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Gaza’s ‘terror tunnels’

November 21, 2016 at 1:44 pm

Extract from Ben White’s new eBook: The 2014 Gaza War: 21 Questions & Answers

Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently reported that State Comptroller Joseph Shapira has now submitted an “almost-final draft” of his report on “Operation Protective Edge” to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A key focus of the 550-page report is “the threat of the tunnels from Gaza” and how Israeli political and military officials performed before and during the war.

Like so many aspects of the 2014 hostilities, the issue of tunnels has suffered from misinformation and coverage skewed by the Israeli authorities’ propaganda talking points. With that in mind, what follows is an extract from my new eBook, “The Gaza 2014 War: 21 Questions & Answers”.

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During “Operation Protective Edge”, the tunnels used by Al-Qassam Brigades and other Palestinian factions, inside the Gaza Strip and under the perimeter fence into Israel, became central to the Israeli justification for the assault, and their destruction the key goal of the IDF’s ground offensive.

Israel claimed Hamas’ cross-border tunnels were primarily designed to target civilian communities. On July 31, Netanyahu told the nation that the tunnels “exist solely to annihilate our civilians and to kill our children.” On another occasion, the prime minister claimed Hamas’ tunnels aimed specifically for “kindergartens.” (A supposed plot for some kind of “mega-attack”, conducted via tunnels, turned out to be a mere rumour, “with intelligence personnel denying the claim”.)

Yet if the tunnels posed such a threat, why did the Israeli cabinet accept an Egyptian ceasefire proposal on July 15, “despite knowing of the existence of more than 30 attack tunnels,” of which “between a third and a half…already extended under the border.”

The public rhetoric is further undermined by a number of sources. Even during the war, Channel 10’s defence correspondent said there was “no doubt [the tunnels’] goal is to hurt and capture soldiers – not civilians.” In late July, a senior IDF source admitted that “all tunnels were aimed towards military targets and not Gaza-perimeter communities.” No less a figure than Israel’s intelligence chief suspected the tunnels’ “prize targets” were “soldiers, not civilians.”

On July 28, when Hamas fighters used a tunnel to attack an IDF compound near Gaza, military sources briefing the media initially “portrayed the incident as a foiling of a terror attack on the kibbutz.” In fact, as was later acknowledged, the fighters “had planned to storm the position from the start and were not en route to the nearby kibbutz to massacre civilians.”

The UN’s COI, noting that the IDF said it had discovered 14 tunnels extending “beyond the Green Line into Israel”, observed that “the tunnels were only used to conduct attacks directed at IDF positions in Israel in the vicinity of the Green Line, which are legitimate military targets.” These five cross-border raids killed 11 Israelis near the Gaza perimeter fence, all soldiers.

Mohammed Deif, head of al-Qassam Brigades, himself stated during the fighting: “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.” Thus for veteran Israeli analyst Nahum Barnea, “[the tunnels’] importance was inflated [by Israeli officials] for marketing reasons.”

Perhaps the most far-fetched case of tunnel-related propaganda was Netanyahu’s claim at a press conference on August 6 that “160 children had been killed digging [Hamas’] tunnels.” The accusation had previously appeared in the pro-Israel publication Tablet Magazine, in an article bearing the headline “Hamas killed 160 Palestinian children to build tunnels.”

The source for the figure was a 2012 piece in the Journal of Palestine Studies about Gaza’s tunnel economy. In other words, the article concerned “the commercial tunnels to Egypt that were Gaza’s response to Israel’s imposition of a draconian blockade.” These tunnels “were overwhelmingly private enterprises, which were regulated by but largely not owned or operated by Hamas.”

Thus a disingenuous conflation was made between the tunnels used to attack Israeli positions during ‘Operation Protective Edge’, and the blockade-busting tunnels into Egypt. Furthermore, the Journal of Palestine Studies clarified that the ‘160’ figure referred to “the total number of deaths in the tunnels recorded by the Hamas authorities as of 2012.” By January 2013, a total number of nine Palestinian children had been killed in the commercial tunnels.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.