Gaza tunnels could trigger another war

Friday 04/03/2016
Palestinian militants from Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, Al-Quds Brigades, squatting in a tunnel

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.