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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Terror Tunnels of Gaza

Filed under: Egypt, Hamas, Israel, Israeli Security, Palestinians, Terrorism

The Terror Tunnels of Gaza
Terrorists prepare to emerge from a tunnel, 2014.

Since the end of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, the terror organizations in the Gaza Strip – headed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are close to Iran – have been engaged in an unprecedented military buildup. The aim is to rehabilitate their military capabilities which were damaged in the war against the IDF. According to Israeli security sources, the Palestinian organizations have managed to bring their capabilities to a point well beyond what they had in 2014.

That has included manufacturing a large number of rockets, developing new weapons such as drones, building up elite units such as naval commandos, and digging new attack tunnels into Israel, which Hamas and Islamic Jihad view as a “strategic weapon.” 

The tunnel-digging is a large-scale project that employs thousands of people and costs tens of millions of dollars. Hamas and Islamic Jihad receive financial and technological assistance from Iran for the project. A large portion of the financial resources also comes from tax revenues that are supposed to alleviate Gaza’s electricity, water, and employment shortages but are diverted to the tunnel project. 

On October 24, 2017, Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza who is also commander of its Izzadin al-Qassam military wing, boasted that the military wing can now fire in 51 minutes the same number of rockets it fired at Israel during the 51 days of Operation Protective Edge.

Sinwar also revealed that Hamas has managed to smuggle large quantities of weapons into Gaza. “The quantity of weapons we brought into the Strip in 2015-2016 is much larger than the entire quantity we brought into the Strip during the past 10 years,” he said.

As noted, Hamas and Islamic Jihad see the tunnels into Israeli territory as a “strategic weapon” that deters Israel.

They have adopted a tunnel-digging method taken from the Viet Cong playbook. The aim is to infiltrate Israel by surprise with large forces that will capture territories, attack communities and IDF bases near the Gaza border, and kidnap civilians and soldiers for bargaining purposes.

About a year ago, the Israeli defense establishment, which is aware of the tunnel danger, began to build a large underground “active barrier” around Gaza to block the tunnels. This large-scale project is progressing slowly despite Hamas’ threatens to stop the barrier’ construction.

The October 30, 2017 Tunnel

However, the IDF’s destruction of the attack tunnel that had penetrated Israeli territory a few dozen meters from Kibbutz Kissufim surprised Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which had built it and planned to use it for infiltration.

Israel took action just days after UNRWA announced it discovered a tunnel built beneath one of its Gaza facilities.

Three of the Islamic Jihad terrorists who died in the tunnel.
Three of the Islamic Jihad terrorists who died in the tunnel. Note two of them with frogmen uniforms.

Beyond the eight Palestinian operatives who were killed in the strike on the tunnel, including the commander of Islamic Jihad’s central-Gaza brigade and his deputy, the operation was a harsh operational and psychological blow to Islamic Jihad and Hamas. The organizations had portrayed the tunnels as a special weapon for which Israel had no solution.

The attacks tunnels were dug with the intention of carrying out a subterranean offensive attack timed to take place when Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched a ground and rocket offensive, surprising Israel and establishing a major military advantage in the initial stages of the fighting.

Terrorists prepare to emerge from a tunnel, 2014.
Terrorists prepare to emerge from a tunnel, 2014.

Senior Israeli security sources say that the tunnel destroyed by the IDF was discovered by an innovative, game-changing Israeli technological development. Such a tunnel-detection capability is of great concern to the Gaza terror organizations since it substantially reduces their ability to surprise Israel.

Israel attacked the tunnel and even announced that it had done so at the height of the Egyptian-led efforts to implement an intra-Palestinian reconciliation agreement.

Despite the blow to the prestige of Islamic Jihad and Hamas and the calls for revenge, they will have trouble responding militarily since they fear an escalation along the border with Israel

Hamas, which rules Gaza, has no interest in an escalation at this stage. Although it is the sovereign in the Strip, the tunnel “belonged” to Islamic Jihad; thus Hamas can claim innocence and try to avoid anti-Israeli escalation.

Since Operation Protective Edge, Hamas carefully maintained the ceasefire and even acted against the “rogue” organizations that from time to time launched rockets at Israel.

The IDF did not enter the Strip, and instead destroyed the tunnel from Israeli territory. Egypt, acting resolutely behind the scenes, is demanding that the Palestinian organizations “contain” the tunnel-destruction incident and not escalate the situation.

Israel carried out the strike just before control of the Gaza border crossings was to be transferred from Hamas to the Palestinian Authority.

Enter the Egyptians

A delegation from Egyptian intelligence is supposed to come to Gaza to take part in and supervise this event.

Islamic Jihad has tight ties with Egyptian intelligence. Hamas, too, has drawn very close to Egypt in recent months, and, presumably, the two organizations will heed Egypt’s request to avoid a security escalation in Gaza so that Egypt’s efforts to bring the intra-Palestinian reconciliation process to completion will succeed.

In any case, the IDF is not taking chances and has already deployed an anti-rocket Iron Dome battery at the southern border in case of rocket fire from Gaza.

Sinwar, Hamas’ military leader, faces a difficult decision: whether to permit a military response against Israel or uphold the ceasefire that has prevailed since Operation Protective Edge, thus going through with the reconciliation agreement and continuing the thaw with Egypt. From his standpoint, those are the main ways to achieve the easing of the protracted blockade on the residents of Gaza.

According to Hamas sources, the organization views the IDF’s destruction of the tunnel as an Israeli attempt to change the rules of the game that were practiced until now and also as a bid to derail the Palestinian reconciliation agreement.

Presumably, Sinwar will refrain from gambling on a military escalation that could drag the Strip and its residents into a new, bloody war with Israel. At this stage, he is not interested in it.

He may allow a very limited response by Islamic Jihad, such as a few rockets at Israel, to demonstrate that the tunnel’s destruction has sparked a military retaliation; and with that, for now, the episode will come to an end.