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Hamas digs deep in Gaza amid fears of 'coming' underground war

With Israeli bulldozers looming on far side of border fence, Gazans fear Hamas's strategically important tunnels could be trigger for next conflict
A young man on a bicycle watches the search for tunnels on the far side of Gaza's border with Israel (Mohammed Asad)

GAZA - For Gazans, the buzz of drones or the roar of fighter jets provide a near-constant reminder of Israel’s strategic dominance of the space above their heads.

But many here believe the next war could potentially be fought over the ground beneath their feet.

While exchanges of air strikes and rocket attacks have punctuated previous battles, Hamas’s main preparations for a future conflict are taking place out of sight and deep underground.

Analysts in Gaza say that tunnels are now seen as offering the best line of defence from an Israeli assault, as well as a potential route into Israeli territory for fighters tasked with retaliatory attacks and a potent psychological weapon.

Hamas too is lauding the tunnel builders for whom the threat of often deadly collapses is an ever-present danger.

Last Monday Ismail Haniyeh, the senior Hamas leader, hosted the families of workers killed in tunnelling accidents in recent months, including seven Hamas members who died last month when the cavity in which they were working collapsed during Gaza’s heavy flooding.

In a statement, the top Hamas leader praised the diggers, whose funerals drew thousands onto the streets, as “heroes, digging through rock and building tunnels, while to the west they are experimenting with rockets every day.”

But some fear Israel’s military could use public concerns about the rumoured encroachment of tunnels into Israeli territory as justification for another assault on the besieged Palestinian enclave.

Since the last war in 2014 ended, Hamas claims to have already constructed 50 tunnels along Gaza’s 60km border with Israel.

Although Israel rejects the figure as an exaggeration, eyewitness reports and photos of Israeli diggers and bulldozers searching for tunnels along the border with Gaza suggest the threat is being taken more seriously than ever.

Last week Haniyeh said that members of the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, had discovered Israeli censors and cameras in one tunnel.

'Underground Iron Dome'

Israel is also developing an “underground Iron Dome” – a reference to its existing US-funded rocket defence system – with some Israeli reports suggesting that tunnel-detection technology could be deployed along the border with Gaza within months.

Reports suggest the technology is being developed by two Israeli security firms with partial funding coming from a $120mn grant from the US to the Israeli defence ministry.

Members of Hamas's Qassam Brigades attend the funeral of seven tunnel workers killed in a collapse last month (Mohammed Asad)

With the true extent of the tunnels a closely guarded secret, separating reality from propaganda is almost impossible.

Many Gazans believe Israel is exaggerating the tunnel threat as a pretext to waging another offensive war in the name of "defence".

But Hamas also encourages speculation about the tunnels as a way of boosting morale among its members and maintaining public support, and of provoking panic in Israel.

Ibrahim Al-Madhoun, a Gaza-based analyst, told Middle East Eye that tunnels had proven to be operationally effective for Hamas’s military wing in the past, both in terms of defending Gaza and carrying out retaliatory attacks.

As long ago as 2006, Hamas used tunnels to bring captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit into Gaza after a battle on the border.

And during the war in 2014, Hamas’s fighters used the tunnels to get behind Israeli military positions and take Israeli troops by surprise. For fighters armed with rocket launchers, tunnels also offer a hiding place from ever-watchful Israeli drones.

In 2014, Israel said that the main objective of its attack on Gaza was to disrupt Hamas’s tunnel-building operations, yet Hamas claims the number of tunnels has trebled since then.

Psychological effect

The Israeli newspaper, Yediot Ahronor, meanwhile published a security assessment claiming that 1,000 Gazan tunnellers were burrowing into Israeli territory at a rate of roughly 160m per week, although it published no details of the location of the alleged encroachment.

Residents of a kibbutz close to the border with Gaza have also reported hearing drilling in the night, with one resident telling MEE: "After so many years of getting used to living with rockets, suddenly we have a new threat."

Despite Israel’s claims that anti-tunnelling defensive technology would soon be deployed, and with Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon forced to deny speculation that tunnellers may already be digging under Israeli homes, Madhoun said that the psychological effect on Israeli citizens may be impossible to counter.

A mother of one of those killed in a tunnel collapse weeps for her son (Mohammed Asad)

“What Yaalon does not want is to turn the tunnels into an issue of Israeli public opinion, because that could force the Israeli army into starting a new military confrontation with Gaza,” he said.

For now, neither side is talking up the likelihood of a new war, with Haniyeh assuring the Gazan public that “there is no new war on the horizon” and suggesting that Israel was carrying out “defensive manoeuvring”.

Faisal Abu Shalah, a legislative council member and a Fatah leader, also told MEE he doubted a new war in Gaza was imminent.

“I don’t think Israel is serious in its threats, because Israel is more interested in maintaining the separation between the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and the status quo is ideal for Israel,” he said.

“Hamas is also uninterested in a new war, as it controls the border and is not allowing rockets to be fired from Gaza into Israel. Neither party has any intention to escalate the situation.”

But with Israeli bulldozers visible on the far side of the border fence, some on the streets of Gaza fear that the discovery of a tunnel could be the trigger that shatters that fragile detente.

“All the discussion about the tunnels in the Israeli media brings us to the bigger question of not whether there will be war, but when the war will start again," said Abu Adham, a 45-year-old taxi driver in the southern Gazan town of Khan Younis.

“It is coming and the US will fuel it this time, with Israel flying the banner of victimisation and right to defence.”