Sometime around 5 a.m. Monday, 10 men set out quietly on a predawn mission, dressed in Israeli army uniforms and boots.
They were not, however, members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They were members of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, and they had just emerged from one of the many tunnels the militants have dug between the Gaza Strip and Israel. That much, however, was not clear until the Israeli forces nearby noticed that the men who looked like their own were actually carrying Kalashnikovs and not Tavors, Israel’s standard-issue automatic rifles.
In the gunfight that ensued, Israeli soldiers killed 10 Hamas militants, the IDF says, but also lost four of its own when they were hit by an antitank rocket fired at them by the gunmen. The dramatic gun battle unfolded only about 650 ft. (200 m) from Kibbutz Nir Am, an agricultural commune founded by immigrants from Eastern Europe in 1943. Residents were ordered to remain indoors and roads were closed for the next five hours as the Israeli military officials were unsure if some of the Palestinian militants might have succeeded in breaking away from the group.
The incident is being seen in Israel as a narrowly averted nightmare. That militants could pop out of the ground just feet from a residential area shows just how far Hamas’ military wing has progressed toward being within arm’s reach of the Israeli population. One militant who was killed in a similar incident a few days ago had tranquilizers and handcuffs with him, suggesting one of his goals had been kidnapping.
Destroying as many tunnels as possible is the goal of the IDF’s Operation Defensive Edge, launched two weeks ago. The IDF says it has discovered close to 50 entrances to 14 tunnels since its ground invasion of Gaza began, and that it took fire Monday while it worked on destroying a tunnel in Shujaiyeh, the same neighborhood in which the IDF engaged in a late-night offensive a day earlier that left at least 60 civilians dead, as well as 13 Israeli soldiers.
“Only today ... we understood the meaning of the danger of these tunnels when terrorists, wearing IDF uniforms, came out of the belly of the earth and were threatening our communities around Gaza,” Major General Sami Turgeman, the IDF head of the Southern Command, told reporters after the incident at Nir Am. “A huge disaster was avoided. This proves that we’re right to focus on the tunnels. They now know that the efforts they have invested, years of time and a great amount of money and hours of work, can be taken in a day of work by us, plus paying with the death of the militants who tried to infiltrate Israel.”
Gazans interviewed Monday were divided over the effectiveness of the tunnel campaign. Some residents said that the tunnel strategy was forcing Israel to suffer, and was perhaps even more effective than rockets. Others said the tunnels’ use would only increase the loss of life on both sides.
Hamas began building tunnels as a method of economic sustenance. As Israel tightened its borders with Gaza, first during the second intifadeh and more severely when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in 2007, Hamas started building tunnels in Gaza to smuggle goods in from Egypt. Hamas taxed the various tunnels and was also able to use each tunnel’s creation and operation as a kind of job-works program for desperate Gazans, at one point employing up to 7,000 people, according to an al-Jazeera report. (Doron Peskin, an analyst at the Israeli market-research firm Info-Prod Research, estimates that tunnels coming from Gaza into Israel cost $200 per m to construct.) Israel and Egypt — fearing militancy in Gaza was spilling over into the Sinai — have been acting for several years to shut these down.
But tunnels weren’t just a way to break the blockade. Palestinians realized they could also be used as a way to attack Israel. In 2006, militants used a tunnel to attack an Israeli army post and kidnap a 19-year-old soldier, Gilad Shalit. He was exchanged after more than five years in captivity for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails — a success Hamas would like to repeat. The possibility of an additional kidnapping like this has motivated Hamas to invest in an unknown number of tunnels, although Israeli army officials estimate there are likely 20 tunnels today.
“It is a very dangerous period because I think Hamas understands that their ability to use these tunnels is a window that is closing very quickly, and the time to gain some achievements with what they have built is limited,” says Shlomo Brom, a retired general and former director of the Strategic Planning Division of the IDF.
Had the militants managed to emerge in the middle of the Nir Am kibbutz Monday, they would have found Israeli soldiers who have been camping out in the community’s courtyards since many residents have fled to safer parts of the country. Of the 400 original residents, approximately 60 remain — those too old to move, their helpers, and members of the local emergency committee.
“This morning we woke up from this dream that such a thing could never happen. We haven’t had something like this since 1956, ahead of the Sinai campaign,” said Shlomo Maizlitz, head of the regional emergency committee, who was a 12-year-old boy during that war involving Israel, Gaza and Egypt. “We didn’t dream that the tunnels would get to our area. We thought it was too difficult to drill anywhere near it. Now, everything looks different.”
— With reporting by Hazem Balousha / Gaza City