Centuries of engineering know-how have gone into the tunnels that delivery Hamas fighters into enemy territory. Why has it take Israel so long to attack them?
By Miles Amoore, Gaza
ONE by one, the Islamic fighters scrambled up the side of the tunnel opening, sending thin streams of sand trickling back into the concrete shaft below. Sprinting 50 yards across an open patch of land, they headed for a concrete watchtower manned by Israeli soldiers.
Catching them unawares, the fighters fired automatic weapons through the metal bars of the watchtower’s gate, killing a soldier.
Slipping through the gate, they stormed the watchtower, grabbing one Israeli soldier and smashing him in the face with a rifle barrel before killing four more. Then they disappeared back through the tunnel from which they came. The attack lasted less than 10 minutes.
Israel has used cross-border tunnel raids such as that one, which took place on Monday, to justify and expand its ground invasion of Gaza, in the bloodiest conflict since the militant Islamist group Hamas took control of this tiny Mediterranean enclave in 2007.
Fear of attack from the tunnels is felt viscerally in Israeli villages scattered along the border with Gaza. Unless the tunnels are destroyed, Hamas fighters can pop up in the middle of potato fields close to Israeli villages “like ninja turtles”, one retired Israeli general warned.
Villagers fear that militants want to use the tunnels to slaughter children in kindergartens or to murder entire families as they sit down to dinner. The terror has embedded itself so deep in the Israeli psyche that small children claim they are woken at night by the sound of Hamas sappers burrowing beneath their homes.
Faced with the public’s mounting fear, Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has repeatedly vowed to continue the war until his troops succeed in destroying Hamas’s “tunnels of terror”.
“I will not agree to any offer that does not allow the military to complete this important mission for the security of the people of Israel,” he said last week.
How much of a threat do the tunnels pose to Israel’s civilian population? And has Israel’s strategic objective — to deter Hamas from launching attacks against Israel in the future — succeeded? Could Israel’s attempt to “mow the lawn” have strengthened the militant Islamist group?
THE latest conflict to afflict Gaza — a densely populated sliver of land 25 miles long and between four and seven miles wide — is the bloodiest of three since the end of 2008. It has dragged on for almost a month. Israel’s offensive has killed at least 1,650 people and wounded 8,400, most of them civilians.
Standing in the main hospital in Gaza is like watching a daily slideshow of horror — babies dying in their mothers’ arms, bodies sliced in half by flying shrapnel, and the charred faces of dead teenage boys caught in Israeli airstrikes.
Hamas, in return, has killed 63 Israeli soldiers in vicious, close-quarter urban combat. The rockets it has fired into Israel — more than 3,000 in total — have killed only three people thanks to Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system.
The events that snowballed into war began with the killing of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers on the West Bank in June and the revenge murder of a Palestinian boy who was reportedly burnt alive.
Airstrikes against Hamas targets in Gaza soon followed. But it was not until mid-July, after 13 Hamas fighters crawled from a tunnel in the middle of an Israeli field, that the ground war began.
Emerging close to Kibbutz Shiva, a small farming community several hundred yards inside Israel, the Hamas fighters were soon spotted. Missiles slammed into them before most could escape, but the incident exposed Israel’s vulnerability to attack behind its own lines. This transformed the conflict into a full-blown Israeli ground operation involving tanks, heavy artillery and 70,000 soldiers.
“It was obvious that the tunnels could not be destroyed from the air,” said retired brigadier-general Relik Shafir, the former commander of Israel’s largest airforce base. “A ground offensive was the only way of solving the problem.”
Tunnels are as old as warfare itself. As Alexander the Great discovered when he laid siege to Gaza city in 332BC, the enclave’s loose subsoil makes digging tunnels here relatively quick and easy.
In addition, Hamas’s engineers have become tunnel experts. When Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza, turning the strip into what David Cameron once called a “prison camp”, Gazans tunnelled beneath their southern border with Egypt.
The tunnels — roughly 2,000 of them — were used to smuggle in everything from cows and Kentucky Fried Chicken takeaways to four-wheel-drive trucks and missiles. Egyptian security forces claim to have destroyed more than a quarter of them. But the military tunnels into Israel remained — as did Hamas defensive bunkers beneath Gaza city.
Lined with concrete, up to three miles long and more than 60ft deep — and said to cost about $2.5m (£1.5m) each — the tunnels are more sophisticated than their earth prototypes beneath the Egyptian border. Some are barely wide enough for two men to squeeze past each other, but all are equipped with electricity cables, phone lines and a motorised pulley system to winch weapons and supplies to the front line fast.
On reaching the Israeli border, the main tunnel often splinters into multiple branches, offering militants a choice of exit points inside Israeli territory. Entrances in Gaza are a carefully guarded secret among Hamas operatives, and exits in Israel are hard to spot. Many tunnels have no exit — it is dug out only moments before an attack.
Some have holes that allow fighters to fire mortars. Others have hatches through which they can pop up and fire before vanishing underground again.
Weapons are stockpiled below ground along with “kidnap kits” — tranquilliser, plastic zip cuffs and Israeli army uniforms — that are used to capture soldiers.
Deeper inside Gazan territory, according to Israeli officials, an underground network of defensive tunnels and bunkers for the senior Hamas leadership connects buildings, weapons stores and rocket launchers.
Israeli commanders have likened the bunkers to an underground fortress. They say one of the main command and control centres is below Shejaiya, a residential neighbourhood in Gaza City that was mostly flattened last week by heavy Israeli bombardment.
“The whole set-up is a bit like what the Viet Cong used against the Americans in the Vietnam War, although Hamas’s tunnels are even more advanced,” said Eado Hecht, an expert in Hamas’s use of underground warfare.
Locating and then destroying such an elaborate system of tunnels is a slow, painstaking process. Hamas has become adept at disguising construction from Israeli surveillance. Hand tools are used to dig close to the border with Israel to evade detection by underground microphones. Ground penetrating radar also cannot detect them, Israeli officials say.
Tunnel shafts are often dug through the basements of buildings, close to construction sites. The soil from the tunnel can then be shipped out in trucks without causing suspicion. Entrances are concealed inside buildings in urban neighbourhoods three miles from the border, forcing Israeli ground troops to search room by room at risk of booby traps and ambush.
The latest ceasefire collapsed as soon as it began on Friday after an Israeli lieutenant was apparently abducted by Hamas fighters who sprang up from the labyrinth as he led an anti-tunnel patrol.
“When you find a tunnel, you often don’t know if it’s an offensive or a defensive tunnel. The only way to do anything is to go in, to climb in and start mapping them. That’s why the decision to send ground troops was made,” said Hecht.
“You can’t just blow up a shaft: you have to blow the whole thing up. You have to clear it, mark it, bring down the explosives. You have to blow the whole thing up so they can’t reuse it, otherwise they’ll just dig another tunnel connecting the original shaft. This is what has been going on since the ground offensive began.”
AS Israeli warplanes and armed drones widened their bombardment of Gaza last week, destroying police stations, food factories, a university and the enclave’s only power plant, a question began to emerge. How much did the Israeli military recognise the tunnel threat prior to the campaign?
It appears that alarm bells were rung last November when military commanders started to send out foot patrols along the border to look for tunnels. In June, Netanyahu apparently received intelligence about the existence of 35.
Yet as far back as 2006, Hamas operatives captured an Israeli soldier, dragging him back into Gaza via a tunnel. Four years ago, Ahmed Jabari, credited with masterminding Hamas’s military strategy before he was assassinated in 2012, warned that “with the power of faith, weapons and missiles, tunnels and commandos we will achieve victory for Palestine and we’ll end the occupation in Gaza”.
Once the guns have fallen silent, demands are likely to intensify for a full investigation into the military’s failure to deal with the threat sooner.
Some senior military officers question, however, whether the tunnels are actually designed to target civilians, as Israel’s leaders claim and Hamas denies.
After analysing recent tunnel attacks, the army has concluded that Hamas is more likely to target military forces. So far, the tunnels have not been used to attack any Israeli civilians, nor were they used prior to the conflict when far fewer Israeli forces were present along the border.
Whether the prime target is civilian or military, there are concerns that the strategic objective of the ground offensive — to deter Hamas from launching attacks on Israel in the future — is futile because Hamas will simply rebuild the tunnels after Israeli forces leave.