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Israel Ramps Up Fight Against Tunnelers With ‘The Obstacle’


TEL AVIV—One morning early last month, Ahmed al Zahar picked up a scarf, left his mobile phone in the kitchen and headed out to help build a tunnel underneath the Gaza Strip near the border with Israel.

Hours later, he was dead, after an underground passageway he was working on collapsed.

A member of the Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the secretive militant arm of the Islamist movement Hamas, Mr. Zahar is one of at least 10 operatives who have died since the middle of January trying to create an underground network that could move weapons and supplies in any conflict with Israel, a more technologically advanced foe.

His parents have been told little about where and why their 23-year-old son died on Feb. 2, but they knew he worked for Al-Qassam. And despite his death, they support the digging.

“They are not safe,” Ahmed’s father Haidar al Zahar, 62, said of the tunnels from his home in Gaza City. “[But] tunnels guarantee safety and security for the Gaza Strip.”

Israeli officials and analysts say the digging could push the two sides toward conflict again, although Hamas officials have recently tried to play down the threat the tunnels represent.

Israel fought a 50-day war with Gaza’s rulers Hamas in 2014 to destroy a tunnel network. Since then, it has tightly controlled the movement of building materials, such as cement, into Gaza.

But that hasn’t stopped Hamas from digging.

Amid the flurry of recent deaths of Al-Qassam operatives, Israeli officials have been scrambling to train the country’s soldiers in underground combat—and to buttress its defenses.

Israeli security officials recently presented a proposal to a parliamentary committee to fund, develop and construct a system to detect and destroy cross-border tunnels, according to Israeli lawmakers.

Known as “The Obstacle,” the system is being funded in part by the U.S. government, which has agreed to offer $40 million this year, according to Israeli and U.S. officials.

The details of the system are confidential but security analysts say the technology is likely to use acoustic sensors that detect the sounds of digging.

The race to develop an underground defense system comes at a particularly tense moment for Israel and Hamas.

Over the past five months, Hamas militants have tried but largely failed to escalate a spate of stabbings and shootings in Israel and the occupied West Bank into a wider Palestinian uprising. An attack via a tunnel from Gaza remains a dangerous prospect, one that has divided Israeli lawmakers about how


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