They work around the clock, day and night, in three shifts, except Friday, the Muslim holy day. In each shift, there are dozens of diggers who move 10 to 20 meters a day. They dig with small drills, shovels and their bare hands. They work underground at 30 or even 40 meters below the surface and are supplied with electricity, water, air and oxygen tanks to avoid suffocation. Visiting one of the tunnels reveals a planned structure, supported by cement panels and cement bows. No doubt, the diggers are brave and risk their lives.
The tunnel I visited is nearly 2 kilometers long and was built by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a smaller group than Hamas, which has been ruling Gaza with an iron fist since it came to power in a military coup, toppling the Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Navigating underground in the right direction is not an easy task. And the right direction is Israel.
Digging tunnels has been one of the specialties of Hamas in Gaza. The tunnels have served two purposes. One is to smuggle goods and weapons from Sinai, with the help of the local branch of ISIS, to Gaza. The second aim is to use the tunnels to infiltrate into Israel.
Together with rockets, the tunnels have served as the most important strategic measures against Israel. During the last war (“Operation Protective Edge”) in the summer of 2014, Hamas managed to surprise the IDF by penetrating Israel via the tunnels twice and causing both casualties and damage. By the end of the war, which lasted nearly two months, the IDF had exposed and destroyed 31 tunnels.
In some Israeli quarters, mainly among politicians, the tunnels were presented as the biggest military and psychological threat in the event of another round of hostilities with Gaza. The IDF was less concerned, but had to cave in to the public fears and the politicians’ pressure.
All in all, after more than a decade of ignorance and negligence, the IDF and the Ministry of Defense have taken it upon themselves to tackle the challenge of the tunnels.
The IDF countermeasures are in three areas. Together with the Shin Bet (the Israel Security Agency, which is in charge of counterterrorism that also covers Gaza), intelligence gathering about the tunnels has improved significantly. Further investigations and detentions of Hamas operatives have enabled Israel to have a better understanding and knowledge of how the tunnels are dug and to where.
The second measure is technological. The Defense Ministry subcontracted to Elbit, one of Israel’s major arms manufacturers, to develop advanced sensors to detect holes.
The third measure – the most ambitious and expensive one (nearly $1 billion) – is the construction of an underground barrier or wall. It is made of a combination of cement and bentonite boards strengthened with iron rods and protected by water-resistant bars. Each board has pipes with sensors and monitoring devices to detect if tunnels are being dug.
The boards are inserted (or slid) deep (the exact depth is an IDF secret) – dozens of meters – under the ground. When the work on the barrier is completed by mid-2019, the entire border with the Gaza enclave (65 km) will be enveloped by the barrier. Above ground, the barrier is supplemented by a 6-meter-high fence with cameras, sensors and observation towers. Although it is at an early stage (so far 4 km of the barrier have been built), the combined efforts have proved to be very effective.
Since the last war, Israel has already exposed seven new tunnels – five inside Israel including the one I visited – and two others, according to Palestinian sources in Gaza.
Senior IDF officers and Defense Ministry engineers estimate that once the work is complete, it will be almost impossible to cross the barrier through tunnels without being detected.
Indeed, Hamas military and political leaders are realizing that Israel has found a solution to deprive Hamas of one its most important strategic-military tools.
It is estimated that Hamas has spent over the past years hundreds of millions of US dollars on the attack tunnels project. Most of the money came from Iran, which still continues to invest nearly $100 million annually in militarizing Gaza. The two beneficiaries of Iranian generosity are PIJ, which despite being a Sunni group is a puppet of Shi’ite Iran and gets $30-40 million, while the rest goes to Hamas.
“Hamas realizes that spending more money on the attack tunnels project is going to be a waste of money,” I was told by a senior IDF officer. “Sooner or later Hamas and PIJ will stop digging tunnels in the direction of Israel.” He added that they will advance “a new war doctrine by diverting their military efforts – thinking, money, energy, and equipment – to develop alternative tools.”
It is estimated that among these tools will be efforts to develop a new air unit with homemade small drones and quadcopters, which are purchased in civilian markets, disassembled, smuggled into Gaza and reassembled there. Already in the last war, Hamas flew two quadcopters, which were downed by the Israel Air Force (IAF). Since then Hamas has increased its efforts in this area.
Other areas of interest for Hamas will be to upgrade its sea capabilities, especially underwater divers – which were also used for the first time to surprise Israel in the war of 2014 – and forming commando units, which will be tasked with assaulting Israeli military positions and rural communities along the border to compensate itself for the loss of the tunnels.
Both sides continue to arm themselves and prepare for a next round but, according to Israeli intelligence estimates, Hamas has no intentions of, or interest in, initiating a new war. Nevertheless, there are two scenarios which can lead to the outbreak of a war.
One is a miscalculation, as happened in summer 2014. The other one is the socioeconomic collapse of Gaza, which out of despair and frustration, could push Hamas to trigger a war in a Samson-like depression – “Let me die with the Philistines!”
Gaza, with its area of 365 sq km and population of 2 million – 60% under the age of 30 – is one of the most highly populated and poorest areas in the world. According to a UN study, 63.1% of Gaza residents live below the UN poverty line, which comprises an income of less than $3 per day per capita. 2017 was the worst economic year in Gaza in the last decade.
The unemployment rate is nearly 50%. Some 95% of its water is not drinkable. Electricity is available only 4 or 5 hours per 24 hours. Sewage runs free in the streets. The danger of spreading epidemics is high and it is clear that neither sewer water nor epidemics will stop at the border.
The Israeli military establishment is fully aware that Gaza is on the verge of a humanitarian disaster
. But the top military echelon is divided about the right solution to Gaza. Some argue that Israel must allow a rapid economic recovery of Gaza by initiating some major projects, such as building a port on an artificial island one kilometer from the coast, and constructing a power station and water desalination station.
But others, including the head of the Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Eyal Zamir, think that with a bit more pressure Hamas will succumb to Israeli preconditions for any economic assistance. Israel is demanding that Hamas dismantle its weapons, accept demilitarization and release two Israeli civilian prisoners and two IDF bodies it is holding. This shortsighted military school of thought is backed by the cabinet and, above all, by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
When Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and dismantled its settlements, relocating 7,000 citizens, some fantasized that Gaza had the potential of becoming a second Singapore. Now it seems that it is closer to becoming a failed region like Somalia. And once that happens, it will, more than anything else, be an Israeli problem.
“Gaza will never be Singapore, but it doesn’t have to be Somalia,” the officer said.