As Hamas expands its tunnel network in Gaza, Israel, and the United States are collaborating on a clandestine project to thwart the Islamist group’s subterranean advantage.
- By Yardena Schwartz<p> Yardena Schwartz is a Tel Aviv-based freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer whose reporting has been featured in The New York Times, The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, The Miami Herald, NBC News, and CBS News, among other news outlets. </p>
KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza — Bassem al-Najar has been homeless since August 2014, when Israeli warplanes demolished his house during the 50-day conflict that killed more than 2,000 Gazans and 72 Israelis. Najar lost his brother in the war, and for the next four months, he lived in a U.N. school with his wife and four children, along with 80 other families. They moved into a prefabricated hut, resembling a tool shed, in December 2014, where they expected to live for just a few months until their home was rebuilt. Today, he is still one of an estimated 100,000 Gazans who remain homeless.
Yet while much of Gaza still lies in ruins, what has taken less time to rebuild is Hamas’s subterranean tunnel network, the very thing Israel entered Gaza to destroy.
During Operation Protective Edge, the name used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for the 2014 war, the military uncovered and destroyed 32 cross-border tunnels that snaked for miles beneath Gaza and reached into Israeli territory. Many of them, according to the IDF, began inside homes and mosques in Gaza and ended inside or on the edge of Israeli border towns.
Hamas has made no secret of its efforts to fortify its labyrinth of tunnels, which have emerged as the group’s most powerful weapon — far more effective than its rocket arsenal. In just a handful of tunnel attacks over the course of that summer, Palestinian militants managed to kill 11 Israeli soldiers and capture the bodies of several soldiers in the hope of arranging a future prisoner exchange, in which Israel would trade Palestinian prisoners for the return of soldiers’ bodies.
“The resistance continues on its path of liberation of the land,” Ismail Haniyeh, a political leader of Hamas and former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, told a crowded mosque in Gaza City in late January. “Fighters are digging twice as much as the number of tunnels dug in Vietnam.”
During the 2014 war, Hamas fired more than 4,800 rockets and 1,700 mortars at Israel, according to Amnesty International. Thanks to the Iron Dome, a first-of-its-kind anti-rocket system developed by Israeli engineers with the help of nearly $1 billion from the U.S. government, many of them were shot out of the sky before they could reach civilian towns and cities. The Iron Dome explains the extremely low number of civilian deaths on the Israeli side. But there is no Iron Dome-type system that has proved as effective at thwarting Hamas’s tunnel network.
Although they are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt and are living with just a few hours of electricity a day and barely any potable tap water, Najar and other Palestinians are not angry with Hamas for rebuilding the tunnels, which could lead Israel to wage another war to destroy them.
“What angers me is that the occupation is still imposing a siege on Gaza, which prevents the building process,” he says.
In fact, since the cease-fire between Israel and the militant Islamist group Hamas, more than 3 million tons of construction material have entered Gaza through Israel’s Kerem Shalom border crossing, according to Israeli figures. The first major tunnel attack occurred near that same crossing in 2006, when 19-year-old Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas militants. Hamas held Shalit in Gaza until 2011, when Israel exchanged him for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. The prospect of capturing another Israeli soldier, and concluding another prisoner exchange, is one reason the tunnels are so valuable to Hamas.
According to experts in Palestinian politics, there is actually a surplus of cement and other construction materials in Gaza, leading to a black market that has enabled Hamas to easily repair the tunnels that Israel destroyed in 2014 and build new ones.
“It’s no secret that Hamas has its ways of getting these construction materials,” says Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. “There are some Palestinians who buy cement to rehabilitate their homes at the fixed price of 560 NIS (new Israeli shekels) per ton [roughly $143] but sell it on the black market for 800 NIS [roughly $205]. This is part of the problem. Some of the Palestinians aren’t using the cement to rebuild their homes.”
While Israel struggles to prevent the construction material it is allowing into Gaza from ending up in Hamas tunnels, it is developing a secret military weapon designed to eradicate the problem.
According to intelligence officials, Israeli engineers are working tirelessly to develop what’s being called the “Underground Iron Dome” — a system that could detect and destroy cross-border tunnels. According to a report on Israeli Channel 2, the Israeli government has spent more than $250 million since 2004 in its efforts to thwart tunnel construction under the Gaza border.
The United States has already appropriated $40 million for the project in the 2016 financial year, in order “to establish anti-tunnel capabilities to detect, map, and neutralize underground tunnels that threaten the U.S. or Israel,” said U.S. Defense Department spokesman Christopher Sherwood. While the majority of the work in 2016 will be done in Israel, Sherwood added, “the U.S. will receive prototypes, access to test sites, and the rights to any intellectual property.”
Contrary to reports quoting the Israeli Defense Ministry, which claimed that the United States had already earmarked $120 million for the project, Sherwood said that appropriations are done annually, thus there is no guarantee that an additional $40 million will be appropriated in 2017 and 2018.
Among the Israeli companies working to develop the new anti-tunnel mechanism are Elbit Systems and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the same company that developed the Iron Dome rocket defense system. Both companies declined to provide any details due to security reasons, as did the IDF and other Israeli officials, who fear that such information could play into Hamas’s hands. Yet according to intelligence sources who spoke with Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity, the system involves seismic sensors that can monitor underground vibrations.
IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Gadi Eizenkot hinted at these efforts in February. “We are doing a lot, but many of [the things we do] are hidden from the public,” he told a conference at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center. “We have dozens, if not a hundred, engineering vehicles on the Gaza border.”
Yaakov Amidror, a former national security advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former head of Israel’s National Security Council, told FP the confidential new system is not yet operational, but it is “in a testing mode.”
Since the beginning of 2016, nearly a dozen Hamas tunnels have collapsed on the Palestinians who were building them, killing at least 10 of the group’s members. While winter rains have been blamed as the culprit, the wave of collapses has led many here to wonder if Israel’s new secret weapon is already at work.
Asked by the Palestinian Maan News Agency in February whether or not Israel was behind recent tunnel collapses, the coordinator of government activities in the Palestinian territories, IDF Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, responded, “God knows.”
Hamas, too, is paying close attention to Israeli attempts to thwart its tunnel network. Haniyeh, the senior Hamas official, told Gazans at Friday prayers on Feb. 19 that the Islamist group had “discovered an underground vehicle on which were installed cameras and sensors to monitor tunnels and fighters.”
Even if Haniyeh’s claim is true, Israel still appears unable to completely counter Hamas’s subterranean advantage. And if the development of the Underground Iron Dome is any indication, it could be several years before Israel is able to employ an effective anti-tunnel system.
In the meantime, Israeli residents of Gaza border towns are growing frustrated with what they perceive as a government that lacks any vision beyond fighting a war with Hamas every two or three years. Israel has fought three wars with Hamas since it withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 — 2008’s Operation Cast Lead, 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense, and 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. While border residents wish the government and military would do more to protect them from Hamas’s tunnels, many of them also want the government to help the people of Gaza.
“Gaza is a pot that’s about to boil over, and unless something changes there, nothing is going to change here,” says Adele Raemer, who lives a mile from the Gaza border in Nirim, an Israeli settlement. “People can’t live like that without exploding. They are going to go underground and build tunnels if that’s how they are going to make a living.”
According to veteran Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff, the former Arab affairs correspondent for Haaretz, digging tunnels is one of the best ways to make a living in Gaza. Tunnelers typically earn about $400 a month, says Issacharoff. It’s a decent salary by Gaza standards, where unemployment is among the world’s highest, at 38 percent, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
“It’s a two-pronged problem,” says Raemer, a New York native and mother of four. “On the one hand, we have to protect ourselves, but on the other hand, we have to make it livable on the other side. I believe the people in Gaza want the same things we want here: security, safety, the ability to put food on the table for our children. It’s just complicated when you have Hamas ruling there. They’ve held us and the people of Gaza hostage.”
Raemer ends our conversation with a lament: “We’re worse off now than we were before Operation Protective Edge, because Gaza is getting worse. Operation Protective Edge was supposed to protect me.”
It’s a feeling echoed by many Israelis living along the Gaza border, who would like to see a long-term solution to the problem that is Gaza, not just the symptom that is the tunnels.
Photo credit: Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images