Gaza tunnels could trigger another war
GAZA CITY - Ten members of Hamas’s armed wing have been buried alive in recent weeks as clandestine tunnels collapsed on them, but Hamas insists the underground passageways are invaluable and work on them will continue.
The tunnels that caved in in the Tuffah neighbourhood, in eastern Gaza near the Israeli border, were part of “dozens” of passageways dug under the city by Hamas’s armed wing, known as the Izzeddine al-Qassam Brigades, according to Hamas officials.
The digging remained secret until Israel discovered a 2km underground route stretching from Gaza to Israel late in 2014. It claimed Hamas planned to use the tunnels to mount attacks against the Jewish state and its civilians.
Hamas declined to confirm or deny the accusation and it was not until three tunnels collapsed in late January and early February that Hamas Deputy Chief Ismail Haniyeh confirmed publicly for the first time that Hamas’s armed wing was using tunnels under Gaza to test rockets near the enclave’s outlet on the Mediterranean.
“The tunnels played a crucial role in our victory,” Haniyeh told mourners at the funeral of the seven Hamas dead. “It is from these tunnels that the mujahideen carried out painful strikes on Israel, captured the Israeli soldier Oron Shaul and fought the Israeli occupation, went behind enemy lines and returned safely to their bases.
“Underground tunnels brought death to our enemy and victory and glory to our people and nation.”
Hamas’s political and military leaders emphasise that the tunnels are an important weapon against Israel, more effective than rockets.
Dependence on the tunnels was obvious two years ago when Gaza’s Hamas rulers were smuggling weapons, food, medicine and medical supplies, furniture and various commodities into the area through the passageways. That helped Gazans cope with the blockade Israel imposed after Hamas took over the enclave from the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2007.
Severe shortages became evident when tunnels in Gaza were discovered and closed from the Israeli and Egyptian sides.
Since Haniyeh’s announcement, fear has gripped Gaza’s residents, who argue Israel may wage another war on Gaza in retaliation.
“Al-Qassam dug the tunnels under Gaza to defend the city and its population,” Haniyeh said.
He said the tunnels were a “starting point for the big battle for the liberation of all Palestine” — a reference to attacks against Israel. He declined to elaborate but said Gaza and Hamas are “so powerful. They are stronger than ever before.”
Haniyeh said the seven Hamas militants, aged between 18 and 22 years, were neither hiding in the tunnel nor escaping from the Israelis. “They were setting the stage for attacking their enemy,” he said. “They were preparing for any upcoming battle with Israel.”
He declined to provide specifics but said Hamas was testing rockets, firing into the sea. Other Hamas officials said the tunnels were used partly to smuggle militants into Israel to carry out suicide attacks.
The latest casualties bring to more than 40 the number of Hamas activists who have died in the tunnels, according to Hamas officials.
Talal Oukal, a Gaza-based political analyst, said Hamas, which won 74 seats in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in 2006, is still “acting as a group, not a responsible government”. A split with the PA has shattered Palestinian unity.
Oukal blamed Hamas for Gaza’s worsening conditions. One-third of Gaza residents live in absolute poverty and unemployment in the enclave is 42%.
The Israeli siege, which bans trade with Gaza, has caused severe shortages of basic commodities, banned the travel of its residents, virtually turning the seaside city into a large jail.
Mushir al-Masri, a lawmaker and a senior Hamas leader in Gaza, said that, despite the hardships in the past ten years, Hamas remained “very powerful”.
Faisal Abu Shahla, a Gaza lawmaker affiliated with Hamas’s rival Fatah faction of the PA, said, although Hamas formed a Palestinian government after winning the elections, “it insisted on using the gun to resolve its dispute with us and eventually seized control of Gaza”.
“I hope it will change its manners and return to dialogue to form a broader unity government to prepare for presidential and legislative elections,” he said.