On a Monday in October 2013, residents of Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha just east of the Gaza border heard strange sounds, which the IDF discovered were later coming from below the ground–terror tunnels. The IDF then discovered that the sounds signaled an “extremely advanced and well prepared” tunnel.
The burrow was 1.5 miles long and 66 feet underground and was equipped with electricity and contained enough yogurt, cookies, and other provisions to last its occupants several months. Israeli forces estimated that Hamas had dumped $10 million and 800 tons of concrete into the two-year project.
Such “terror tunnels,” the IDF said in a statement on July 18, are “complex and advanced.” Israel also added that their use is “to carry out attacks such as abductions of Israeli civilians and soldiers alike; infiltrations into Israeli communities, mass murders and hostage-taking scenarios.”
When describing this emerging “tunnel war,” a Palestinian militia document obtained by the news website al-Monitor said that the goal of the underground tunnel network was “to surprise the enemy and strike it a deadly blow that doesn’t allow a chance for survival or escape or allow him a chance to confront and defend itself.”
On July 19, Hamas fighters wearing Israeli army uniforms slipped from central Gaza into Israel through a tunnel and attacked an Israeli army patrol and killed two Israeli soldiers. In a second attempt on July 19 to enter Israel through its tunnels, the IDF discovered Hamas operatives carrying handcuffs and tranquilizers in an apparent attempt to kidnap soldiers, resulting in the militants getting killed. In another event on July 19, a militant climbed out of a concealed tunnel in southern Gaza and started firing at soldiers.
Early on July 21, a spokesman for the IDF said two “terrorist squads” had infiltrated Israel through a tunnel from northern Gaza. Israeli aircraft hit one group, but the second group fired an antitank missile at an army vehicle before ten of the operatives were killed by return fire. As the full extent of the Hamas tunnel network becomes clearer, the IDF says that dismantling the burrows is a seminal priority.
“We’ve expanded the forces on the ground in order to accomplish that mission,” said Capt. Eytan Buchman, an Israeli military spokesman. “All of Gaza is an underground city, and the amount of infrastructure Hamas built up over the years is immense. There are tunnels, extended bunkers, weapons storage facilities, even within urban areas.”
Analysts said that the tunnels are a major part of Hamas’s military strategy against Israel. The IDF has found and destroyed at least 36 of these tunnels, but there are still more. Despite the fact that the Gaza Strip is impoverished, with a 2011 per capita income of $1,165, it is thought that Hamas has invested more than $1 million into the excavation and maintenance of each tunnel. “Much to the misfortune of the people of Gaza, Hamas has invested far more resources in ‘underground Gaza’ than in ‘upper Gaza,’” wrote al-Monitor’s Shlomi Eldar. “The ‘change and reform’ that Hamas offered its voters was invested in its tunnels at the expense of the people of Gaza.”
According to the IDF, one Hamas tunnel is equal to 350 truckloads of building supplies, with which Hamas could have built 86 homes, seven mosques, six schools, or nineteen medical clinics.
If the tunnels are a result of Hamas’s 2006 election, then Hamas started creating these tunnels almost immediately. In June 2006, Hamas used a tunnel to capture Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. According to Haaretz, that day militants crossed underneath the Gaza border in a tunnel. Shalit was not returned to Israel for another five years.
In the years since Shalit’s capture, Hamas’s tunnels have come to rival those used by Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Communist guerilla fighters were said to have constructed thousands of miles of tunnels in the region around Saigon, which was then the capital of South Vietnam.
However, Hamas’s tunnels materialized in a different context. According to another article by Eldar, one reason why these tunnels were built was to keep soldiers occupied during a period of relative peace. “What do you do with thousands of motivated, armed men with the urge to fight?” Eldar said. “You come up with some operational occupation. Digging an underground tunnel.”
One tunnel digger, who says workers stay underground for long periods of time, explained how the tunnels are constructed. “The drilling is done via a mechanical device, not an electric one, to avoid making noise,” the digger told al-Monitor. “It uses a [pedal-powered] chain, similar to a bicycle chain. [The chain] moves metal pieces that dig through the dirt. During the digging, the digger lies on his back and pedals with his feet.” The tunnels are high enough to walk through standing up and are reinforced by concrete.
The tunnels tend to take a human toll, as it recently came out that 160 children were killed while helping to build these tunnels. In addition, a detailed article by James Verini in the August 2012 issue of National Geographic described this incident: “It was about 9 p.m., and the brothers were on a night shift doing maintenance on the tunnel, which, like many of its kind — and there are hundreds stretching between Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula — was lethally shoddy in its construction. Nearly a hundred feet below Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, Samir was working close to the entrance, while Yussef and two co-workers, Kareem and Khamis, were near the middle of the tunnel. They were trying to wedge a piece of plywood into the wall to shore it up when it began collapsing. Kareem pulled Khamis out of the way, as Yussef leaped in the other direction. For a moment the surge of soil and rocks stopped, and seeing that his friends were safe, Yussef yelled out to them, ‘Alhamdulillah! — Thank Allah!’
Then the tunnel gave way again, and Yussef disappeared.”
According to experts, there are three types of tunnels. The first type of tunnels are economic: hundreds of tunnels burrowing into Egypt, which allowed Hamas to bring in resources, guns, and rockets until the Egyptians sealed off many of the tunnels.
Another set of tunnels reportedly services the Hamas high command. “Every single leader of Hamas, from its lowest ranking bureaucrats to its most senior leaders, is intimately familiar with the route to the security tunnel assigned to him and his family,” al-Monitor reported. “The most senior leadership has its own specific tunnel.”
The last kind of tunnel is the kind that allegedly is driving the Israeli invasion: tunnels that can carry Hamas militants under the Gaza border and into Israel.