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Hamas’ Tunnel Network: A Massacre in the Making

10371590_822684787754393_255628125657530891_n-1Hamas tunnels open just meters away from the center of Israeli communities near the Gaza border. (IDF/Facebook) – See more at:

In the past decade, Hamas methodically built a sophisticated network of tunnels that would enable its fighters to infiltrate Israel and carry out terrorist attacks and abductions on an unprecedented scale. Operation Protective Edge exposed and targeted this tunnel network, eliminating one of Hamas’ strategic assets and preventing a devastating surprise attack on a wide front, behind Israel’s front lines.IDF Spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner explained why the destruction of the tunnels was so important. “Hamas had a plan. A simultaneous, coordinated, surprise attack within Israel. They planned to send 200 terrorists armed to the teeth toward civilian populations. This was going to be a coordinated attack. The concept of operations involved 14 offensive tunnels into Israel. With at least 10 men in each tunnel, they would infiltrate and inflict mass casualties.”1

What cannot be ruled out is the possibility that Hamas would be able to utilize the tunnel network to dispatch hundreds of men through each tunnel, thereby creating an invasion force of thousands. As Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh himself said on October 19, 2013: “Thousands of fighters above ground and thousands of fighters underground have been preparing in silence for the campaign to liberate Palestine.”

Early Warnings

Tunnels have been a part of life in Gaza for decades. In 1989, Hamas terror mastermind Mahmoud Al-Mahbrouh used one to evade Israeli security forces.2 By the mid-1990s, tunnels were being dug from Rafah into Egypt; they were used to smuggle anything that could fit in the narrow passages, from cigarettes and guns to fuel, farm animals, and even cars.

Tunnels were used to plant explosives underneath IDF positions, targeting Israeli soldiers who were stationed in Gaza until 2005. In 2001, a powerful bomb was detonated in a tunnel under an IDF base in Gaza; the blast blew out a 15-foot section of the first-floor wall and heaved soldiers through the air, injuring at least three.3 In 2004, hundreds of kilograms of explosives inside a 350-meter tunnel were detonated under an IDF outpost in Gaza, killing one soldier and injuring five others.4

In June 2006, less than a year after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas used a tunnel to sneak into Israel, ambush IDF soldiers, and kidnap Gilad Shalit.5 In doing so, Hamas revealed that it had invested vast sums of money to prepare for subterranean warfare. “This was one of the most asymmetrical incidents in recent memory,” a senior Israeli intelligence official recalled. “One Israeli soldier was held for five and a half years and traded [in 2011] for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.” Another top official agreed: “This was a proof of concept for them. Tunnels work.”6

Years later, Hamas leader Khaled Mashal explained his group’s thinking: “In light of the balance of power which shifted towards Israel, we had to be creative in finding innovative ways. The tunnels were one of our innovations. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.”7

Hamas looked to Hizbullah in Lebanon for inspiration and guidance on subterranean warfare.8 “Hizbullah thought of building an underground terror network well before Hamas started its own, and it taught Hamas how to construct these tunnels,” a senior IDF officer said.9 In addition, Israeli military commanders believe that North Korea, which has one of the world’s most sophisticated networks of tunnels running beneath the demilitarized zone with South Korea, gave Hamas advice on building tunnels in Gaza.10


The opening of one of Hamas’ many tunnels in the Gaza Strip. This photo was taken by an IDF soldier in Gaza on July 20, 2014. (IDF/Flickr)

After a round of fighting in January 2009 between Israel and Hamas known as Operation Cast Lead, the American Consul in Jerusalem, Jake Walles, sent a diplomatic cable in February discussing the growing threat from Hamas’ tunnels project. The cable, addressed to the Secretary of State, summarized the consul’s conversation with Saji al-Moughani, a Gaza local who worked as a Reconnaissance and Survey Officer for the State Department.11 Al-Moughani reported that no reconstruction materials were available because “much of Gaza’s cement was used to construct tunnels….[Al-Moughani] said the tunnels are lit and well-ventilated. Most are more than 30 feet underground, on the Gaza side, largely insulated from the effects of Israeli bombardment. Many tunnels have ceilings high enough to allow a grown man to stand.”12

More Revelations

In 2012, more hints of Hamas’ massive investment in tunnels became visible. On November 8, IDF soldiers conducting a routine patrol along the Gaza border near the town of Nirim found a tunnel four meters deep and almost five meters wide burrowed beneath the border. The patrol crossed into Gaza to search for explosives and, on its return, while repairing the border fence, a bomb detonated on the Gaza side of the border. One soldier was injured and an IDF jeep was thrown 20 meters by the blast.13

In November 2012, Hamas also accelerated its rocket attacks against Israeli communities, an escalation that culminated with the IDF’s pinpoint strike on Hamas chief-of-staff Ahmed Jabari and the eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense.14 In that operation, the IDF said it targeted over 120 tunnels used for fighting and smuggling.15 Nonetheless, most of the focus of the IDF and the Israeli public at that time was on Hamas’ rocket launching capabilities, as well as the impressive successes of the Iron Dome missile defense system. After the round of fighting ended, Hamas realized it had failed to inflict significant damage on Israeli population centers and decided to expand its offensive tunnel capabilities.16

Two months later, on January 14, 2013, Israel received another wake-up call when the IDF discovered a tunnel inside Israel near Nir Oz, a kibbutz on the Gaza border. The underground passage was big enough to transfer people and was the same kind of tunnel used in 2006 to kidnap Gilad Shalit.17 “Such a tunnel in Israel indicates a clear intent by Gaza terrorist groups, led by Hamas, to attack Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers,” the IDF said.18

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