By Yossi Lempkowicz, Senior Media Advisor Europe Israel Press Association (EIPA)
Concerns for renewed violence over the Israel-Gaza border have risen in recent weeks as evidence emerges of the extent of Hamas’s efforts to rebuild its tunnels to launch terrorist attacks against Israeli border communities.
Although there has been periodic rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel since Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in 2014, the ceasefire which ended the conflict has largely held firm.
According to Israel’s Channel 2, however, despite the relative quiet in that area since the end of Operation Protective Edge, there is a growing sense of dread among the people living close to the Hamas-ruled Palestinian enclave.
This is due to a combination of hearing threats from Hamas leaders about their plans to kidnap and kill Israelis and the discovery of a number of tunnels that collapsed (or were destroyed) of late. Some residents have even claimed to hear digging noises under their houses.
In a two-minute clip aired on Channel 2, four Israelis expressed their anxiety about living near the Gaza border.
A 26-year-old resident of border Kibbutz Kfar Aza named Yonatan said, “For the past 16 years, we have been at war and see no end on the horizon. If it doesn’t come from the air [rocket fire], it comes from below [tunnels]. We don’t know where it will hit us, and the residents are beginning to show signs of panic. People are sleeping with knives under their pillows, which is surreal by any standards”.
According to Channel 2, though this is not a new situation, Yonatan fears that the powers that be are not doing enough to provide security for the residents. “For more than a decade, the government has simply been sitting on the fence and doesn’t grasp that the families and children here cannot do the same”, he said. “I would expect the government to take responsibility. The whole region is suffering from terrorist attacks that are killing it demographically and economically, and there is no political or security vision; there is no plan”.
Nofar, a 28-year-old resident of Moshav Netiv Ha’Asara, said : “All this pastoral beauty here could end in one boom”, referring both to suddenness and something explosive. “The peacefulness here is imaginary. Ultimately, we are located in the most fiery place in the country”.
Nofar’s father, Eshel, also shared his concerns. “We exist here between walls that protect the community from sniper fire, but our great worry is over tunnels being dug in our direction”, he said. “There are people here who claim they hear noises; everything has to be taken into account”.
He added : “The hope of all of us here is that at long last they [Israel’s leaders] will reach a [peace] agreement with our [Arab] neighbors. If they don’t reach an agreement, the state has to make a decision to send in the army to destroy the tunnels in order to remove this threat from the residents here”.
Mor, a 20-year-old resident of Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, said something slightly different. “There are people who would raise an eyebrow at [my saying this], but it’s a great area with fresh air, pubs, cafes, restaurants and events for children. We have a strong army surrounding us, but the government is slightly neglectful. I would expect at this stage for us to be in the process of achieving some kind of political solution. But they’re busy with the casino”, she said, referring to a current government controversy over whether to build a gambling haven in Eilat, to improve tourism revenues.
Molly, a mother-of-three who lives in Moshav Ein HaBesor, said : “We are living in an impossible security reality of threats of war every year or two, and in between, the ongoing threat of missiles and terror tunnels. Every day, more than 1,000 trucks pass through the Kerem Shalom crossing into the Gaza Strip and we all know what the cement being delivered on them is being used for. Raw materials are being transferred to Hamas to enable it to rehabilitate the city and build tunnels under our feet”.
Gai, a 51-year-old resident of Kibbutz Be’eri, said : “I am worried about the quiet here. Our [Hamas] neighbors are talking about the tunnels they are building and we are sitting here with our arms crossed. Our children were born into the reality of war and air-raid sirens, which for us seems to be the norm. It is said that [the kids] will overcome it, but they won’t; it is the kind of trauma that’s there for life”.
Communities like the tomato-growing Netiv Ha-Asara are several hundred metres from Gaza, close enough to see Palestinians going about their daily lives on the other side of a concrete wall – and close enough to be reached by tunnel.
The issue was given fresh urgency when the head of Israel’s military, said this month that countering the tunnel threat would be his forces’ “number one mission this year”.
Even with Hizbollah poised on Israel’s northern border and Islamic State in neighbouring Syria and Egypt, Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot said the tunnels were “a central threat at the top of the Israel Defence Force’s priority list”.
Hamas has made no secret of its activities. Ismail Haniyeh, one of the group’s senior leaders, said last week that his fighters were digging on a daily basis. “Tunnels underground, and rockets above the ground”, he said.
The pace of work has been such that at least five times this year tunnels have collapsed on top of Hamas diggers.
Not all the passages are aimed at Israel. Hamas is also constantly trying to set up smuggling tunnels into Egypt to keep supplies flowing into Gaza, which is blockaded by Israel from land and sea.
Egypt’s military, which also works to disrupt the tunnels, said recently it entered one that was 35 metres long tunnel and found rifles, explosives and sacks of cocaine.
For Amos Yadlin, Director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, ‘”it is no surprise that Hamas, which is preparing for the next confrontation with Israel, is heavily invested in building tunnels”.
He adds: “’The optimal situation for Israel vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip entails a technological solution for Hamas’s attack tunnels. This would postpone the inevitable next round of fighting with Hamas and put Israel in a better position when it does break out. But the fact that no such technical solution is ripe for use means that the discovery of cross-border tunnels ready for Hamas attacks requires preemptive action. If such action should escalate into a full-blown conflict, the conflict must be brief but forceful, based on a clear strategic objective that unlike all previous military encounters has the potential to effect a fundamental change in the balance of power and the dynamics between the sides”.
“Hearing the coming war” is how daily Yedioth Aharonot describes the situation for residents on the border with the Gaza Strip. The paper received an audio recording taken by Israelis living opposite a Hamas training facility in the north of the Palestinian enclave in which military drills are clearly audible.
“For a quarter hour we heard strong thuds and explosions, after which came complete silence — and then calls in Arabic, which sounded like fighters’ battle cries”, a resident tells the paper. “It was very scary, and it’s clear that it was part of their intensive training”.
Have no fear, though. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on the case and will be meeting with leaders of the communities adjacent to the Strip to discuss Israel’s strategy for a future conflict, the paper says. Moreover, Yedioth Ahronoth assuages readers’ worries, “the assessment in Israel is that Hamas isn’t interested in another round of violence in the foreseeable future”.
Daily Israel Hayom channeled a similar message, reporting on the IDF intelligence chief’s statement to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that “Hamas isn’t interested in conflict right now”.
Despite the paper’s headline, however, Maj. Gen. Hertzi Halevi warned, during a closed-door meeting, that the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza could lead to renewed conflict.
“The humanitarian condition in Gaza is progressively deteriorating, and if it blows up, it’ll be in Israel’s direction”, he reportedly said.
He also said that Hamas has no interest in a conflict at this point, but that worsening conditions increased the prospect of violence.
During the past year, Israel has introduced a range of measures meant to ease movement in and out of the Gaza Strip, in order to aid reconstruction.
These include an increased number of entry and exit permits to Gaza merchants and facilitating the export of significant Gaza produce to the West Bank, an important market for the Gaza economy.
However, during the same period, numerous attempts to smuggle illicit goods into Gaza have been prevented, including components for explosive material, rocket-building materials, sulphur rods, electronic welding devices and drones. Hamas is thought to be rearming, replenishing its arsenal of rockets, while it openly admits to rebuilding the complex network of tunnels designed to attack Israel.
According to one unnamed member of the Knesset committee, during his presentation, Halevy also said that “the army is concerned about what could follow” in the West Bank when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is no longer in power “especially because there is today no natural successor”, suggesting an attempted Hamas power grab.
According to daily Haaretz, senior Israeli political and military officials are working to forestall a future outbreak of violence by improving the catastrophic economic situation in the Strip.
Among the strategies being considered are several options for opening a commercial port for the coastal enclave. Senior IDF officials and some ministers support such a proposal so long as it ensures long-term quiet with Hamas and imported goods can be properly inspected.
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, head of the Jewish Home party’s Tekuma faction, said Wednesday that he would support the establishment of a seaport in Gaza if such a proposal was brought before the government.
The topic has been raised in earnest recently as it is one of the demands of Turkey, a staunch ally of Hamas, in its rapprochement talks with Israel.
Israel has firmly refused the demand due to the blatant threat of Hamas using the seaport to smuggle in weapons, as the group has constantly been attempting to do even without the port.
But Ariel wrote on his Twitter account: “If the security arrangements were approved by the IDF, I would support the establishment of a sea port in the (Gaza) Strip”.
“Zionism and settlement go together with economic and regional development”, he wrote.
It was also reported that Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has met several times with his Palestinian counterpart Shukri Bishara in recent weeks to hammer out a plan for boosting economic assistance to the Palestinians.
Kahlon is now slated to bring a raft of new initiatives to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for approval.
The proposal focuses on both knowledge-intensive industries such as healthcare and high-tech, as well as expanding Israeli-Palestinian economic integration in the construction sector.