Hamas’ Tunnel Network:
A Massacre in the Making
In the past decade, Hamas methodically built a sophisticated network of tunnels that would enable its fighters to infiltrate Israel and carry out terrorist attacks and abductions on an unprecedented scale. Operation Protective Edge exposed and targeted this tunnel network, eliminating one of Hamas’ strategic assets and preventing a devastating surprise attack on a wide front, behind Israel’s front lines.
IDF Spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner explained why the destruction of the tunnels was so important. “Hamas had a plan. A simultaneous, coordinated, surprise attack within Israel. They planned to send 200 terrorists armed to the teeth toward civilian populations. This was going to be a coordinated attack. The concept of operations involved 14 offensive tunnels into Israel. With at least 10 men in each tunnel, they would infiltrate and inflict mass casualties.”1
What cannot be ruled out is the possibility that Hamas would be able to utilize the tunnel network to dispatch hundreds of men through each tunnel, thereby creating an invasion force of thousands. As Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh himself said on October 19, 2013: “Thousands of fighters above ground and thousands of fighters underground have been preparing in silence for the campaign to liberate Palestine.”
Hamas squads of 10-15 men are trained to move rapidly through the tunnels to establish beachheads, with more squads following in their wake. The number of squads that can infiltrate Israel is limited only by the amount of time it takes the IDF to detect them and respond. (MEMRI)
What cannot be ruled out is the possibility that Hamas would be able to utilize the tunnel network to dispatch hundreds of men through each tunnel, thereby creating an invasion force of thousands.
Tunnels have been a part of life in Gaza for decades. In 1989, Hamas terror mastermind Mahmoud Al-Mahbrouh used one to evade Israeli security forces.2 By the mid-1990s, tunnels were being dug from Rafah into Egypt; they were used to smuggle anything that could fit in the narrow passages, from cigarettes and guns to fuel, farm animals, and even cars.
Tunnels were used to plant explosives underneath IDF positions, targeting Israeli soldiers who were stationed in Gaza until 2005. In 2001, a powerful bomb was detonated in a tunnel under an IDF base in Gaza; the blast blew out a 15-foot section of the first-floor wall and heaved soldiers through the air, injuring at least three.3 In 2004, hundreds of kilograms of explosives inside a 350-meter tunnel were detonated under an IDF outpost in Gaza, killing one soldier and injuring five others.4
In June 2006, less than a year after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas used a tunnel to sneak into Israel, ambush IDF soldiers, and kidnap Gilad Shalit.5 In doing so, Hamas revealed that it had invested vast sums of money to prepare for subterranean warfare. “This was one of the most asymmetrical incidents in recent memory,” a senior Israeli intelligence official recalled. “One Israeli soldier was held for five and a half years and traded [in 2011] for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.” Another top official agreed: “This was a proof of concept for them. Tunnels work.”6
Years later, Hamas leader Khaled Mashal explained his group’s thinking: “In light of the balance of power which shifted towards Israel, we had to be creative in finding innovative ways. The tunnels were one of our innovations. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.”7
Hamas looked to Hizbullah in Lebanon for inspiration and guidance on subterranean warfare.8 “Hizbullah thought of building an underground terror network well before Hamas started its own, and it taught Hamas how to construct these tunnels,” a senior IDF officer said.9 In addition, Israeli military commanders believe that North Korea, which has one of the world’s most sophisticated networks of tunnels running beneath the demilitarized zone with South Korea, gave Hamas advice on building tunnels in Gaza.10
After a round of fighting in January 2009 between Israel and Hamas known as Operation Cast Lead, the American Consul in Jerusalem, Jake Walles, sent a diplomatic cable in February discussing the growing threat from Hamas’ tunnels project. The cable, addressed to the Secretary of State, summarized the consul’s conversation with Saji al-Moughani, a Gaza local who worked as a Reconnaissance and Survey Officer for the State Department.11 Al-Moughani reported that no reconstruction materials were available because “much of Gaza’s cement was used to construct tunnels….[Al-Moughani] said the tunnels are lit and well-ventilated. Most are more than 30 feet underground, on the Gaza side, largely insulated from the effects of Israeli bombardment. Many tunnels have ceilings high enough to allow a grown man to stand.”12
In 2012, more hints of Hamas’ massive investment in tunnels became visible. On November 8, IDF soldiers conducting a routine patrol along the Gaza border near the town of Nirim found a tunnel four meters deep and almost five meters wide burrowed beneath the border. The patrol crossed into Gaza to search for explosives and, on its return, while repairing the border fence, a bomb detonated on the Gaza side of the border. One soldier was injured and an IDF jeep was thrown 20 meters by the blast.13
In November 2012, Hamas also accelerated its rocket attacks against Israeli communities, an escalation that culminated with the IDF’s pinpoint strike on Hamas chief-of-staff Ahmed Jabari and the eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense.14 In that operation, the IDF said it targeted over 120 tunnels used for fighting and smuggling.15 Nonetheless, most of the focus of the IDF and the Israeli public at that time was on Hamas’ rocket launching capabilities, as well as the impressive successes of the Iron Dome missile defense system. After the round of fighting ended, Hamas realized it had failed to inflict significant damage on Israeli population centers and decided to expand its offensive tunnel capabilities.16
Two months later, on January 14, 2013, Israel received another wake-up call when the IDF discovered a tunnel inside Israel near Nir Oz, a kibbutz on the Gaza border. The underground passage was big enough to transfer people and was the same kind of tunnel used in 2006 to kidnap Gilad Shalit.17 “Such a tunnel in Israel indicates a clear intent by Gaza terrorist groups, led by Hamas, to attack Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers,” the IDF said.18
“These tunnels inaugurate a new strategy to fight against the enemy,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said on March 23, 2014. (IDF/YouTube)
On October 7, 2013, the IDF uncovered a mega-tunnel from Gaza into Israel that was 18 meters underground and extended for 1.8 kilometers. The tunnel, which opened near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, had taken two years to build and required 800 tons of concrete shaped into 25,000 concrete slabs.19 It was equipped with electricity and contained enough cookies, yogurt and other provisions to sustain its occupants for several months. Israel estimated that Hamas had invested $10 million in the project. Its discovery made clear that Hamas was building a tunnel network to infiltrate Israel on a massive and unprecedented scale.
Hamas terror tunnel discovered near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha on October 7, 2013
Indeed, after the discovery of the tunnel near Ein Hashlosha, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz said that Israel’s next war could start with an infiltration via a tunnel and an attack against an Israeli border town or local kindergarten.20 Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon noted that the defense establishment’s “basic assumption is that terror groups in Gaza are constantly digging tunnels to use in terror attacks at the earliest opportunity.”21
During a visit to Gaza in October 2013, shortly after the tunnel was revealed, a Palestinian writer for the Al-Monitor website visited the area near the tunnel’s route and learned from Palestinian military sources that the underground passage was one of Hamas’ largest military projects in recent years, and was part of a long-term strategic plan for offensive military operations.22
The Al-Monitor reporter was shown a document that had been distributed to terrorist groups in Gaza, which said: “The tunnel war is one of the most important and most dangerous military tactics in the face of the Israeli army because it features a qualitative and strategic dimension, because of its human and moral effects, and because of its serious threat and unprecedented challenge to the Israeli military machine, which is heavily armed and follows security doctrines involving protection measures and preemption.”23
The document continued: “The tunnel tactic is dangerous because it doesn’t use traditional conditions and procedures for confrontation. [The tactic is] to surprise the enemy and strike it a deadly blow that doesn’t allow a chance for survival or escape or allow him a chance to confront and defend itself. [The tactic] relies on the calm work of digging an underground tunnel by simple means and equipment and working without making noise, according to pre-prepared geographic coordinates, and without appearing on the ground’s surface.”
The document explained that the tunnels would play a major role in battle and cited how U.S. forces in Vietnam failed to address the challenge of the tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.
The concept behind the tunnels was best explained at the time by Yahya al-Sinwar, a member of Hamas’ inner circle and a co-founder of the Hamas military: “Today, we are the ones who invade the Israelis. They do not invade us.”24
“Today, we are the ones who invade the Israelis. They do not invade us.” – Hamas co-founder Yahya Sinwar
On March 5, 2014, the Israeli Navy intercepted the Klos-C cargo ship carrying Iranian weapons almost certainly destined for Gaza.25 The Israeli government displayed the weapons for the world’s media to see,26 but the ship also carried another strategic commodity – more than two million kilograms of Iranian cement in 100 shipping containers.27
On March 18, 2014, another massive tunnel was uncovered.28 The tunnel penetrated a kilometer beyond the border fence, perilously close to the perimeter of Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha. The tunnel was fully wired with electric lines and communications cables. At some two meters high and one meter wide, a fighter carrying weapons and equipment could run through it with ease.29 Based on the size and sophistication of the tunnel, it was clear to the IDF that Hamas had intended to use the underground passage to send a “large armed force” into Israel to carry out kidnappings and/or terror attacks. The IDF believed more such tunnels were being dug under the border.
The next time a tunnel was discovered in Israeli territory, Hamas fighters were streaming out of it. On July 17, 2014, nine days into Operation Protective Edge – which at the time had remained an air campaign – the IDF identified around 13 Palestinians who had infiltrated Israel through a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa.30 The terrorists were heavily armed with RPGs and assault rifles and were prepared to carry out a massacre.31 The IDF foiled the attack, saving countless Israeli lives. “The incident at Sufa made the penny drop for us,” Lt. Gen. Gantz later explained.32
A Hamas terror squad infiltrates Israel through a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa on July 17, 2014. (IDF/YouTube)
That same evening, the IDF began a ground operation in Gaza. “Their mission is to target Hamas’ tunnels that cross under the Israel-Gaza border and enable terrorists to infiltrate Israel and carry out attacks,” the IDF said in a statement. “Such a goal requires intensive and precise operations inside Gaza. Hamas terrorists are operating underground, and that is where the IDF will meet them. The IDF intends to impair Hamas’ capability to attack Israel.”33
Before the IDF completed its ground operation, Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel via tunnels at least four more times. On July 19, Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel in three separate incidents. In the first attack, eight Hamas terrorists emerged from a tunnel 300 yards inside Israel wearing IDF uniforms. They fired an RPG at an IDF jeep, killing two IDF officers. One of the infiltrators was killed by return fire, while the rest retreated underground, back to Gaza.34 Hours later, two more Hamas fighters entered Israel, either through a tunnel or by breaching the border fence. The men were carrying tranquilizers and handcuffs. One was shot and killed; the other died when the explosive belt he was wearing detonated. That night, another Hamas gunman slipped through a different tunnel into Israeli territory and fired on IDF troops, who killed him.35
On July 21, two Hamas squads entered Israel from northern Gaza via a tunnel. They were identified by IDF lookouts and killed by IDF fire.36
Hamas terrorists infiltrate Israel via a tunnel near Sderot on July 21, 2014. (IDF/YouTube)
On July 28, Hamas fighters entered Israel undetected via a tunnel near Kibbutz Nahal Oz. They attacked an IDF post and killed five IDF soldiers.37 Hamas later published a video of the attack. Four of the five terrorists returned to Gaza, while one was killed trying to kidnap the body of a soldier.38
A Hamas video published on YouTube shows its fighters infiltrating Israel from Gaza via a tunnel and storming an IDF post at Nahal Oz on July 28, 2014.
On August 1, an hour and a half into a U.S.- and UN-backed ceasefire, Hamas terrorists emerged from a tunnel in Rafah and a suicide bomber detonated himself near IDF soldiers. In the ensuing gun battle, Lt. Hadar Goldin was kidnapped, sparking a massive IDF assault on the area.39 (Goldin was later declared dead.) The IDF discovered that the same tunnel used in the Rafah attack also surfaced some two kilometers inside Israel.40
Hamas’ deadly ambushes in Rafah, Nahal Oz, and elsewhere reinforced the Israeli government’s refusal to accept a ceasefire that did not allow the IDF to destroy the tunnels. The Israeli public could not live with the thought that Hamas could emerge from under their homes at any time. In one of the tunnels, the IDF found motorcycles that could have enabled Hamas to commit large-scale terrorist attacks deep inside Israel, many kilometers from the Gaza border, and/or return quickly to Gaza with hostages.41
An IDF engineering officer involved in locating the tunnels explained the threat: “These were wide tunnels, with internal communication systems that had been dug deep beneath the surface and the sides were reinforced with layers of concrete. You could walk upright in them without any difficulty. That’s the stage at which we understood it was no longer a matter of a localized tactical threat to IDF forces along the fence, but rather part of something bigger and more dangerous. Suddenly, you’re envisioning an attack planned deep into our territory – 300 meters or more. You go into a tunnel and realize it hadn’t been planned for capturing a soldier from near the fence, but rather was able, in a short time, to bring a sizable enemy force onto our home front and attack there.”42
Before the war, Hamas employed almost 900 tunnel diggers, working around the clock in two or three shifts, according to a senior Israeli officer. The IDF discovered 100 km. of tunnels in Gaza, one-third of which stretched under Israeli territory.43
The IDF continued its ground operation in Gaza until Hamas’ tunnel network was eliminated. Between July 17 and August 5, IDF forces neutralized 32 terror tunnels.44 During that time, Hamas reportedly executed dozens of tunnel workers, fearing they might reveal the tunnel locations to Israel.45
Soon after the conflict ended, Hamas announced that it was rebuilding its tunnel network. As one spokesman put it: “Our men will begin the next battle with their feet on the ground in Nahal Oz…and the other settlements around Gaza.”46