This week the debate in Israel about what to do about the renewed threat of Gaza terror tunnels escalated. Leaks from a Security Cabinet meeting indicated that Naphtali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home Party that sits in an always-uneasy alliance with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud, had pushed for the government to take action now against the tunnels before Hamas used them. However, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yaalon spiked the proposal. The PM’s office didn’t confirm that the debate took place but did bitterly protest the leak that almost certainly came from Bennett’s camp. This was further evidence of the tension within the coalition, as Bennett wanted the public to know that he agreed with the Zionist Union opposition that it was a mistake for Israel to sit back and wait to be attacked rather than to strike first.
As I noted last week, the question of what to do about a Hamas tunnel network that almost certainly has been completely rebuilt, if not expanded since the 2014 summer war in Gaza, is a complex debate. The rationale for immediate action as demanded by both the left and the right is strong. Yet the case for standing pat is not negligible. Moreover, the government is hoping that Hamas may be deterred not only by the cost of another war but also by the thought that the Israelis might actively be sabotaging the tunnels.
There have been at least five separate reported tunnel collapses in Gaza in the last few weeks. At least 11 terrorist personnel are believed to have died as a result of the mishaps that were initially thought to be the result of flooding from bad weather or poor engineering. But on Tuesday Israel’s top general hinted that the setbacks to Hamas’s preparations for the next war might not have been accidents.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot told a conference at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center that the IDF is working, mostly in secret, to counter the Gazan tunnel threat and has employed nearly 100 engineering vehicles on the border to locate and destroy the Hamas passageways into Israel.
“We are doing a lot, but many of [the things we do] are hidden from the public. We have dozens, if not a hundred, engineering vehicles on the Gaza border,” Eisenkot said.
We don’t know whether this is a bluff intended to make Hamas think that Israel can destroy its tunnels faster than they can built, or is it actually an indication that the Israel Defense Forces may have arrived at what may be at least a partial solution to the problem. But we do know that Egypt has been actively seeking to flood and destroy the smuggling tunnels between the Sinai and Gaza. The Egyptian government, which views Hamas as an ally of its Muslim Brotherhood foes, is just as if not more zealous than the Israelis about maintaining a partial blockade of Gaza. The urgency of their campaign against Hamas was only emphasized by another recent report that told of ISIS terrorists operating in the Sinai receiving medical assistance in Gaza.
But even if we willing to believe that Israel is taking active steps against the tunnels rather than, as Bennett and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog seem to think, doing nothing, that still puts Netanyahu in a difficult position.
With Hamas digging away nonstop along the border, it would be a mistake to imagine that the tunnel network has been neutralized. Nor is there any doubt about the fact that Hamas has replenished its supply of rockets — several thousand of which rained down on Israeli cities and towns in 2014 — and, with the ongoing help of Iran, still constitutes a grave threat to Israeli security.
Even if some countermeasures against the tunnels working — and that is by no means certain — that still leaves Hamas left in place with tunnels for kidnapping and murders and enough rockets to keep Israel’s Iron Dome Batteries working non-stop in an attempt to prevent more damage and loss of life. With the communities along the Gaza border fearful of the future, that’s why Herzog and Bennett are arguing that waiting only serves the purposes of Hamas and Iran. Waiting gives them the strategic initiative as well as undermining Israeli morale.
Yet Netanyahu also knows that starting a new war in order to pre-empt Hamas worsen relations with the United States and perhaps give a lame duck Obama the opportunity its been waiting for to finally abandon Israel at the United Nations. From that point of view, Israel does better to chip away at the Hamas threat with the help of Egypt than to set off a full-scale conflict that could blow up the alliance with the U.S. If the tunnel threat can be managed until a new president takes office, the always-cautious Netanyahu will count that a triumph that saved lives as well as preserving Israel’s interests.
Netanyahu’s critics, both on the left and the right, as well as in Israel and the United States have underestimated him before. Having been caught by surprise by the tunnels in 2014, it may be that the IDF has a few surprises in store for Hamas. In the meantime, Israel’s critics need to remember that no matter whether action is taken against the tunnels or not, the sole priority of the independent Palestinian in all but name that exists in Gaza remains terrorism. Those who argue for duplicating a unilateral Gaza withdrawal in the West Bank are asking Israel need to think about how much more terrible Israel’s tunnel dilemma would be if Hamas ran things there too.