Gaza border, July 18 .
(photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
The IDF has destroyed Hamas's flagship terrorism project; its network of cross-border tunnels that snuck under the border into Israel. The military also began to pull its forces out of the Gaza Strip on Saturday evening.
Hamas has spent five years preparing this strategic threat; the IDF wrecked 31 tunnels in two weeks. By Sunday, all of the tunnels the IDF knew about, or discovered during the offensive, will be destroyed. A few tunnels that Israel doesn't know about may remain intact.
Many of the underground passages were designed to send heavily armed murder squads into Israeli villages for killing sprees, and attack army positions from behind. They were filled with weapons, explosives, and equipment, enabling terrorists dressed in civilian clothing to disappear into a shaft in Gaza, and emerge in Israel, disguised as IDF soldiers and fully equipped to carry out a mass casualty attack. The IDF has discovered motorcycles in some of the tunnels, which were earmarked by Hamas for rapid raids into Israel and subsequent retreats back into Gaza.
Currently, inside the Strip, the army has gained good control of the areas it is maneuvering in. Despite very difficult fighting that has raged on the ground, which included heavy RPG, anti-tank, and automatic fire by Hamas cells, and despite the painful price Israel has paid thus far, the army is very close to achieving this key goal of its offensive.
In the big majority of cases where the IDF clashed with Hamas, the battle ended with the terrorists being killed, wounded, or with their surrender.
No one in the army expected the fighting to be easy, or one-way. And no one expected all of the battles to end without painful losses on the Israeli side, when tens of thousands of soldiers clashed with Hamas's battalions of guerrillas.
Similarly, the intelligence available to the ground forces has been superb, but it is unrealistic to expect a 100% success rate. Planned ambushes, such as the one carried out by Hamas in Rafah on Friday, which led to the kidnapping of an officer, were part of the known threats facing the army in Gaza. Not all threats can be dealt with successfully on the battlefield. Such is the nature of war.
Only a ground offensive could provide the military with the needed tools to destroy the tunnels; air power alone could not achieve this goal.
The number of clashes between the IDF and Hamas cells has dropped dramatically in recent hours, an indication of the army's firm control of the areas it holds. Exceptions to this include sporadic mortar and sniper fire.
Meanwhile, Hamas's stockpile of medium-range rockets, of the kind it uses to target greater Tel Aviv, is becoming depleted. As a result, Hamas has lowered the number of of medium-range rockets it fires, to pace itself for a drawn-out conflict. On the weekend, Hamas has focused on firing on short-range rockets attacks on the south.
The IDF is in the process of reorganizing its ground forces. It is preparing for further instructions from the security cabinet. Ground forces remain active in three areas across Gaza, as the last of the tunnels are destroyed. The remainder of the ground units have taken up positions in staging areas, and some will remain in Gaza, to protect Israeli villages from attempts by Hamas to exploit gaps in the border fence to stage further attacks.
Some in the defense establishment believe that when Hamas's leaders emerge from their bunkers, and see how years of tunnelling turned into wreckage, they may think again before investing so many resources into rebuilding a subterranean network. Nothing can stop Israel re-entering Gaza in the future to destroy newly built tunnels. this may lead Hamas to abandon the program.
Israel is continuing to search for a tunnel alert system, and has researched every known technology designed to deal with this threat.
According to the defense establishment, none have so far been found to be effective or operational. None would allow security chiefs to sleep soundly and expect to know, in real time, when Hamas's diggers begin tunnelling towards Israel again.