by Yoav Limor
The ongoing fighting in Gaza Strip has slowly exposed the daunting tunnel infrastructure Hamas has dug between Gaza and Israel. This is a strategic threat, which has grown undisturbed over the past few years, and may still exact a heavy toll in the coming days.
Monday's attack, during which four Israeli soldiers were killed, including the commander of the Gefen Battalion, was the second tunnel attack in two days to catch Israel by surprise.
The attack took place despite the intelligence provided by the Shin Bet security agency, warning of a potential infiltration attempt, and while the information led to heightened alert and the deployments of additional forces in the area, the absence of intelligence indicating as to the exact location of the tunnel's entrance afforded the terrorists the element of surprise.
Just like in the previous tunnel attack near Kibbutz Reim, during which an officer and a soldier were killed, the terrorists once again disguised themselves as Israeli soldiers, and again opted not to storm the nearby Israeli community -- Kibbutz Nir Am -- but rather waited for a military target.
This may indicate that Hamas believes that attacking military forces would be perceived by international public opinion as "legitimate," while targeting civilians would undermined their claims of an Israeli "massacre" in Gaza Strip.
Defense officials hedged that the next few days will see Hamas attempt to launch additional terror attacks via its tunnel infrastructure. The Israel Defense Forces' intensive operations in Gaza, which has so far uncovered dozens of tunnels and shafts -- some leading well into Israel's territory -- had prompted Hamas to make use of as many tunnels as possible before they are discovered and destroyed.
Ahead of the ground incursion launched as part of Operation Protective Edge, the IDF estimated that there were 10 to 12 major terror tunnels running under the Gaza Strip-Israel border. The operation is now geared toward completing the mission at hand -- discovering all of Hamas' terror tunnels and eliminating them before a cease-fire is achieved.
The scope of Hamas' underground enterprise was partially known to Israel, although these tunnels' actual paths were unknown. Various specialists, armed with sophisticated equipment, were sent to the southern border and tasked with finding theses tunnels, and the Defense Ministry has invested millions of shekels is developing technological solutions, which have yet to prove effective. The five tunnels discovered earlier this year, it seems, were just the tip of the iceberg.
Understanding the tunnel threat, which has prompted the IDF to form a special intelligence-operational taskforce, on the one hand; and the routine prevalent in the Gaza vicinity communities despite having only a partially-effective solution to this threat on the other hand, are very disturbing: Israel has essentially allowed thousands of civilians living near the border to go about their lives knowing there was a bomb ticking underneath their feet.
In that respect, Hamas actually did Israel a huge favor when it rejected the cease-fire agreement presented by Egypt last week, as allowing this threat to grow further would have given Hamas a dangerous advantage in the future.
Even now, whatever remedy applied would be a partial one. Hamas will try to reconstitute its tunnel infrastructure, and other terror groups -- global jihadi groups in Sinai and the Golan and Hezbollah on the northern border -- may also decide to dig their way to deadly terror attacks.
The solution to this threat must be decisive. Israel must invest whatever resources necessary to devise a technological solution that would enable it to pinpoint tunnels' locations, and it must also make it unequivocally clear to Hamas' leadership that pursuing the tunnel enterprise in the future would constitute a fundamental violation of the cease-fire agreement that will eventually bring Operation Protective Edge to an end, a violation that would prompt the IDF to immediately eliminate the threat in Gaza Strip.
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