Tunnels built by residents and militants of the Gaza strip have been a regular part of life in the region for many years, and although they have taken precedent during Operation Protective Edge they are no new enemy to the IDF. For the better part of the last 25 years Hamas militants and other Gaza residents have been digging tunnels from Gaza to Israel and Egypt, and smuggling everything from cigarettes to cars, livestock, and weapons in and out. Cheap Egyptian gasoline poured through the tunnels at certain points, keeping Gaza afloat when fuel prices skyrocketed. Recently the tunnels are being used for a much more sinister purpose though, as Hamas uses them to kidnap, terrorize, and attack Israeli citizens and soldiers. Taking out these tunnels is the primary objective of the current ground campaign of Operation Protective Edge.
Floods in 2013 revealed some tunnels, but up until this current conflict Israel was not aware of the extent or sophistication of the Hamas terror tunnels. The tunnels are lined with concrete, have ventilation systems, electricity, phone lines, and run underneath main streets as well as kindergardens, senior living facilities, hospitals, and farms. Most of the time, a Gaza resident does not even know that there is a terror tunnel underneath their property until it is too late.
Hamas uses child labor to build these complex tunnels, according to a report released in Summer 2012 by the Institute for Palestine Studies. This report details the harsh conditions that these children are forced to labor under, and states that according to Hamas officials "at least 160 children have been killed" while building the tunnels. It is estimated that Hamas used 800,000 tons of concrete in order to build the tunnel systems (the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, only used 110,000 tons). Instead of using all of this concrete and all of it's resources to build bomb shelters, defense systems, educational instutions, and infrastructure for it's suffering people, Hamas has decided to build tunnels to burrow into neighboring countries and carry out terrorist attacks.
In addition to using the tunnels for weapons, supplies, and fuel, the Hamas operatives also use the tunnels to sneak into Israel and inflict both physical and psychological damage to the Israeli citizens. Israeli Defense Force member Gilad Shalit was abducted via a Hamas tunnel on June 25 2006, after members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam brigades emerged from a concealed tunnel and attacked an IDF post. Two of Shalit's fellow soldiers were killed and two were wounded, and Gilad Shalit was taken through a tunnel into Hamas territory. There, he was held hostage for five years before being released in 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. On August 1 2014, just hours after a potential 72 hour ceasefire was announced, the IDF stated that it believed one of it's soldiers had been abducted by Hamas. UK born Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin was reportedly abducted early in the morning on August 1. The Hamas operatives emerged from around the side of a tunnel that Goldin and his fellow soldiers were investigating and opened fire. Contrary to what the IDF and the Israeli media originally reported, it was discovered that Lieutenant Goldin had died in the firefight, and was not in fact abducted.
During the 18 months leading up to Operation Protective Edge the Israeli military found 4 Hamas tunnels, and since the operation began it has uncovered more than 30, planning to destroy them all. Israel is not the only one who is fed up with Hamas tunneling their way into their country: recently Egypt claims that it destroyed 1,370 Hamas tunnels going from Gaza into Egypt. The main purpose of the tunnels at this point is an evening of the playing field by Hamas militants. Hamas uses the element of surprise guerilla warfare when their members emerge from tunnels in the middle of Israel ready to die and take as many Israelis as possible with them. Recently the IDF intercepted plans for a massive Hamas operation to be carried out through the tunnels on Rosh Hashannah, with Hamas militants attacking dressed in IDF uniforms to confuse soldiers and citizens.
On August 5 2014 an IDF spokesperson made the announcement that the ground operation of Operation Protective Edge had been completed and the Israeli troops were being removed from inside of the Gaza Strip. From the begining the military had stressed the fact that it's primary objective during the ground invasion of Gaza was to discover and destroy all known terror tunnels dug by Hamas from Gaza into Israel. All together 32 tunnels were destroyed by the IDF, 13 of which crossed into Israel.
A video showing Hamas operatives operating in the terror tunnels surfaced two days later. Members of the Hamas military group Iz al-Din al-Qassam are seen in the video, claiming that they recieved no instructions to leave their positions due to 72 hour cease-fire agreed to 2 days before and were still on high alert.
Although the IDF claimed to have destroyed all of the Hamas tunnels that posed threats to Israel during Operation Protective Edge, on August 19 2014 a Reuters crew published a story in which they were taken in to a Hamas terror tunnel and held interviews with Hamas operatives. The Israeli military only destroyed tunnels that were close to it's border and it saw as a threat to it's security, and it was not clear to the Reuters reporters where this tunnel was. They were blindfolded and driven there, so they could not tell whether this was a tunnel that the IDF missed near the border, or whether it was a tunnel farther into the Gaza Strip that Israel knew about but did not worry to destroy. Referring to the tunnels that Israel believes it has destroyed, a member of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades told the reporters that "Our men are still operating in those tunnels, prepared for all options".
Israel took care of a large number of tunnels during Operation Protective Edge, however, many tunnels on the Egypt border still remain untouched and in use. The Egyptian tunnel operators state that throughout the operation weapons, building materials, food, and medicine continued to flow through the tunnels into Gaza. Tunnel guides interviewed by Reuters say that "business has flourished" for them due to the Israelis operation and destruction of the tunnels on their border. Egyptian security officers confirmed that while the larger tunnels used for smuggling cars and larger weapons were destroyed, many of the the smaller tunnels for humans, supplies, and small arms are still in use.
In the weeks following Operation Protective Edge Israeli intelligence recieved information that Hamas was reconstructing and reinforcing tunnels destroyed by Israel, and gearing up for the next confrontation. Weapons are being funneled through the Rafah crossing in tunnels and there are reports that M75 rocket production has resumed in Gaza city. Semior Hamas member Mahmoud Al-Zahar proclaimed that they will build new tunnels to replace those lost to Israeli destruction. On September 9 2014 a video released by the Middle East Media Research Institute showed a reporter from Al-Jazeera TV walking around inside of a tunnel currently being dug by Islamic Jihad members. This is cold hard evidence that Hamas is not interested in the peace process whatsoever and is solely interested in continuing the war. To view the video please click here.
Tunnel warfare is not addressed in the same way as urban above ground warfare according to international law. There are no statutes that dictate the governing of warfare in tunnels, so the Gaza tunnels present a unique situation. The sole purpose of these tunnels dug by Hamas is to harm and endanger civilians on both sides of the conflict, and these tunnels posed a significant safety risk to the workers who built them. Because the terror tunnels are built underneath civilian populations and protected buildings, are used solely for terrorist activities and the smuggling of goods, and cross internationally recognized border lines, these tunnels have to be regarded as a violation of international law.
Although Israel is the military superior in this equation, the way that Hamas uses the tunnels to attack renders pieces of the Israeli's arsenal useless. According to a report submitted to The Israel National Defense College in 2008, "“By moving combat to an underground dimension the enemy has managed to largely neutralize Israel’s air force and armored units, to such an extent that it has become only a tactical problem rather than a strategic threat". By going underground Hamas has effectively rendered useless Israel's heavy artilery and air strike capabilities, forcing the Israelis to either wait until they are attacked or come fight Hamas on their turf.