Slipping into a tunnel under Israel’s southern border and heading toward the Gaza Strip, the scorching summer heat suddenly turns cooler and the boom of artillery fire above fades away.
The passage, built by Gaza militants to infiltrate Israel, is just high enough for a person carrying a weapon to walk through upright. Its sides and arched ceiling are made of prefabricated cement slabs. Two metal rails run along a poured concrete floor to accommodate carts that removed dug-out earth and transported weapons, the Israeli military says.
Israel, which has acted for years against the smuggling tunnels that Gazans have built under their border with Egypt, is now on a campaign against what it describes as an unexpectedly intricate network of underground passages that militants dug into Israeli territory to carry out attacks. Israel’s 3-week-old offensive in Hamas-controlled Gaza has presented an opportunity to demolish the tunnels, which didn’t exist in quieter times, analysts say.
“What is surprising is the sheer scope of their entire tunnel-building operation, its sophistication, and how much of it we found in built-up, populated areas,” said the Gaza Brigade’s chief combat engineer officer, who asked to be identified as “Lt. Col. Max” for security reasons.
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The success of the Iron Dome anti-missile system in intercepting rockets fired at Israel from Gaza led Hamas “to shift much of its strategic effort from above the ground to below it,” Max said. Hamas says Israel’s claims of a “terror tunnel” operation are trumped up.
Militants have spent about $30 million to pour 600,000 tons of cement and other materials into the ground to build the three dozen underground passages that have been found so far, according to Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner. The human toll of wiping them out has been high: More than 1,050 Palestinians and 45 Israelis have died since the conflict began July 8, the overwhelming majority since ground troops invaded Gaza nine days later with the declared aim of destroying the tunnels.
Max, an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, wears a flak jacket and helmet as he makes his way down a sandy pit 40 feet deep to reach a tunnel that Israel says it uncovered before its planned endpoint was built near Kibbutz Nir Am, an Israeli agricultural community.
The passage’s main entrance shaft was hidden 1.2 miles inside Gaza under a greenhouse in Khan Yunis, near the territory’s southern tip, Max said.
As the 35-year-old officer leads the way through the dark, narrow corridor, he shines a flashlight on niches he says were dug out to store weapons. A metal rack running along one side is laced with black cable, remnants of an electrical system.
More than 100 entrance shafts to about 30 tunnels have been discovered since the ground incursion was ordered a day after Palestinian gunmen emerged from an underground passage inside Israel and headed for Nir Am, the military says. There have been at least four infiltrations since, including one in which two soldiers died in a shootout with gunmen, according to the army.
Destroying the tunnels, often during a battle, presents no small challenge.
The tunnels, often originating in the basements of Gaza homes and other buildings, can be booby-trapped. Max says he was injured in one such incident a few months earlier.
While the quickest and easiest way to demolish a tunnel is to have soldiers enter it and place explosives down its entire length, the army is drilling openings into the tunnels from above to insert the explosives, then detonating them from a distance to avoid putting troops in harm’s way, Max says.
“You want to reach a point where the entire tunnel from end to end can be destroyed so the enemy can’t come back and easily rebuild it,” he says, explaining why this one is still intact.
The military wing of Hamas, the Islamist movement that is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, accuses Israel of fabricating its stories about the tunnels.
“The occupation’s claim that it found tunnels and seized it by showing pictures is a complete lie,” the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades said in a statement last week. “All the occupation found were underground corridors dug into a training facility that belongs to our group near the border.”
Hamas knows firsthand the potential benefits the tunnels hold for militants. It won freedom for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel in 2011 by releasing a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was captured five years earlier by Hamas militants who had burrowed into Israel.
Israel has known about the tunnels for about two years, and had uncovered several, including the one Max displayed, before the current military operation began. Retired Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, who headed Israeli Military Intelligence from 2006 to 2010, said Israel had been constrained by diplomatic considerations from acting earlier against the passages.
“We knew very well the tunnels were there,” Yadlin said. “It’s not an intelligence failure. If it’s a failure, it was a policy failure.”
After Israel discovered a concrete-lined tunnel last October, it began limiting the already restricted entry of cement and other building materials into Gaza. That decision drew criticism from the United Nations and human rights groups, which say the restrictions are crippling a Gaza economy that is reliant on the construction industry. It also leaves thousands of Palestinians without the means to build or repair homes, including those destroyed or damaged by Israeli military operations, they say.
Re-emerging into the harsh sunlight, Max acknowledges that pressure from the international community to cease fighting might curtail his mission.
“If we want to completely destroy all the tunnels, at least all the ones we know about, it would take at least another week,” he says. “We know also how to achieve a maximum impact within a shortened schedule.”