Hamas Approaches Endgame in Gaza as Israel Sharpens Its Tunnel-elimination Prowess

Either way, Israel will keep building an anti-tunnel barrier along the Gaza border while looking for and destroying passages that have already been dug

An Israeli jeep drives near where Israeli forces said they had destroyed an attack tunnel from Gaza,  December 10, 2017.
Amir Cohen

The destruction of the Hamas tunnel on the Gaza border Saturday night supports the conclusion that Israel has found a defense against the threat of attack tunnels under the Strip. Even if the defense isnt perfect, its pretty effective. The tunnel that was identified and blown up over the weekend near the Kerem Shalom crossing, near where Egypt, Israel and Gaza meet, is reportedly the fourth to be found by Israel since October.

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The latest tunnel demolition worsens Hamas dilemma on how it should act as Israel gradually deprives it of one of its main offensive assets. The finding of the latest tunnel isnt directly related to the barrier that Israel has been putting up along the Gaza border. Saturdays tunnel was found in an area where work on the barrier hasnt yet begun.

But the combination of technology, intelligence and operational means, along with the planned completion of most of the security barrier by year-end, show that the clock is ticking for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. (The first tunnel destroyed belonged to the smaller Islamic Jihad.) As Hamas leaders would view them, the tunnels are a strategic project in which hundreds of millions of shekels have been invested over nearly a decade, involving thousands of laborers and fighters. And now all this may be going down the drain.

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At this point, Hamas hasnt responded clearly to Israels steps. Also, Hamas members havent been directly involved in the firing of rockets from Gaza at the Negev, some of which have been launched by Salafi groups and some by Islamic Jihad.

Hamas decision not to respond to the destruction of the tunnels also apparently reflects the trap the organization finds itself in. Its having a hard time seeing to the economic needs of the 2 million Gazans, it has a poor relationship with Egypt, and implementation of the Hamas-Palestinian Authority reconciliation agreement is sputtering.

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This time the embarrassment is even greater because Israel has announced that some of the latest tunnel was under Egyptian territory.

And the consequences for Hamas are greater than usual. Not only has the groups planned offensive activity under the border and under the Kerem Shalom crossing — the main goods crossing into the Strip no less, along with pipelines supplying natural gas and diesel — been uncovered. This time the tunnel reflects an intrusion into the sovereignty of Egypt, which Hamas is greatly dependent on in its efforts to improve conditions in Gaza.

One can assume that the Israeli army is also prepared for a possible attack by a Palestinian group through a tunnel before other tunnels are discovered and destroyed.

Regarding the latest tunnel, Hamas claimed that the air force had bombed a civilian tunnel that had been used for smuggling goods, rather than a Hamas tunnel. In Israel, officials insisted that the tunnel had been dug with the help of Hamas elite Nukhba unit, and that the tunnel had a branch under the border crossing — evidence of plans for a terror attack inside Israel.

Israels excavations toward the Egyptian border may uncover plans to smuggle weapons from Sinai into Gaza or to get terrorists out of Gaza — if necessary to have them reinforce an attack on the Kerem Shalom crossing from the Egyptian side of the border. For years the Palestinian groups have viewed the crossings as legitimate and even desirable targets for terror attacks, despite the possible negative effects for Gazans. There is also a history of suicide bombings and the use of tunnels against the Erez, Karni and Kerem Shalom crossings between Gaza and Israel dating back a decade.

The stepped-up pace of Israeli army activity regarding Gaza is evidence of the efforts to deal with the tunnels, efforts that are far from over. In any event, Israels priorities in Gaza are clear. The main effort is building a barrier along the border to counter the tunnels, while looking for and destroying tunnels that have already been dug.

In addition to concerns about a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, dealing with the tunnels is another constraint in Israels considerations over whether to get into another large confrontation with Hamas in Gaza. Depriving Hamas of the offensive weapon of the tunnels is such a priority that Israels leaders are willing to show relative restraint over rocket fire from Gaza, as long as there are no casualties on the Israeli side.

This also comes against the backdrop, according to foreign reports, of Israeli operations against Iran and Hezbollah in Syria. In the north, this effort involves going right to the edge, with a relatively high risk of an outbreak of hostilities. Israel must therefore be cautious in calculating its moves so it can keep chalking up successes and avoid a conflagration on both fronts.