An IDF officer examines a Hamas tunnel. (AP) (AP)
hamas tunnel
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot says the Hamas tunnels are now the army’s main priority. (AP)

The IDF estimates that Hamas, having learned from experience during Operation Protective Edge, is building a huge terror tunnel, rather than several smaller ones, and at a quick pace.

A military assessment of Hamas activity in Gaza, particularly the terror tunnels that it resumed building since the end of Operation Protective Edge at the end of the summer of 2014, concluded that over 1,000 Hamas operatives are focusing on building one central tunnel leading deep into Israel, the daily Yediot Aharonot reported Wednesday.

Israel launched its 2014 offensive in Gaza to stop years of frequent rocket attacks. But as the campaign intensified and Israel became increasingly adept at shooting down incoming projectiles with its Iron Dome system, the tunnels emerged as an even greater threat. Israel then sent in troops that destroyed more than 30 tunnels Hamas had built to infiltrate and carry out attacks against soldiers and civilians.

The Yediot report points to a change in tactics by building one major smuggling tunnel rather than many smaller ones – at a pace of approximately 50 meters a day.

The tunnels are now the army’s main priority, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot said. “Hamas is diverting great resources to restore what it considers a pattern that allows it to enter Israel discreetly and carry out attacks. We have the most advanced abilities in the world and still this is a major challenge.”

Atai Shelach, a retired colonel and former commander of the elite combat engineering unit in charge of dismantling tunnels, said the tunnels have supplanted rocket fire as the most urgent challenge for Israel to overcome. He said the 2014 war was a “watershed moment” and Israel has since directed considerable attention to the tunnels, but that the threat was likely to persist for decades.

“The underground frontier is the refuge of the weak and allows it to come closer to a superior adversary,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s no less complicated than the rocket threat and we need a similar type of systematic solution.”

He said that another round of fighting with Hamas was “not a question of if, but when.”

There have been conflicting reactions from residents near the Gaza border; while some are alarmed by what they say are the sounds of tunnel digging nearby, others do not seem to be terribly frightened and trust the IDF to protect them.

Lawmakers Disagree on Course of Action

Cabinet ministers and experts have also disagreed on the steps that need to be taken. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would retaliate with “greater force” than in 2014 if cross-border tunnels were used to attack Israelis. But he and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon angrily rejected a leaked report Monday from a closed cabinet meeting in which Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, was said to have suggested a pre-emptive attack against the tunnels.

At least 10 Palestinians died recently when a number of tunnels collapsed, apparently due to a combination of heavy rains and purposeful flooding by the Egyptians, who reportedly are working in collaboration with Israel against the common terror threat.

By: United with Israel Staff
(With files from AP)