Should Israel Cut Hamas Some Slack Despite Terror Tunnel Discovery?

Military and Right Wing Pols Debate Israel's Latest Scare

Subterranean: A Palestinian man is lowered into a smuggling tunnel beneath the Gaza-Egypt border, in the southern Gaza Strip, on September 11, 2013.
Getty Images
Subterranean: A Palestinian man is lowered into a smuggling tunnel beneath the Gaza-Egypt border, in the southern Gaza Strip, on September 11, 2013.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published October 29, 2013, issue of November 01, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It hasn’t gotten much attention outside Israel, but that so-called terror tunnel uncovered by the Israeli military near Gaza in early October was just the tip of a major strategic dilemma confronting the Jewish state. And like so many of Israel’s puzzles these days, the debate over how to handle it is causing tension between the military and the political right.

The mile-long tunnel, stretching a quarter-mile inside Israeli territory at a depth of about 60 feet, stunned Israelis with its sophistication. Tall enough for a man to stand, lined with prefab concrete walls, it had electric lighting, telephone lines and a rail line for transporting materiel — or abductees. The tunnel ended in the fields of Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, near the children’s houses. Military officials said it took at least a year to construct.

The opening of the tunnel to the media on October 13 raised chilling images of terrorists slipping into Israel, snatching children and fleeing back to Gaza in a replay of the Gilad Shalit episode. Shalit, 19, a soldier, was kidnapped in 2006 and held hostage for five years before being traded in 2011 for 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners. Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk wrote on Facebook October 15 that the new tunnel was meant for kidnapping more Israelis.

It was the concrete walls, though, that stirred the sharpest Israeli debate. Political conservatives, led by maverick deputy defense minister Danny Danon, claimed the cement to make the concrete — 500 tons of it, the military estimated — had been supplied by Israel in a misguided humanitarian gesture. In Washington, former Bush aide Elliott Abrams wrote that it resulted from U.S. and Western pressure.

Military officials dismissed those claims. In a series of interviews, they insisted the cement entered Gaza from Egypt via smuggling tunnels. Israel, they say, has supplied cement only in limited amounts for controlled use by international agencies. Israel began a larger, less supervised flow to the private market just weeks ago, in September, long after the terror tunnel was completed. It’s been stopped again because of the tunnel, but Defense Ministry officials said the cutoff is temporary.

The reason Israel began admitting private market cement in September is that Egypt’s new military regime began shutting the smuggling tunnels in August. It’s crippled Gaza’s economy. The reason Israel is likely to resume the flow soon is that, despite protests from the right, it doesn’t want to see the Hamas regime in Gaza weakened any further at this point.

Hamas is seen as broke and virtually helpless right now. Its onetime Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad, is fighting for his life. Its Iranian paymaster is flat broke. Iran has been giving Hamas a cold shoulder since its new president began flirting with the West. Hamas’s main patron, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is deposed and outlawed, replaced by a military regime that considers Hamas an enemy.

In the West Bank, where Hamas once posed a serious challenge to Mahmoud Abbas and his secular Fatah party, the Islamist movement is all but outlawed, its top leaders imprisoned or under surveillance by Palestinian security forces.

In Gaza itself, Hamas faces challenges from Al Qaeda-linked jihadi groups. Hamas has been trying to control them ever since it signed a cease-fire with Israel last November 21, ending Israel’s punishing eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense. Israel’s military thinks it’s doing a credible job. Just 75 rockets were fired in 40 incidents this year, mostly by jihadis, compared to 2,300 last year.

Under the circumstances, Hamas poses little threat to Israel for the foreseeable future. Were it toppled, Israeli strategists believe, whatever comes next would be far worse. For now, the military sees tunneling as a harmless diversion.

Tunnels have been a regular feature along Gaza’s southern border with Egypt for years. Since Hamas seized power in 2007 they’ve been the main conduit for commerce in and out.

The handful of tunnels that reach eastward into Israel lead only to open fields, army bases and isolated kibbutzim. They serve no conceivable purpose except terrorism.

Hamas sees the tunnels as its ticket to another Shalit-style victory and restored stature. Besides, it’s had a small army of excavators and engineers sitting idle since Egypt first started cracking down last year, following a Gaza-based attacks on Egyptian troops in Sinai. Hamas has them digging toward Israel and preparing earthworks inside Gaza for future Israeli incursions.

Israel’s handling of tunnels has changed in the past year, since Brigadier General Mickey Edelstein took command of the army’s Gaza Division. He set up special units, equipped with high-tech sensors and heavy drilling machinery, to detect tunneling activity.

According to Yediot’s Alex Fishman, Edelstein’s new approach is to let Hamas pour manpower and money into digging elaborate tunnels and then destroy them when they’re near their end-point. It’s not as scary as it looks, and it keeps Hamas occupied.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.