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Hamas attacks by tunnel rattle Israelis on Gaza border

Christa Case BryantThe Christian Science Monitor

At Kfar Aza, a kibbutz that overlooks the northern Gaza Strip, the tinny sound of wind chimes mixed with the rumble of jets and the staccato pounding of artillery this afternoon. Though residents say they fear Hamas's rockets, their biggest concern was the recent revelation of tunnels extending into Israel. 

“I’m more scared because of the tunnels,” says Mandy Damari, a 22-year resident of Kfar Aza (Aza is the Hebrew version of Gaza). The fact that her poodle has been scraping at the floor of her home for months, together with a neighbor hearing voices when no one is in sight, make the two suspect that a Hamas tunnel may lie right below their homes.

Just a few miles away what Ms. Damari fears most – a Hamas infiltration – unfolded a few hours later at Nahal Oz, when Hamas members emerged from a tunnel and engaged in a gun battle with Israeli troops, leaving one attacker dead. It was the third such attack in the area in the past week and strongly suggests that Israel is likely to extend its offensive in Gaza, which the government says is focused on wiping out Hamas's cross-border tunnel network.

Backed by overwhelming Israeli support for the operation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected US and United Nations calls overnight for an immediate cease-fire. He promised the operation would not end “without neutralizing the tunnels, the sole purpose of which is the destruction of our civilians and the killing of our children.”

Such attack tunnels pose a threat to Israel, which seems to have underestimated their scope. While modeled after Hezbollah’s extensive underground network in southern Lebanon, they are by some accounts larger and more sophisticated than those of the much stronger Hezbollah movement, which has never succeeded in infiltrating Israel during a war.

Israel therefore is concerned not only with delivering a strong enough blow to Hamas to weaken and deter it, but also to Hezbollah, who are watching closely.

“The message … on the postcard to Gaza is not only addressed to Hamas; it’s addressed to Hezbollah, it’s addressed to other terrorist organizations, and it’s addressed to Tehran,” says Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington from 2009-13. “If Israel proves incapable of dealing effectively with the tunnel threat, if it falls short of effectively deterring Hamas, everybody will draw a conclusion. And it’s a conclusion that we cannot afford to have them [draw].”

The IDF warned citizens of three eastern Gaza neighborhoods – Shejaiya, Zeitoun, and Jabaliya – to evacuate their homes and move west, signaling a likely escalation in fighting in those areas.

Rocket risk

A hot wind blows through the open roof of a pottery studio in Kfar Aza, where a rocket recently came crashing in and busted up the place. But despite more than 50 rockets landing in the area since the conflict began three weeks ago, it’s not nearly as bad as the last round in 2012, when 25 Katyusha rockets fell in a single week, their whistling trajectory damaging many homes.

But for many civilians along the border, who are living through their third fight with Gaza in less than six years, the threat from rockets pales in comparison to the worry that Hamas militants could quite literally pop up in their backyard.

Mark Joffe, a member of the kibbutz’s security committee, says he’s not as surprised as some residents by the tunnel threat.

The army has kept the committee up to date on its efforts to pinpoint and neutralize such tunnels and extra forces were deployed along the border over the past year to counter the threat.

Mr. Joffe, who moved to Israel from Britain nearly three decades ago with “very traditional European left-wing views,” says he’s come to believe that the West misunderstands the nature of the threats facing Israel – and the response required.

“I’ve begun to sympathize with the view that if people are firing rockets at you and digging tunnels, you have to react – and react strongly enough that they won’t do it again,” he says.

Israeli officials have yet to spell out just how much damage it believes the IDF must inflict to achieve that goal, as more than 1,050 Palestinians have been killed and Hamas is still sending rockets into Israel – with more than 2,500 projectiles so far, including mortars that killed at least four Israeli soldiers today near the border.

Israel has largely protected its civilians against rocket fire with its hi-tech Iron Dome system. But the tunnel threat requires a different approach, says Ambassador Oren.

“A tunnel is a medieval tactic, which is so low-tech that it’s quite literally below our radar,” says Oren. “Tunnels have been around since antiquity, and we may have to use a medieval technology to combat them, at least in the initial stage…. We may have to make a moat at 85-foot deep around the Gaza Strip.”