Tunnel Attacks Have Israel on Edge

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

Israel's Ground Invasion of Gaza Continues

A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the small and overcrowded cemetery of the St. Porfirius church in Gaza City, July 27, 2014.
A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the small and overcrowded cemetery of the St. Porfirius church in Gaza City, July 27, 2014.Oliver Weiken—EPA
A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the small and overcrowded cemetery of the St. Porfirius church in Gaza City, July 27, 2014.
Palestinian men gather things they found in the rubble of destroyed buildings on July 27, 2014 in the Shejaiya residential district of Gaza City as families returned to find their homes ground into rubble by relentless Israeli tank fire and air strikes.
A Palestinian man walks past destroyed houses in Beit Hanoun northern Gaza Strip, July 26 2014.
Palestinian women react amid the destruction in the northern district of Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip during an humanitarian truce on July 26, 2014.
Destruction in Gaza City
Palestinian girls peers from inside a UN school in Jabalia, north Gaza Strip, on July 25, 2014, where they found shelter after escaping from their home.
Smoke from an Israeli strike rises over the Gaza Strip, July 25, 2014.
Israeli APCs drive near the Israeli border with Gaza as the come out of the Gaza Strip July 25, 2014.
Mortar cases are piled at a military staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip, July 24, 2014.
A Palestinian man holds a girl injured during shelling at a U.N.-run school sheltering Palestinians, at a hospital in the northern Gaza Strip on July 24, 2014.
Blood stains of displaced Palestinians are seen inside the UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun after it has been hit, Gaza Strip, July 24, 2014.
A Palestinian woman stands in front of buildings damaged by Israeli bombardment in the Jabalia district of the northern Gaza Strip on July 24, 2014.
Relatives hold the bodies of Palestinian children Hadi Abdel Nabi, 3, and one and a-half-year-old Abdel Rahman Abdel Nabi, at the cemetery in Jebaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, during their funeral, July 24, 2014.
A young Palestinian girl who got injured when a UN school for refugees was allegedly hit by a Israeli tank shells, lies on a hospital bed in the emergency room of Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip, July 24, 2014.
Displaced Palestinians from Beit Hanoun sleep inside the UNRWA school in Jabalia, July 23, 2014.
Wounded Israeli soldiers are brought to a helicopter on July 23, 2014 near Kafar Aza, Israel.
Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Comrades of slain Sgt. Max Steinberg are comforting each other at Mt. Herzl cemetery, Jerusalem, July 23,2014.
Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Palestinians take cover as warning Israeli air strikes are fired at a nearby building in Gaza City, July 22, 2014.
Women grieve during the funeral of Islamic Brigades fighter Abdalla Ismail al Buheisi, in Deir Al Balah, on the Gaza Strip.
Gaza Strip, Gaza Street: A Palestinian man looks through the window of his house at the buildings damaged  overnight by an airstrike in Gaza City.. ALESSIO ROMENZI for TIME
A mosque destroyed overnight in attacks in Rafah, Gaza.
The mother of Israeli soldier Tal Yifrah mourns over his flag-covered coffin during his funeral in Rishon Lezion near Tel Aviv, July 22, 2014.
Israeli soldiers evacuate their wounded comrades at an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, on July 20, 2014.
Israeli soldiers stand near their tank while smoke due to airstrikes and shelling rises from Gaza on July 22, 2014 near Sderot, Israel.
Conflict in Gaza
Palestinian men bury the bodies of a family who was killed after airstrike in Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian refugees unload mattresses at a United Nations shelter in Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 19, 2014.
Palestinian refugees unload mattresses at a United Nations shelter in Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 19, 2014.
Palestinians flee the Shujayeh neighborhood during heavy shelling in Gaza City. July 20, 2014.
Palestinian woman gestures as she stands amidst the rubble of her house which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
A damaged house in Shujaya district in Gaza, seen during a humanitarian cease-fire, July 20, 2014.
Palestinian man holds the hand of a woman, who medics said was wounded in an Israeli air strike, in the northern Gaza Strip
Relatives of three Palestinians from Abu Muamar family, who medics said were killed in an Israeli air strike, mourn during their funeral in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians flee east Gaza neighbourhood
Palestinians carry a body inside the Shifa Hospital morgue, in Gaza City. July 20, 2014.
Casualties mount in Gaza City, Israel expands ground operation
A Palestinian woman wearing clothes stained with the blood of other relatives, who medics said were wounded in Israeli shelling, cries at a hospital in Gaza City
Palestinians, who medics said were wounded during heavy Israeli shelling, sit at a hospital in Gaza City
Rescue workers enter Shuja'iyya to retrieve dead and wounded
A Palestinian girl sits in a minibus after fleeing her family's house during heavy Israeli shelling, in Gaza City
Palestinian woman, who fled her house following an Israeli ground offensive, stays at a United Nations-run school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
Israeli soldiers fire their weapons during the funeral of their comrade Bnaya Rubel in Holon
Funeral of Israeli soldier Amotz Greenberg
Smoke rises during what witnesses said were heavy Israeli shelling at the Shejaia neighbourhood in Gaza City
A Palestinian family who fled their homes is en route to seek shelter in a UN school in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Death toll rises in Gaza
Israeli tanks maneuver outside the Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Israeli soldiers put on their gear on the side of a road across from the Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Israeli soldiers rest inside an armoured personnel carrier outside central Gaza Strip
APTOPIX Mideast Israel Palestinians
Multiple rocket launches from a site inside the Gaza Strip firing towards Israel as seen from a lookout point in southern Israel on July 17, 2014.
A Palestinian salvages rubble of their destroyed homes after their apartment building was hit by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City on July 18, 2014.
Gaza War 2014 - Funeral
Palestinian mourners gather around the bodies of three siblings of the Abu Musallam family, during their funeral in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Mideast Israel Palestinians Photo Gallery
Netream Netzleam holds the body of her daughter Razel, 1, who died in an Israeli air strike on Thursday afternoon, at her funeral in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Israeli troops move into Gaza
A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the sma

Oliver Weiken—EPA
1 of 64
TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.