While rockets and mortar fly through the sky in Gaza and southern Israel, the focus of the Jewish state's military is underground, on the warren of tunnels they say allow Hamas operatives to move freely in and out of the Palestinian territory committing acts of terror.
Pictures released by the Israel Defense Forces show tunnels, some primitive and others sophisticated enough to include walls and ladders, running under the border from the Hamas-controlled district before they were intentionally destroyed. More than 60 access shafts leading to 28 tunnels have been uncovered since Israel's ground operation -- dubbed Operation Protective Edge -- began on July 8.
“An IDF force uncovered a terror access shaft in Gaza in which were weapons, maps and IDF uniforms, all intended for the execution of terror attacks against Israel,” said an IDF statement. “In addition, an IDF force attacked several militants emerging from a tunnel opening in the southern Gaza Strip. Since the beginning of the ground operation more than 60 access shafts leading to some 28 tunnels have been uncovered.”
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said shutting down the tunnels is critical to security in Israel.
“We've been busy with the tunnels for a long time -- in the last year we have discovered four in our territory," Ya’alon said. "This can be dealt with diplomatically or militarily -- now it's being done militarily with a lot of success.”
IDF officials initially expected that most of the tunnels would be destroyed within days, but once on the ground learned there were more than intelligence sources knew. And on Tuesday, a U.S. intelligence source revealed that American satellite imagery had suggested that as many as 60 tunnels might have been built underneath Gaza.
The maze of tunnels and access shafts appears to weave its way throughout much of the Gaza Strip. Access points are reportedly found in homes, mosques, public buildings, and more. In the last week, two discoveries of missile caches have been found in UNRWA schools that most likely arrived via tunnel.
“UNRWA strongly condemns the group or groups responsible for placing the weapons in one of its installations” wrote Christopher Gunness, director of advocacy and strategic relations for UNRWA. Today, UN chief Ban Ki-Moon revealed his dismay at learning that at least one of the two caches has “disappeared” after being handed over by UNRWA to unidentified persons.
“The rockets were passed on to the government authorities in Gaza, which is Hamas," a senior Israeli official told the Times of Israel. "In other words, UNRWA handed to Hamas rockets that could well be shot at Israel.”
The tunnels vary in length, height and width, but some are well-constructed using concrete blocks. Some have electricity feeds and sewage channels, suggesting they are designed for terrorists to remain inside for long periods, possibly days at a time. The materials used to construct the tunnels appear most likely to have been diverted by Hamas from the building materials allowed into Gaza by Israel for civilian construction.
On Monday, an attempt by a force of terrorists dressed in mock Israeli Army uniforms was thwarted after they emerged into the night and were involved in a firefight with an IDF unit. Ten would-be attackers were killed, along with four Israeli soldiers.
Israelis close to the border are living in fear that at any moment a tunnel delivering well-trained and merciless terrorists could emerge within their community, or even within the very boundaries of their own house or garden. Should Hamas or Islamic Jihad succeed in emerging undiscovered from one of these tunnels, there could be carnage on a massive scale.
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster and at www.paulalster.com