(JTA) — 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 woken up to the true extent of the subterranean threat from Gaza: the tunnels that snake underneath the densely populated coastal territory into Israel proper.
What do the tunnels look like?
The tunnels are hardly crude. With years of experience digging passageways under the Egypt-Gaza border to smuggle weapons, people and goods into the blockaded territory — including items as large as cars — Hamas knows how to burrow.
The tunnels discovered 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.
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 Tuesday, the number was 66 access shafts as part of 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. When the moment arrives, Hamas assailants dig the last few feet and emerge from the hole — heavily armed, usually well camouflaged and sometimes disguised as Israeli soldiers.
Why is this threat so significant?
Israel has yet to figure out an effective way to systematically 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, according to the IDF.
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. That would give Hamas a way to demonstrate to its constituents that it can deliver for Palestinians and “resist the occupation” in a way that President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority cannot.
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 Monday morning after an infiltration; two died Saturday during an earlier infiltration.
Israel has been killing most of the infiltrators, but not all. Some have managed to scurry back into the tunnels leading toward Gaza. There have been at least five tunnel infiltration attacks.
How can Israel combat the tunnel threat?
For now, unlike with the rocket fire, there’s no technological fix to the tunnel problem. Instead, Israel’s primary method for combating the tunnels 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 on several occasions over the last few days to stay inside on lockdown.
It seems that the extent to which the ground underneath the Gaza-Israel border resembles Swiss cheese has caught the IDF — and the Israeli public — by surprise.
What does the discovery of all these tunnels mean for the duration of this war?
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. Israel quickly agreed to a cease-fire offer a week into the conflict (Hamas ignored it) and gave Hamas at least two other lulls in which to change its mind.
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.
“The operation will be expanded until the goal is achieved: restoring quiet to the citizens of Israel for a long period,” Netanyahu said Monday, keeping things vague enough so as not to be boxed into a corner.
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.
This is seen inside Israel as a war of necessity, not of choice.
Will international pressure end the war soon?
With the Palestinian death toll soaring since the launch of the ground invasion, international pressure for a cease-fire is growing. On Sunday, 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. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Cairo on Monday to try to negotiate some kind of an end to the crisis.
While Israel’s eagerness for a cease-fire and well publicized efforts to avoid civilian casualties bought it some time early on, the escalating violence and rapidly mounting Palestinian civilian deaths — including several well-documented cases of Israeli strikes killing children, wiping out multiple members of the same family and targeting a hospital — are shifting international opinion away from Israel’s favor.
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. Hamas may already have captured the body of one Israeli soldier who is presumed to have died in a missile attack on an armored personnel carrier; it would love to use the opportunity the fighting presents to accomplish its goal of capturing a live one.
How are ordinary Israelis reacting?
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.
The mini-wars with Hamas in 2009 and 2012 were fought on Gaza’s turf, not inside Israel. Violence in the West Bank generally stays in the West Bank. The 2006 Second Lebanon War took place in Lebanon, not Israel. Yes, both the Gaza conflicts and the Lebanon war involved deadly rocket fire into Israel, but there were no pitched battles on Israeli streets. The real battlefield was elsewhere.
The last major exception to that rule was a decade ago during the second intifada, when Israeli buses, restaurants and nightclubs became the front line. The erection of the West Bank security fence helped end those attacks by making it harder for terrorists to get into Israel.
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.
The country still well remembers the Maalot massacre of 1974, when Palestinian terrorists slipped across the border from Lebanon and took more than 100 children hostage at a school in the northern Israeli town of Maalot. More than 25 Israelis were killed during that incident, which ended when Israeli troops stormed the school building.
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.