Terrorist tunnels pose military challenge to Israel

U.S. intelligence may show that Israel has greatly underestimated extent of tunnels.

A network of tunnels dug by Islamist militants from the Gaza to Strip to Israel has been dubbed "lower Gaza" by the Israeli military. It has become a strategic weapon used by the Hamas terrorist organization against Israel as it continues to unleash rocket attacks against civilian targets. Hamas utilize the tunnels as a possible game-changer in their ongoing struggle with Israel. The tunnels, say Israel’s defense forces, pose a serious threat against the country. In some cases, when the IDF or Israeli police were alerted to the excavation of tunnels, concerned citizens were ignored. However, former Israeli general Shlomo Brom told ABC News, "Israel knew there was a problem with the tunnels, but it didn't internalize their significance," adding  "At any given moment, Hamas could send dozens of militants through separate tunnels to attack communities in Israel." Until now, Israel has had no effective method of contending with the tunnels.  Dan Murphy, who reports for The Christian Science Monitor, said Hamas justifies the tunnels as an “existential issue for the movement.”

Stretching from Gaza are two sets of tunnels: one set goes into Egypt while another extends towards Israel. Gazans use the passages into Egypt in order to bypass a border blockade imposed on Gaza  after Hamas seized the territory in 2007. The tunnels are used to deliver building supplies, concrete, fuel, consumer goods, and even cattle and cars. Through those tunnels, Hamas has received money and weapons from outside patrons, including Iran. Egypt, especially since the Muslim Brotherhood government fell in 2013, has destroyed virtually all of the tunnels. This has drive Hamas into a financial crisis because the terrorists were taxing smuggled goods. At their peak, the tunnels channeled as much as $700 million into Gaza’s economy and provided employment for as many as 7,000 of 1.8 million people living in Gaza. The lucrative traffic is thought to continue through about 500 tunnels.

Hamas forces used the tunnels to capture Gilad Schalit in 2006. The Israeli soldier was brought back to Gaza, where he was imprisoned for five years. Israel since discovered a tunnel that was 66 feet deep and 1.5 miles long that may have cost $10 million and used 800 tons of concrete. Hamas apparently did the digging with mechanical pedal-powered devices, rather than with noisy electrical equipment.

Hamas also greatly increased its underground tunnels into Israel, especially after the ground offensive of 2009. Lined with imported concrete and provided with electricity, food and water, Hamas militants use the tunnels to raid Israeli targets. A top Hamas leader said recently that thousands of Hamas militants are working underground and on the surface to confront Israel. This week, for example, an Israeli armored unit came under fire by Hamas gunmen who emerged from the ground near Eshkol on July 19. Two Israeli soldiers died, but the Hamas combatants escaped.

Hamas has moved its rocket launching sites and storage sites underground, making it more difficult for Israel to target them. Some tunnels are 70 feet underground, thus making ineffective Israeli air attacks.  Gaza militants have fired more than 2,000 rockets at Israel since July 8. Hamas has also increased its panoply of anti-tank missiles that were effective against Israeli troops in 2006.

Ever since Israeli ground operations in Gaza to neutralize Hamas’ tunnels commenced last week, Israeli public support for invading Gaza has steadily increased. Some 34 Israelis have died (32 of them soldiers) and more than 800 Palestinians killed. Interdiction and excavation of the tunnels by Israeli forces have shown positive results: tons of Hamas supplies and war materiel have been seized. In addition, plans for a future attack on Israel were discovered. The Hamas organization was preparing for attacks on Israeli civilians during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year Holiday, which begins on September 24, according to Israeli daily Maariv.

Hamas terrorists were planning a surprise attack by 200 combatants through dozens of tunnels on civilian targets in Israel. They planned to attack Israel kibbutz and kill and abduct Israeli civilians.

Israeli forces have discovered at least 30 tunnels and destroyed several by bulldozing them. Israeli military sources say that that Hamas used hundreds of tons of concrete that might otherwise have been used by the Palestinians for civilian structures. Some of that concrete was allowed to pass through the blockade by Israel after considerable international pressure. 

A July 22 Jerusalem Post article has piqued interest in Israeli military circles. The article says that Israel may be seriously underestimating the extent of Hamas' tunnels and their penetration of Israel's southern border. The article said that Steven Emerson of the U.S.-based Investigative Project on Terrorism, claims that American intelligence shows that Israel is not aware of the true number of tunnels. The Jerusalem Post said that a senior National Security Council official dealing with the Middle East said that U.S. satellites – equipped with special high resolution infrared detection technology – have found 60 tunnels on the Israel-Gaza border.

However, the actual number could be higher because it does not include overhead satellite coverage of tunnels covered by ground structures that are several stories high and impervious to infrared detection, according to Emerson. So far, the Israeli military says that 45 tunnels have been discovered.
 
The U.S. has considerable military experience with enemy combatants ensconced in tunnels. During the Vietnam War, and in Afghanistan, U.S. forces utilized especially trained soldiers known as 'tunnel rats' to search for and kill enemies hiding in tunnels.


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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