NEAR THE ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER — The curved concrete top of the tunnel grazes the dark-brown buzz cut of Lt. Col. Oshik Azulai, putting it 5 feet and 7 inches above the sand floor. The walls are about 30 inches apart — wide enough for two people to squeeze past each other, unless both are in body armor. It is cool in the tunnel, 46 feet under, and dark, of course. Cellphones do not work.
Colonel Azulai, deputy commander of the Israeli military’s Southern Gaza Division, said this tunnel stretched eight-tenths of a mile into Israel, next to a field filled with watermelon, ripe but unpicked because of the war. It ended about 600 yards from Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, a rural enclave of 325, but was unfinished: Unlike the tunnels used to infiltrate Israel from Gaza in recent days, this one still had electric lines along the wall and carriage tracks used to ferry out dirt.
Destroying such tunnels was the stated goal of Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza, which began July 17. But 11 days into the mission, and after Israeli officials say they have found 31 tunnels and destroyed 15, Palestinian militants again penetrated underground into Israel on Monday evening and confronted soldiers in a staging area. Multiple soldiers were killed, a senior military official said, as was at least one of the men from Gaza.
“We will not complete the operation without neutralizing the tunnels, the sole purpose of which is the destruction of our civilians and the killing of our children,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel declared in a televised address afterward. “It cannot be that the citizens of the state of Israel will live under the deadly threats of missiles and infiltration through tunnels — death from above and death from below.”
Tunnels have lurked in the dark spaces of Israeli imagination at least since 2006, when Hamas, the militant Islamic movement that dominates Gaza, used one to abduct an Israeli soldier.
Far more than the rocket barrages that have sent Israelis scrambling for shelter throughout the bloody 21-day battle, the tunnel attacks — Monday’s was the sixth of the current conflict — have shaken the collective psyche and stiffened resolve to continue or even expand the fight.
In cafes and playgrounds, on social-media sites and in the privacy of pillow talk, Israelis exchange nightmare scenarios that are the stuff of action movies: armed enemies popping up under a day care center or dining room, spraying a crowd with a machine gun fire or maybe some chemical, exploding a suicide belt or snatching captives and ducking back into the dirt.
“It takes us a little bit to our childhood fairy tales of demons,” said Eyal Brandeis, 50, a political scientist who lives on Kibbutz Sufa, a mile from where 13 militants emerged from a tunnel at dawn July 17. “It’s a very pastoral environment I live in, the quiet, the green grass, the trees. It’s not a pleasant thought that you sit one day on the patio drinking coffee with your wife and a bunch of terrorists will rise from the ground.”
An Israeli military spokesman said that in the tunnels uncovered so far, soldiers have found more than 70 side shafts. Inside the Ein Hashlosha tunnel, they picked up potato-chip bags dated as late as February. Elsewhere, there were dates, water and crackers; rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles; small rooms for sleeping or hiding; a kidnapping kit of tranquilizers and plastic handcuffs; Israeli Army uniforms; and a Bosch drill used for digging the tunnels that Colonel Azulai described as “a very good one.”
“It’s like a subway under Gaza,” he said.
Israeli experts said each tunnel would take up to a year and cost up to $2 million to build, involving dozens of diggers working by hand and with small electric tools. The military has known about the tunnels since at least 2003 and had a task force studying them for a year, but was nonetheless stunned at the sophisticated network they found.
Intelligence officers track the tunnels by watching for piles of dirt and men disappearing into buildings for days, as well as through communications equipment used underground, according to several Army veterans. But radar designed to detect oil or gas far deeper underground, they said, has often failed to find the tunnels, which burrow through mixed soil closer to the surface that technology has not yet been able to detect.
“Most of the tools, the physical tools, don’t work on this level of the ground — the physics, it’s very limited,” explained Brig. Gen. Shimon Daniel, who commanded Israel’s combat engineering corps from 2003 to 2007 and has since retired. “This is the paradox. It’s not easier. It’s more difficult.”
Israeli political and military leaders mention the tunnel threat nearly every time they speak, and have gained widespread international support for eliminating them. The military in recent days has distributed photographs of tunnels that troops uncovered, and videos of them placing explosives inside and blowing some up. As part of the propaganda push, the military has also invited a few journalists underground for a tour.
Colonel Azulai, 36, led the way down a huge sand-walled crater that Israel dug to get access to the Ein Hashlosha tunnel, and crouched inside. It was perfectly straight; concrete blocks stood neatly side by side, topped by curved ones. Along one wall ran an iron bar supporting electric cables, including one added by the Israelis. At one point, a few blocks of concrete were missing, rough natural rock in their place. At another, a crushed dirty water bottle was stuck in the bar. There were a few splashes of green paint.
“It’s very simple but very professional,” Colonel Azulai said of the tunnel, which he said ran nine-tenths of a mile into Gaza, ending in Khan Younis, one of the focal points of the Israeli assault.
“We don’t have a base of soldiers close to here,” he noted. “If they want to attack us soldiers, it’s O.K. for us to be in battle, but they want to use these tunnels to attack women and children.”
Sderot, the Israeli town of 24,000 near Gaza’s northeast corner, has become a symbol worldwide after being battered by rockets from Gaza for 13 years. But it is the kibbutzim scattered along Gaza’s eastern edge that are most threatened by the tunnels.
“We were feeling pretty safe before,” said Ma’ayan Barkai, 34, director of Kibbutz Be’eri, where one tunnel was found over the weekend. “We knew what to do with the missiles. The tunnels, it’s game-changing. We can’t do anything if the terrorists will come to our kindergarten. The tunnels, it’s very surprising, it can hit you don’t know where.”
The landscape between the kibbutzim is now dotted with makeshift military camps. Acres of dead sunflowers line the roads: Who would harvest them in the midst of such hostilities? There are black scars where rockets hit, flattened fields where tanks rolled in or out.
Bus stops and gas-station cafes are filled with dark-green uniforms, but civilians are scarce. Parking lots have sprouted outside each kibbutz; as reservists mass for entry into Gaza, their hatchbacks with toddler seats gather the dust of days. Soldiers sleep under trees and sneak into empty houses to shower.
Drorit Darom, 58, is one of the few dozen of Kibbutz Kissufim’s 200 residents who stayed. She reads, watches TV, cooks and cleans. Her place is tiny: “It only takes two seconds” to run to the safe room, she said, and the authorities say she has 15 seconds to do so from the time the siren sounds. On Sunday, she served coffee to three busloads of soldiers, borrowing grounds from a neighbor when she ran out.
“I was born in a war, and, jokingly, say I’ll probably die in a war, so why to leave?” Ms. Darom said, referring to Israel’s 1956 confrontation with Egypt over the Suez Canal. “They’re searching for the tunnels, they’re bombing the tunnels every day, so why should I be scared?”
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Even the leftist commenters at NYT are not happy about the tunnels, although there is usual stuff about “root causes.”
This commenter (Michael Stavsen) noted that the report was incomplete (and the comment was chosen by NYT as a featured comment):
This article failed to mention what the plan for these tunnels were. The Israeli government said that interrogation of captured Hamas members revealed that they were planning a massive attack on the Jewish new year holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which is in the beginning of September.
The plan was for thousands of fighters to emerge from different tunnels to attack many of the surrounding communities. The intention was to massacre as many people as they could, in addition to taking many back to Gaza as hostages. And this would have been a horrific attack indeed.
This shows an enemy that is serious and determined and will invest huge resources to carry out attacks with massive casualties. This is similar to the branch of Al Quaida in Yemen that tried to set off an underwear bomb on a plane. The US didn’t say, well they didn’t succeed.
The US declared all out war on that group and won’t rest till they are defeated.
Because an enemy that is determined to bring you down and cause massive deaths will keep trying to do so and the only defense against such an enemy is to defeat them.
Other commenters wondered what Hamas else might have built with all the concrete and effort it took to build the tunnels (schools, hospitals and so on).