to tunnels that have been there for a decade. wow, the media campaign really is different this time. we now see what israel is and we see their media shills for what they are..

that was never the case before, never. we actually used to buy this garbage.  we always just bought it hook line and sinker. the depths to which the american media lie to us is being exposed right now. thank god for the internet. if china was occupying america we’d be tunneling, launching homemade rockets and doing suicide bombings to get america back too. this is their red dawn. my only regret is ever believing the idf talking points all these years up till now.

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Posted by paul
07/25/2014  at  12:59 PM
Oh, yeah?

Are you saying that, Israel is lying? What would you do if the rockets would fly over your house, ah? You would defend yourself. Israel, want peace, period. It’s not Israel who turned the Palestinian children into the pile of blood. It’s Hamas. Hamas put the civilians out to protect the rockets. Israel, protect civilians in Israel and in Gaza. Israel, protect Gazans by asking them to evacuate before the blow up the houses where Hamas is hiding. Hamas, doesn’t ask Jews to evacuate. Hamas, just bomb. This is it. The war in Gaza, it’s not the war against Palestinians. It’s a war against Hamas. Do you want to live in Peace? If you do then, stop shouting. If Hamas stop shouting then, we will stop shouting. This problem can go away right now, if Hamas stop. What Israel does in Gaza, called self defense. Israel, will always have a right to defend itself.

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Posted by Howard Hoffman
07/25/2014  at  03:11 PM
anti-Tunnel Technology

Israel needs to develop some great counter-measures to make the whole tunnel strategy backfire on Hamas (and to deter Hezbollah, which is watching carefully).  First need is listening technology so that the tunnels can be detected as their construction approaches the border with Israel, even if they are 90 ft deep or even deeper.  Then Israel needs a smart bomb that goes down the tunnel and kills everyone inside and everyone at the other end of the tunnel.

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