Slipping into a tunnel under Israel’s southern border and heading toward the Gaza Strip, the scorching summer heat suddenly turns cooler and the boom of artillery fire above fades away.
The passage, built by Gaza militants to infiltrate Israel, is just high enough for a person carrying a weapon to walk through upright. Its sides and arched ceiling are made of prefabricated cement slabs. Two metal rails run along a poured concrete floor, to accommodate carts that removed dug-out earth and transported weapons, the Israeli military says.
Israel, which has acted for years against smuggling tunnels Gazans built under their border with Egypt, is now on a campaign against what it says is an unexpectedly intricate network of underground passages militants dug into Israeli territory to carry out attacks. Its three-week-old offensive in Hamas-controlled Gaza has presented an opportunity to demolish these tunnels that didn’t exist in quieter times, analysts say.
“What is surprising is the sheer scope of their entire tunnel-building operation, its sophistication, and how much of it we found in built-up populated areas,” said Israel’s Gaza Brigade’s chief combat engineer officer, who asked to be identified as Lieutenant-Colonel Max out of security concerns.
The success of the Iron Dome anti-missile system in intercepting rockets fired at Israel from Gaza caused Hamas “to shift much of its strategic effort from above the ground to below it,” Max said. Hamas says Israel’s claims of a “terror tunnel” operation are trumped up.
“We will not end this operation without the neutralization of the tunnels, whose only purpose is destruction,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said today in a televised address. “That need was clarified today,” he added, referring to an infiltration attempt by Palestinian militants from Gaza into southern Israel through one of the tunnels.
Israeli forces engaged in a firefight with the militants, the army said in a statement, killing at least one.
Militants have poured an estimated 600,000 tons of cement and other materials into the ground at a cost of around $30 million to build the three dozen underground passages found so far, according to army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner. The human toll of wiping them out has been high: More than 1,050 Palestinians and 45 Israelis have died since the conflict began July 8, the overwhelming majority since ground troops invaded Gaza nine days later with the declared aim of destroying the corridors.
Max, an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, wears a flak jacket and helmet as he makes his way down a sandy pit 12 meters (40 feet) deep to reach a tunnel Israel says it uncovered before its planned endpoint was built near Kibbutz Nir Am, an Israeli agricultural community.
The passage’s main entrance shaft was hidden 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) inside Gaza under a greenhouse in Khan Yunis, near the territory’s southern tip, Max said.
As the 35-year-old officer leads the way through the dark, narrow corridor, he shines a flashlight on niches he says were dug out to store weapons. A metal rack running along one side is laced with black cable, remnants of an electrical system.
More than 100 entrance shafts to about 30 tunnels have been discovered since the ground incursion was ordered a day after Palestinian gunmen emerged from an underground passage inside Israel and headed for Nir Am, the military says. There have been at least four infiltrations since, including one in which two soldiers died in a shootout with gunmen, according to the army.
Destroying the tunnels, often during a battle, presents no small challenge.
The corridors, often originating in the basements of Gaza homes and other buildings, can be booby-trapped. Max says he was injured in one such incident a few months earlier.
While the quickest and easiest way to demolish a tunnel is to have soldiers enter it and place explosives down its entire length, the army is drilling openings into the tunnels from above to insert the explosives, then detonating them from a distance to avoid putting troops in harm’s way, Max says.
“You want to reach a point where the entire tunnel from end to end can be destroyed, so the enemy can’t come back and easily rebuild it,” he says, explaining why this one is still intact.
The military wing of Hamas, the Islamist movement that is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union, accuses Israel of fabricating allegations about tunnels.
“The occupation’s claim that it found tunnels and seized it by showing pictures is a complete lie,” the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades said in a statement last week. “All the occupation found were underground corridors dug into a training facility that belongs to our group near the border.”
Hamas knows firsthand the potential benefits the tunnels hold for militants. It won freedom for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel in 2011 by releasing a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, captured five years earlier by Hamas militants who burrowed into Israel underground.
Israel has known about the tunnels for about two years and had uncovered several, including the one Max displayed, before the current military operation began. Retired Major-General Amos Yadlin, who headed Israeli Military Intelligence from 2006-2010, said Israel had been constrained by diplomatic considerations from acting earlier against the passages.
“We knew very well the tunnels were there,” Yadlin said. “It’s not an intelligence failure. If it’s a failure, it was a policy failure.”
After Israel discovered a concrete-lined tunnel last October, it began limiting the already restricted entry of cement and other building materials into Gaza. That decision drew criticism from the United Nations and human rights groups, which say the restrictions are crippling a Gaza economy reliant on the construction industry. It also leaves thousands of Palestinians without the means to build or repair homes, including those destroyed or damaged by Israeli military operations, they say.
Re-emerging into the harsh sunlight, Max acknowledges that pressure from the international community to cease fighting might curtail his mission.
“If we want to completely destroy all the tunnels, at least all the ones we know about, it would take at least another week,” he says. “We know also how to achieve a maximum impact within a shortened schedule.”