Nearly two years after the end of Operation Protective Edge, the IDF has uncovered a Hamas attack tunnel crossing the border fence into Israel, which is believed to have been dug after the 2014 war, it was cleared for publication on Monday morning.
The shaft was discovered inside Israeli territory, just a few dozens of meters from the border fence, in the Eshkol Regional Council, but not very close to nearby communities.
Officials in the defense establishment say the tunnel was likely meant to be used in a strategic attack against Israel, in which dozens of Hamas fighters from the elite "Nukhba" unit would participate.
Since the tunnel's discovery last week, IDF engineering forces and fighters from elite units have been working in the open area between Kisufim and Kerem to destroy it.
The tunneling took place on both sides of the border, and the Palestinians in Gaza reported on it, but Hamas refrained from using the tunnel or taking other offensive steps against the IDF. And this despite the fact that according to Israeli officials’ estimations that Hamas was aware that the IDF had uncovered and destroyed the tunnel.
At the start of IDF operations, Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and GOC Southern Command Eyal Zamir were present. Residents in the area were told that the matter was under IDF control and that there was no real danger, therefore life went on as usual. Even farmers in the area were updated and were given no special instructions.
A senior security source said last week around the time of the tunnel’s discovery, "We are not surprised by Hamas’s efforts as that is an opportunity for them to carry out a strategic attack. Hamas is not rushing to battle. We have identified other tunnels dug by Hamas, but they have not penetrated our territory."
Hamas’s excavation of this tunnel appears to be have been done relatively fast compared to those dug in the years prior to Operation Protective Edge, pointing to their having learned lessons and invested an unprecedented amount of money – millions of shekels – in the project. Even the depth of the tunnel, about 30 meters, is considered unusual.
Nevertheless, in other respects, it is the same type of tunnel discovered before and during Operation Protective Edge - reinforced walls, digging pathways, branches and inner depth.
According to a senior Southern Command official, Hamas employs 800 tunnel diggers who enjoy high salaries compared to other operatives in the organization, and Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades chief, Mohammed Deif, considers the tunnels a flagship project highlighting the strengthening of the organization's military wing.
The fact that no weapons were found in the tunnel, and that Hamas realized that the tunnel was discovered almost instantaneously and yet chose not to use it to attack the IDF, reinforces the defense establishment’s opinion that the tunnel was not meant to send terrorists into Israel in the nearby future but rather in further down the line.
Not an Iron Dome-level success yet
Over the past year, after receiving intelligence on the matter, the IDF focused much of its efforts on finding tunnels along the Gaza Strip border. IDF forces have been seen scanning the area in past months, attempting to find shafts and tunnel openings. The IDF responded to any tip by residents of the Gaza border communities, who reported suspicious noise, even in cases involving towns relatively far from the border fence.
The new tunnel's discovery is the result of field action, intelligence work by both the military and the Shin Bet, and above all, the result of the IDF's new tunnel-discovery technology, which has been used along the border over the past year.
The IDF is treating the discovery of this tunnel as an initial step, heralding the new system's full implementation in a few months. The new system is part of the IDF Southern Command's "Southern Glow" operational plan, which includes the fortification of border measures against a mass invasion by Palestinian forces, as well as the deployment of early warning trackers which should aid in the discovery of terrorists crossing into Israel. Assuming the planned receives the required budget, "Southern Glow" is expected to be implemented during the next two years, starting with higher-risk areas.
IDF officials expressed their approval of the new technology used in discovering the tunnel, but the security community prefers not to call this a revolutionary moment or compare it to the implementation of the Iron Dome missile defense system. Still, the results of Israel's investment in this technology over the past few years have led a number of other countries to send representatives to learn how to combat the tunnel threat from Israel.
"We need to make this discovery into a method, with the test coming in the next few months, in which we will try and find more tunnels," said a senior Southern Command officer. "This is an ability that allows the discovery of very small spaces at depths of 30-40 meters, down to the level of ground water. We are still developing our method of handling this system. What we thought would happen during a certain time period with this system is taking four times longer (than expected)."
The senior officer doesn't rule out the possibility that Israel's breakthrough in the anti-tunnel fight could cause an escalation of violence on Israel's southern border.
"We have defined the mission as being the destruction of all attack tunnels without reaching an escalation, but an escalation will not deter us. Hamas knows we've strengthened our defenses and that it will have a hard time surprising us. If we end up in a war over this – then so be it. This is a long, protracted struggle. Hamas is a sophisticated enemy. It learns lessons and implements them fast. Each one of these tunnels that we foil is a loss for it. Hamas will have to contend with the dilemma of whether or not to act if it sees itself losing other attack tunnels."