The Hamas-constructed underground carrier unearthed near kibbutz Ein Hashlosha and made public in October, was not a “terrorist tunnel” as most media outlets and commentators have dubbed it. The latter conjures up images of a covert means of access designed for a small guerrilla group on a mission to inflict quick carnage and creating maximum political theater. The description emanates from the record of past attacks and from a deep rooted conception which fails to take into account the transformation of the larger terrorist organizations confronting Israel.

By all measures the “Khan Younis tunnel,” as Hamas has called it, was not a run of the mill structure: It stretched 1,700 meters, of which 1,400 meters were dug inside Gazan territory.

By beginning excavation deep inside its area, Hamas undertook an extra measure to conceal its work. An estimated 600 tons of cement were used to support the tunnel, suggesting it was meant to withstand various weather and soil conditions and be at the ready once the order came. The cement support arches embedded along its path also suggest it was designed to enable the detonation of explosives without compromising its structure. Indeed the tunnel had branched out allowing construction of sub-tunnels where explosives could be placed or from where simultaneous assaults launched. Most importantly, it was a two-meter-high and one-meter-wide allowing a sizable force — perhaps as large as a brigade — to deploy underground and quickly emerge ready for action.

A cross-border attack by such a force would be tantamount to a mini-invasion rather than “normal” terrorism. Its mission could be the capture and holding of a nearby Israeli community. The hoisting of a Hamas flag over an Israeli settlement, even for a short time, would constitute a symbolic act of liberating Palestine and a significant political and morale boost to the “axis of resistance” forces. Worse yet, if successful,repelling such an assault would likely present the IDF with a complicated, prolonged and potentially bloody operation. The crisis could even trigger a psychological sockwave in Israel akin to the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

It is in this context that Hamas Politburo chief Khaled Mashaal’s depiction of the underground structure as a “strategic tunnel” acquires its true import.

In fact, recent preparations undertaken by Hezbollah in Lebanon should be taken into account before deeming this scenario as far fetched.

In February 2011, Hezbollah's chief Hassan Nasrallah declared he is ready for another war with Israel. If war comes, “I tell the fighters of the resistance that one day they might be asked to liberate the Galilee,” Nasrallah was quoted as telling a Resistance Martyrs Day ceremony.

Reportedly, the Hezbollah operational plan was formulated in tandem with the regime in Tehran and includes a force of 5,000 fighters who have completed training in Iran and are tasked with “liberating” designated zones in northern Israel, including the cities of Nahariya and Karmiel and the town of Shlomi — municipalities with a combined population of over 100,000 inhabitants.

The Lebanese newspaper Al- Joumhouria reported on August 22 that over 10,000 Hezbollah fighters participated in the organization’s largest military exercise to date in the previous week.

Accordingly, the drill included defensive tactics and “preparations to conquer the Upper Galilee.” The paper added that some 2,000 elite Hezbollah fighters were to continue training in Iran to carry out these missions.

While Hamas may seek to coordinate its assault with incursions along Israel’s other borders, the likelihood of its mini-invasion scenario must be assessed independently as well. In particular, other newly discovered Hamas tunnels reaching into Israel and those which may still lie hidden, suggest the organization is executing a comprehensive doctrine of underground warfare. Hamas is fully invested in preparations for a multi-pronged attack which apparently envisions activation of numerous tunnels simultaneously just ahead of, or in conjunction with the main assault.

As Yahya al-Sinwar – a Hamas political bureau member and co-founder of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the group's military wing – observed in 2011, Hamas’s power afforded it a lot of options. Israel should know that the military equation had dramatically shifted in favor of the Palestinians and that Hamas should make plans consistent with this change to enshrine the new principle: “Today, we are the ones who invade the Israelis. They do not invade us,” he declared.

Even if claims by other Hamas officials, like Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of the organization’s political bureau, are accurate that “the tunnel which...was extremely costly in terms of money, effort and blood” was actually meant for “freeing our heroic prisoners [held by Israel],” it should not be taken to mean a replay of the 2006 kidnapping of lone IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.

Rather, Hamas likely aims for a mega-kidnapping attack which could be launched separately or as the second phase of the “mini-invasion” scenario.

In the latter case, after inflicting countless civilian and/or military casualties and raising its flag over “occupied Palestine” the invading force would withdraw through its tunnel taking along scores of abducted Israelis. Either way, Hamas would seek to avoid protracted negotiations or partial deals. The mass kidnapping would aim instead to force a quick and humiliating Israeli capitulation and the release of all Palestinian terrorists held in its prisons.

Israel’s reaction to the exposure of Hamas’ offensive preparations was surprisingly low-key. Some defense officials even hurried to reassure the public that the “unprecedented” tunnel did not mean Hamas was interested in a confrontation “at this stage.” It appears that regional and global diplomatic considerations had ruled out a punitive military response. However, Jerusalem’s restraint undermines the credibility of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s pledge — aimed to deter Iran’s nuclear march — that, when it comes to dealing with developing threats to its security, Israel will act even if it “stand[s] alone.”

The writer is the author of The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence.


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