For the first time since Operation Protective Edge some 21 months ago, a tunnel dug by Hamas into Israeli territory has been uncovered.
It was discovered through the use of technological means developed by a civilian company with funding from the Ministry of Defense and the US and was put into action since the summer 2014 Gaza operation to deal with the phenomenon of cross-border tunnels.
The system’s features are considered to be both state of the art and secret.
The tunnel – which extended dozens of meters inside Israel – was discovered some two weeks ago and, since then, the IDF has been studying its structure and path, as well as the ways it was built, to gather intelligence and understand Hamas’s capabilities in the field.
Yet, the IDF still doesn’t know when the tunnel was dug – whether before the last Gaza campaign or after – or the length of the tunnel and in which part of Gaza it originated.
The fact that the discover was kept quiet for 10 days demonstrates the responsibility of journalists, who were in on the secret but did not publish the news at the request of the defense establishment and under censorship restriction orders, which claimed that early reporting of the story could endanger the soldiers’ activities.
However, the media blackout placed on the discovery on the orders of the Military Censor caused a flurry of rumors to spread throughout the country, frightening residents of the Gaza border communities to the point that OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Eyal Zamir was forced to meet with the heads of the local councils to calm them down.
The discovery of the tunnel shows that the technology, despite the great difficulty in its development and employment, is proving effective. Still, the challenge of locating the underground portals is great and it is possible that additional tunnels stretching into Israeli territory have already been dug and have not yet been found.
It is clear, as Hamas leaders have declared, that the use of tunnels, as far as the group is concerned, is a strategic tool in the fight against Israel that proved effective in the last Gaza war.
Hamas understands that because of its military inferiority versus the IDF, digging tunnels is one of the main ways it has of achieving impressive tactical gains in the event of a conflict.
According to IDF estimates, with the outburst of a fourth Gaza conflict, Hamas will attempt to use tunnels to gain control of an Israeli border community and to hold it – at least for a short time – and to try to take hostages. In such an event, IDF estimates also clearly see that Hamas will make great efforts to bombard the border communities in an attempt to cause the residents to abandon their homes, which would constitute a great achievement for them.
The government sees the digging the tunnel inside Israeli territory as a blatant violation of its sovereignty yet not as a casus belli. Despite all of the drama, the media blackout and the secrecy, it does not change the basic belief that Hamas is not interested in a further round of hostilities at this point, just as Israel does not want another war. From this standpoint, the deterrence which Israel achieved during the last war continues to hold.
Nevertheless, the fear persists that because of an error in judgment or miscalculation, the smallest incident is liable to escalate into a bigger conflict that spirals out of control.
This is the great danger in the fragile situation on the Gaza border, especially given the dire economic situation of the Strip’s residents, Hamas’s diplomatic isolation and its relative military weakness.