Were Gaza tunnels built to harm Israeli civilians?

For weeks we’ve been hearing about the threat the Gaza tunnels pose to Israeli civilians. In reality, every tunnel so far has been used against military targets alone.

By Emanual Yelin (translated by Sinewave)

The existence of the tunnels in Gaza was well-known to Israel’s Defense Ministry, although their scope was only revealed to the general public in the latest round of fighting. The tunnels were described as a strategic threat against Israeli civilians. Tunnel openings, so we were told, were found near dining halls and kindergartens, and the fighting we were ostensibly dragged into prevented a terrible disaster in the form of mass terrorist attacks against Gaza-perimeter communities. The prime minister and the media declared unilaterally that Israeli civilians are the targets. The fact that, time after time, victims of tunnel attacks were soldiers was painted as coincidental. Was it? We must ask ourselves some questions on the matter.

An IDF soldier walks through the tunnel the IDF uncovered underneath the Gaza-Israel border earlier this week. (Photo: IDF Spokesperson)
An IDF soldier walks through the tunnel the IDF uncovered underneath the Gaza-Israel border earlier this week. (Photo: IDF Spokesperson)

Was there a plan to simultaneously send 200 terrorists from dozens of tunnels to six Israeli towns on the border of Gaza on Jewish New Year? Was it only prevented by the kidnapping of the three Israeli youths and Operation Protective Edge, as Ariel Kahane claimed in his article on NRG [Hebrew]?

No. Not only does this story make no sense – if Hamas had such a genius plan, why didn’t they hold off on shooting rockets for another three months? Eventually the “plot” was revealed to be a rumor that gained traction in the ultra-Orthodox press that got some traction, with intelligence personnel denying the claim [Hebrew]. If such a horrific story was realized, it would have been a terrible disaster. But contrary to the nonsense Avri Gilad wrote in his Facebook post [Hebrew], with a similar story that got hundreds of thousands of views, Israel did not “face its first threat to its existence since the 1948 war” much like the U.S. did not face a threat to its existence on 9/11.

Was Benjamin Netanyahu right in his national address when he said “we will not end the mission, we will not end the operation, without neutralizing the tunnels that exist solely to annihilate our civilians and to kill our children?”

No. It is certain that this is not their sole purpose, and probably not their primary purpose, either. We’ve already seen six instances in which Hamas was able to use the tunnels against Israel. Once when Gilad Shalit was captured, and the rest during the current operation. In all instances, Hamas’ target were IDF soldiers, not the communities.

Take the case of the infiltration near Nir-Am. Two squads came out of the earth inside Israeli territory wearing IDF uniforms. When IDF forces arrived, the militants shot at them and killed four of the soldiers. Afterwards the militants tried to go back to Gaza through the tunnels and most of them were killed. There were no signs that they intended to make it to one of the communities. Quite the contrary. The impression made by a video released the IDF Spokesperson is that they were not trying to advance at all but were rather organizing an ambush for IDF soldiers. And again, after the clash they tried to go back to Gaza, not to reach the community.

All this did not keep the Southern Command major general from speaking confidently [Hebrew] about the terrorists who “threaten communities along the Gaza perimeter” and about “IDF forces that were a barrier between the terrorists and the communities.” It sounds nice, but the facts speak for themselves.


So what is the purpose of the tunnels?

Most likely to hurt IDF forces and capture soldiers. Little by little we are starting to hear military reporters saying this explicitly. Maybe not on Channel 2, but after militants infiltrated a pillbox near Nahal Oz, Channel 10’s defense correspondent Alon Ben-David explicitly said that “there is no doubt their goal is to hurt and capture soldiers – not civilians” [Hebrew]. A senior military source told Israel’s Army Radio that “all tunnels were aimed towards military targets and not Gaza-perimeter communities” [Hebrew]. Furthermore, in a voice recording by the leader of the Qassam Brigade, Mohammed Deif, he is heard saying: “we prefer to fight the soldiers of the enemy’s elite units and kill them, and not the civilians in the villages adjacent to Gaza.”

So we can be certain that the tunnels will not be used for terrorism against civilians in the kibbutzim along the barrier wall?

No. We must not become complacent. We cannot count on Hamas that their preferences will not revert back to murdering civilians, as they did countless times before, or simply that in the absence of a military target they will decide to go for “option B.” We must not take risks. Whenever a penetration is discovered, the IDF must treat it as if it may be an attempt to attack communities near the point of penetration, and instruct the residents to remain in their homes until it’s ensured that no terrorists are moving about. However, we must not conflate the necessary security measures with what is revealed after the incident. And in every case thus far it turned out that the goal was to hurt soldiers. Not communities and not civilians.

But if they didn’t want to hurt communities, why did they dig tunnels under dining halls and kindergartens inside those communities?

Here’s the thing: they didn’t. It turns out that there were no tunnels into the communities. The tunnel into the Kisufim dining hall? That was an old sewer line [Hebrew] mistakenly identified as a tunnel shaft.

Spokeswomen for two of the regional municipalities adjacent to Gaza published a letter to military reporters, in which they asked them to ensure accurate reporting and stop claiming that there were infiltrations into the communities: “the fact is that most of these incidents occur far from the community and, fortunately, not inside any civilian area. Reality is tough and scary enough as it is; we ask you to think of the residents as they sit in their locked homes and to stick to the facts. We are aware of the needs of both the IDF as well as journalists to illustrate the scope of the danger and the importance of uncovering a tunnel. But associating that with a name of a specific community only increases anxiety levels among residents and their immediate environment.

One of spokeswomen, who appeared on Israel’s educational channel, said that the tunnel which was ostensibly aimed at a kindergarten in Ein Hashlosha, reached about 2.5 kilometers from the community, and its exit shafts were near an IDF security path.

So where do the tunnels go?

Probably just a few hundred meters from the barrier wall and a few kilometers from the communities. It’s hard to find accurate data about where the exit shafts are. But in all five instances of infiltration, the militants emerged 200-400 meters away from the wall, as can be seen on the maps in the IDF Spokesperson videos. For example, the alleged penetration into Kisufim was 1.5 kilometers away from the community. And actually, the tunnel’s exit point is just as close to Kibbutz Sufa.

If the exit shaft is 200 meters from the wall, and the Ein Hashlosha houses closest to the wall are 3 kilometers away from it, the exit shaft cannot be 800 meters away, even if it sounds more dramatic for Channel 2’s Danny Kushmaro to end the article that way.

So it’s okay that Hamas is digging the tunnels?

Not at all! Digging a tunnel across borders is in itself a violation of sovereignty. And sending armed squads through them is an act of aggression, even if the target is military and not civilian.

So what are you going on and on about?

Because you need to tell the truth. Not fluff up the facts, not invent ridiculous horror scenarios, not talk with loaded slogans that include untrue statements, not cry “wolf.” For all of our concerns with Hasbara, we end up hurting the residents of the Gaza-perimeter communities, who develop unnecessary anxieties, while damaging our own credibility. And it’s not really necessary at all. Hamas’ face is ugly as it is even without photoshopping horns onto it.

Emanual Yelin is a native and resident of Be’er Sheva, and works in an educational institution in the Gaza perimeter region. Read this article in Hebrew on Local Call.

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