Gaza's cruel war of tunnels

Operation Protective Edge
Operation Protective Edge

"Every tunnel is a message to the world - the destruction in Gaza is not for nothing."

"If I lived in one of the communities bordering the Gaza Strip, I'd feel much safer after this operation than before it. There's intensive work on the tunnels going on here, and we're doing it systematically: slowly, but surely. Every tunnel discovered here is thoroughly probed. They worked on one tunnel for 10 days until it was completely blown up. It led in one direction, but it had three branches from other areas in Gaza. It was lined with concrete and ready for action - unquestionably infrastructure for a mega terrorist attack", combat engineers brigade 601 commander Lieutenant Col. Manor Yanai tells "Globes."

Behind us is a tunnel uncovered 10 days ago that carried terrorists on their way to a killing mission in Israel. More than 10 terrorists armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and dressed in IDF uniforms, with helmets covered by camouflage, infiltrated Israel. 250 meters from the border fence are sandstone hills between two kibbutzim, Nir Am and Erez. The red roofs of the southernmost neighborhood of Sderot less than one kilometer away are clearly visible from these hills. The massacre planned by Hamas was prevented by a force under the command of Col. Dolev Kidder, the Gefen Brigade commander at the officer training school. He was urgently summoned to the area, moved to establish contact with the terrorists, and conducted a fire fight with them. They fired an anti-tank missile at his jeep, and he and four of his men were killed. Air force planes wiped out nine of the terrorists, while a few of them returned alive to Beit Hanoun, the northern Gazan village from which the tunnel was dug.

"They're good at digging, much better than me," Yanai says. "Here, though, they were working in soft clayish ground, I think they dug fairly quickly. They used hand tools, and used conveyor belts to take the sand out." The tunnel diggers conceal the huge quantities of sand in hothouses or hangars to avoid detection of suspicious activity in aerial photographs. "We found a hangar here filled to the brim with sand. We also found a cherry tomato hothouse next to a hothouse full of sand, with a tunnel nearby," the officer says.

Yesterday, heavy IDF engineering vehicles were still excavating around the tunnel at the foot of the sandstone hills between the two kibbutzim. The tunnel was 10 meters deep, and in other parts reached a depth of 20 meters. The engineers brigade commander says its height was "about a half, or even three quarters of a person. The terrorists walked bent over in it." Its walls are supported by good quality wood. It is unclear how stable these walls are, but engineering brigade soldiers warn us of a possible collapse. Some of the tunnel already collapsed soon after the infiltration incident. It will be blown up in a large controlled explosion along its entire length, which extends a kilometer and a half into Palestinian territory. Only an explosion like this will ensure that it will never be rebuilt.

This is what must be done with every tunnel uncovered over the past two weeks in the Gaza Strip since the IDF ground operation began. As of yesterday, 40 such tunnels had been found. It is costing the IDF blood, losses, and a lot of time. The commanders in the field are working against the clock, fearing that someone will deprive them of this precious time. Southern Command Commander Sami Turgeman spoke yesterday of a few more days of work on the tunnels. The problem is that new tunnels are being discovered every day. "It's stifling there inside these tunnels," Major Noah Hershkovitch, a reserve soldier called up by emergency order 27 days ago, tells us. No bombs had yet fallen on Gaza at that time, but he had to get to his division. "I got a call in the middle of what was an ordinary day. I left everything. Just like in ancient times, you take your spear and go to fight," he jokes.

Hershkovitch is a 32 year-old lawyer and accountant from Tel Aviv. His wife, pregnant with their first child, is waiting for him at home. "In addition to the lack of air, there's a weird feeling inside a tunnel. It puts me, a fighter with a mission, exactly where the enemy is trying to defeat me with the underground dimension. These tunnels show a lot of daring on their part; they're presenting us with a difficult challenge. The enemy is studying us, and he knows the territory well," he explains.

New business?

The summer of 2014 tunnels war is a cruel and exhausting business that does not allow the soldiers a moment's rest. Work on the tunnels is done in shifts. The challenge is great, and involves risks: collapse, booby traps, bombs, and ambushes. However endless the work of finding tunnels may be, dismantling and destroying them is much more exhausting.

Access is restricted as a closed military area by order of the Southern Command commander. The air is full of dust mixed with the odor of sulfurous water vomited by the earth in an impressive shower as a result of the digging in search of additional shafts in the vicinity. Several kibbutzim have gotten rich on this natural resource. Perhaps, when one of the ceasefires in the theater finally holds and the operation comes to an end, the residents of Kibbutz Erez and Kibbutz Nir Am will be able to sit over cottage cheese and boiled eggs in their dining rooms and talk about the new business, valuable water, and serenity. Someone jokes that the business should be called "Hamas Spa".

Meanwhile, getting back to reality, the water does not stop flowing, the bulldozers do not stop raising dust clouds, and the explosions from the fighting in Beit Hanoun and the Sejaiyeh neighborhood resound. Here and there a mortar shell falls. They also fall near the forces preparing the tunnel, dug with so much evil, for its explosion. "We're at high alert; we aren't complacent - we can't afford to be. There's constant mortar fire in the area, and we're careful about protection," Yanai tells us.

Yesterday noon, the IDF announced another humanitarian ceasefire, this one for three hours. Some optimist on the Israeli side mentioned the possibility of extending it, but this nervous and sensitive sector has its own rules. Iron Dome is intercepting a rocket above what was the community of Nitzan, from which the Gush Katif settlers were removed nine years ago. Red alerts are sounded at Yad Mordechai and other Sha'ar Hanegev communities. An IDF special forces unit falls into a trap set by Hamas at Khan Yunis, and three soldiers are killed when a booby trapped tunnel collapses during tunnel patrol. Almost 30 wounded soldiers are evacuated to hospitals from the Gaza battlefield. With ceasefires like this, who needs a war?

Yanai has not seen his home for 10 weeks. He is coming to the Gaza insanity straight from intensive activity in Judea and Samaria, following the kidnapping and murder of the three boys: Eyal Yifrach, Naftal Fraenkel, and Gilad Shaar. When he talks to his wife and his six year-old twin daughters on the phone, he gets strong backing and encouragement. "We'll continue here until we finish the job: eliminating the threat to the people living around the border with Gaza. That's for now," he says. We ask what happens afterwards, and he answers, "Until there's a technological solution to the tunnels - if we invented Iron Dome as an answer to the rockets, I assume the Jewish brain will find one, may it be soon."

Among the monstrous D-9 bulldozers, regular army soldiers Chaim Sa'ada and Yigal Levy are trading experiences in their hours of work under fire exposing the tunnels. The hottest story going around yesterday afternoon was about another attack tunnel revealed by Levy's D-9 a short time before in northern Gaza. There is excitement and exaltation in the air. Two days ago, an anti-tank missile hit one these vehicles in southern Gaza, killing one of the engineering brigade soldiers. "It's a great vehicle, but sometimes it's vulnerable," the bleary-eyed Sa'ada comments. His wife and son, Harel, are at home in Ashkelon. "An anti-tank missile passed very close to my vehicle not long ago. I've seen a lot of missiles on this front make hits in all sorts of places. I don't tell them much when I talk with them at home; it wasn't long ago. They're waiting there patiently; they realize the importance of this battle," he says.

Sa'ada knows that they have their own problems at home, a difficult situation in its own right. He is a father facing anti-tank missiles in Gaza, while his wife and son have to close themselves in their security room several times a day, because Grad missiles are being fired: "Every tunnel we expose raises our spirits. It's another message to the world - all the destruction in Gaza is not for nothing. We're defending ourselves."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on July 31, 2014

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2014

Operation Protective Edge
Operation Protective Edge
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