Ofer Lieberman looks at the patch of earth that, on July 21, 2014, was the gaping mouth of a tunnel. On that day, 10 fighters from the Palestinian militant group Hamas traveled through the tunnel from the nearby Gaza Strip and emerged inside Israel dressed in Israeli army uniforms and equipped with guns and explosive belts. Four Israeli soldiers and all 10 Islamists were killed when the Israeli army confronted the militants. “It was horrible,” says Lieberman, the spokesman for the cooperative village Nir Am, which sits just over a mile from the fence that surrounds Gaza.
The attack on Nir Am took place during that summer’s 50-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza. Over the course of the war, 11 Israeli soldiers were killed in attacks by Palestinians emerging from tunnels that extended into Israeli territory. Israel discovered 32 such tunnels during the conflict. A cease-fire deal ended the war, but lulls in the conflict between militants in Gaza and Israel have not historically lasted long. And Hamas is once again tunneling under the fence that separates Gaza from Israel. Political analysts fear that the region could be edging once again toward war.
“In the event we are attacked from tunnels in the Gaza Strip, we will act very forcefully against Hamas, and with much more force than Operation Protective Edge,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in January, referring to the Israeli military operation in 2014. During that war, more than 2,000 Palestinians and 72 Israelis were killed. The fighting resulted in the destruction of 120,000 homes in Gaza, and many Gazans remain homeless.
Since the beginning of this year, nearly a dozen tunnels have collapsed on the Palestinians digging them, killing at least 10 people. Hamas has started bragging publicly about its ability to reach into Israel; an Israeli intelligence source tells Newsweek that more than 10 tunnels already do, and that Israel has not yet pinpointed the exact locations. For Israelis living near the Gaza border, the threat comes from below. Residents say they can sometimes hear the sounds of drilling and chiseling beneath their homes.
“With the Qassams, there is an alarm and you can go to the bomb shelter,” says Lieberman, using the name of the rocket developed by Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing. “If a terrorist comes into the kibbutz, imagine what can happen here.”
The re-emergence of tunnels as a weapon of war has coincided with a series of attacks by individual Palestinians on Israelis in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Tel Aviv. This latest Palestinian uprising, which began in October, has resulted in the deaths of 29 Israelis, three foreign nationals and 170 Palestinians—roughly two-thirds of them while attacking Israelis and the rest during clashes with Israeli soldiers, according to the army.
The first tunnel attack occurred in 2006, when Hamas militants surfaced near Kerem Shalom, an Israeli border crossing that is now the main source of construction materials for the homes in Gaza that were destroyed during the last war. The militants killed two Israeli soldiers and kidnapped 19-year-old soldier Gilad Shalit, holding him until 2011, when Hamas released him in exchange for Israel’s release of 1,027 prisoners, some of whom were responsible for killing hundreds of Israelis.
In the 2014 war, the tunnels became Hamas’s most powerful weapon. Hamas and other militants fired 4,800 rockets into Israel, according to the U.N., but Israel’s sophisticated Iron Dome anti-missile system succeeded in shooting down most rockets fired from Gaza before they could land in civilian towns and cities. Tunnels were harder to combat.
At a recent funeral in Gaza for seven Hamas fighters killed in a tunnel collapse, Ismail Haniyeh, a senior political leader of Hamas and former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, told thousands of mourners: “Underground tunnels brought death to our enemy and victory and glory to our people and nation. Fighters are digging twice as much as the number of tunnels dug in Vietnam.”
Some Gazans support Hamas’s tunnel construction. The mother of a 21-year-old who died in January in a tunnel collapse tells Newsweek: “This is an honor for me and my family. We will fight them until we kick them out from our land.”
The Israeli military appears to be engaged in a somewhat covert battle against the tunnelers. The U.S. Congress has appropriated $40 million this year for the Pentagon to help Israel develop a system to detect tunnels. The project’s goal “ will be to establish anti-tunnel capabilities to detect, map and neutralize underground tunnels that threaten the U.S. or Israel," says Pentagon spokesman Christopher Sherwood. A spokesperson for the Israeli military declined to provide details about the work, but a person involved in the project says the system involves seismic sensors that can monitor vibrations in the ground.
In early February, the Israeli military’s chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, told a conference at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center that the Israeli army placed nearly 100 engineering vehicles on the Gaza border to locate and destroy Hamas tunnels. But officials have refused to comment on whether Israel has eradicated any of them. When asked by the Palestinian Ma’an news agency in January if Israel was responsible for the tunnel collapses, Israeli Defense Forces Major General Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of Israeli government activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, replied: “God knows.”
Nissim Hakmon, a resident of Pri Gan, another small collective village just over 2 miles from the Gaza fence, is among the many Israelis hoping their military is devoting resources to detect and destroy the tunnels. He says he was at his neighbor’s house last month when they heard what seemed to be noise from construction work going on beneath their feet. They called the army, and within 10 minutes jeeps and soldiers arrived. He says the troops checked the ground and listened to the sounds his neighbor recorded on her cellphone. “They come and do a search, drink coffee and go back to the base,” says Hakmon, a 39-year-old agricultural manager at Pri Gan and father of four. “I don’t feel safe at all. I have no one to trust. Only myself and God.”