Inside Hamas's tunnels used to move weapons and ambush Israeli forces

The tunnels of death: Inside Hamas’s underground passages used to move weapons and ambush Israeli forces – who are now obliterating the network with airstrikes

  • Israel Defence Forces have long been trying to destroy the tunnels in the Gaza Strip that appeared after 2007
  • Apparently tricked Hamas into sending fighters into the tunnels then bombed them, killing many militants
  • Network was used by Hamas in 2014 Israel-Gaza war to enter the Jewish state, ambush soldiers, and return
  • First tunnels were built into Egypt to bypass the Israeli blockade of Gaza, had pivoted towards Israel by 2014
  • The passages, which Hamas claims are for defence, now branch dozens of kilometres through the Gaza Strip 
  • Israel completed a 41-mile underground border wall with motion sensors to detect tunnel digging in March

Israel claims to have obliterated much of Hamas’s network of tunnels in the Gaza Strip in a massive bombardment overnight Thursday.

Helicopters, jets, gun boats and artillery pounded northern and eastern parts of Gaza with more than 1,000 bombs and shells as part of a ‘complex’ operation to destroy Hamas tunnels underneath Gaza City. 

In an apparent trick, the IDF said shortly after midnight that ground forces were ‘attacking in Gaza’, but a spokesman later retracted that statement, saying no Israeli troops had crossed the border.

However, the announcement was a well-planned ploy to get Hamas to send its fighters into its underground tunnel system beneath Gaza City, before bombarding the area, in the hope of eliminating large numbers of the organisation’s operatives in one foul swoop, reports in Israel claim. 

The IDF has long been trying to destroy the network of Hamas tunnels – established after the Islamist organisation took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 – because they reach into Israeli territory and are a launch point for the many of the group’s attacks.  

Tunnels were among Hamas’s most effective tools during the 2014 war with Israel, with militants using them to move weapons, enter the Jewish state, ambush IDF soldiers, and at times even return to Gaza through the underground passages.      

Israel claims to have obliterated much of Hamas’s network of tunnels in a massive bombardment last night (pictured, Hamas fighters in the underground passages)

Helicopters, jets, gun boats and artillery pounded northern and eastern parts of Gaza with more than 1,000 bombs and shells overnight Thursday as part of a ‘complex’ operation to destroy Hamas tunnels underneath Gaza City

The IDF has long been trying to destroy the network of Hamas tunnels, which reach into Israeli territory and are a launch point for the group’s attacks (pictured an Israeli officer in one of the cross-border tunnels)

The network of tunnels were built after Hamas took power in the Gaza Strip in 2007 and have since been used to launch several attacks on Israel (pictured, Palestinian militants in the tunnels)

An explosion lights the sky following an Israeli air strike on Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on May 14 as part of a massive bombardment of Hamas’s tunnel network

A graphic shows some of the areas of Gaza that have been targeted by air strikes from Israeli forces and the position of some Israeli weaponry

The first Hamas tunnels were built in 2007 between the Gaza Strip and Egypt and were designed for smuggling consumer goods to bypass the Israeli blockade. 

However, some rudimentary networks existed in Gaza as early as 2002. One was used to bomb an Israeli outpost within the Strip in 2004. A second tunnel bomb attack on an Israeli outpost took place in December 2004, killing five IDF soldiers. 

The first cross-border raid by Hamas took place in 2006, when the group kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, holding him captive for more than five years. 

By 2013, the network had definitively pivoted away from the Egyptian border and towards Israel and there were at least three tunnels under the Israel-Gaza border, two of which were packed with explosives. 

The underground network now branches dozens of kilometres through the Gaza Strip reaching the towns of Khan Younis, Jabalia, and the Shati refugee camp. They also stretch into Israel. 

The tunnels are used by Hamas and other Islamist groups in Gaza, including the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine. 

The groups use the network to hide rockets and other munitions, facilitate communication within their organisations, conceal militants, and launch attacks. 

By 2013, the network had definitively pivoted away from the Egyptian border and towards Israel (pictured, Palestinian militants from the Islamic Jihad sit in the tunnels)

Hamas uses the network to hide rockets and other munitions, facilitate communication within their organisations, conceal militants, launch attacks, and conduct training (pictured, a Palestinian youth crawls in a tunnel during a Hamas graduation ceremony)

Israel has long struggled to wipeout the system, despite top of the range military and intelligence equipment (pictured, an Israeli soldier enters a Hamas tunnel)

Israel has struggled to destroy the tunnels because they are extremely difficult to detect from the air (pictured, an IDF officer inspects a tunnel in the Philadelphia Corridor, Gaza)

The first Hamas tunnels were built between the Gaza Strip and Egypt and were designed for smuggling consumer goods to bypass the Israeli blockade (pictured, a Palestinian smuggler moves a goat through a tunnel from Egypt to Gaza)

Who are Hamas? 

Hamas was founded in 1987 and aims to liberate Palestine and turn it into an Islamic State. 

It was established as an offshoot from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which was active in the Gaza Strip in the 1950s.

The organisation rose to power in 2006, defeating the ruling Fatah party in Palestinian elections. 

It then ousted Fatah officials and seized control of the Gaza Strip in a brief military conflict in June 2007.   

The conflict resulted in the de facto split of the West Bank and Gaza Strip into distinct Palestinian entities.

Hamas has since launched several attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians, often claiming they are retaliatory. 

Since 1994, the organisation has frequently stated it is willing to accept a truce if Israel withdraws to its 1967 borders, pays reparations, allows free elections in the territories, and grants Palestinians the right of return.

Several Western states including the US, Canada, Japan, and the EU have designated Hamas a terrorist organisation.  

Israel has long struggled to wipeout the system, despite top of the range military and intelligence equipment.

This is primarily because the tunnels, which are believed to have cost between $30 million (£21.3 million) and $90 million (£63.9 million) to build, are extremely difficult to detect from the air. 

Some of the three dozen tunnels built since the end of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict are estimated to have cost $3 million ($2.13 million). 

The tunnels are reinforced with concrete to protect them from airstrikes and from caving in. 

Footage from inside the tunnels shows a sweaty and cramped environment, not tall enough for fighters to stand up straight.  

Hamas first used the tunnels to launch an attack on Israel in July 2014, when 13 fighters used the network to surface near a kibbutz. 

At the time, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya said the tunnels represented ‘a new strategy in confronting the occupation and in the conflict with the enemy from underground and from above the ground’. 

Tensions between Israel and Gaza had been intensifying since June 2014, when three teens were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas, allegedly without the knowledge of the organisation’s leadership.  

Rockets fired by Hamas into Israeli territory and by the IDF into the Gaza Strip then formally sparked the seven-week conflict in July 2014.  

One of the primary Israeli objectives of the war, known as Operation Protective Edge, was to destroy Hamas’s network of tunnels.  

The IDF reported it had ‘neutralised’ 32 tunnels along the Israel-Gaza border during the conflict, including 14 which crossed into Israel. 

The devastating 2014 conflict killed 2,251 Palestinians, while more than 10,000 were wounded and 100,000 were left homeless. 

On the Israeli side, 74 people were killed, all but six of them soldiers.

Though Israel said it levelled 32 tunnels during the conflict, many have been rebuilt by Hamas who continue to use the underground network. 

Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza say tunnels are needed for defence. 

In 2015, the Islamist group started using heavy machinery, including bulldozers and tractors, as well as engineering tools to accelerate construction of the tunnels. 

The reconstruction was largely funded by Iran, the Sunday Telegraph reported at the time citing intelligence sources. The Islamic Republic also provided rockets and missiles to replenish Hamas’s arsenal.  

Tunnels were among Hamas’s most effective tools during the 2014 war with Israel, with militants using them to enter the Jewish state, carry out attacks and at times even return to Gaza through the underground passages (pictured, Hamas tunnels identified by the IDF in 2014)

The IDF reported it had ‘neutralised’ 32 tunnels along the Israel-Gaza border, including 14 which crossed into Israel, during the conflict which took place between July 8 and August 26, 2014 (pictured, a 2014 graphic showing tunnels targeted by the IDF in 2014)

The first Hamas tunnels were built in 2007 between the Gaza Strip and Egypt and were designed for smuggling consumer goods to bypass the Israeli blockade (pictured, a Palestinian waits to enter a tunnel that runs under the Egyptian border)

Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza say tunnels are needed for defence (pictured, armed Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, deploy in the tunnels in Gaza City during the seven-week conflict in 2014)

Gazans have long used the network of tunnels to bypass the closed Egyptian border at Rafah to bring in staple goods and fuels as well as shipments of arms (pictured, a Palestinian enters a tunnel that runs between Gaza and Egypt)

Some rudimentary tunnels existed in Gaza as early as 2002. One was used to bomb an Israeli outpost within the Strip in 2004 (pictured, an Israeli soldiers inspects a tunnel in the Rafah area in Gaza in 2002)

A tunnel bomb attack on an Israeli outpost took place in December 2004, killing five IDF soldiers (pictured, IDF soldiers inspect a tunnel discovered in December 2005 near Israel’s Erez Checkpoint, north of the Gaza Strip)

All together, the tunnels are believed to have cost between $30 million (£21.3 million) and $90 million (£63.9 million) to build (pictured, an Israeli officer inspects a Hamas tunnel that was destroyed in October 2017)

Several tunnels then collapsed or were destroyed by the Egyptian Army in in 2016 and 2017, killing at least 54 Hamas members. 

In 2018, the IDF announced it had found and destroyed the longest and deepest tunnel ever dug by Palestinian Islamists Hamas. 

The tunnel, which Israel says would have ‘cost millions to build’, allegedly began below the Gaza Strip and went on for ‘several kilometres’, well into Israeli territory.

Israel says the Hamas tunnel came from the northern area of Jabaliya, was being dug in the direction of the Nahal Oz community in Israel, and was connected to several others within Gaza. 

The IDF said it was made it inoperable by filling it with material days after it was discovered.   

In 2018, the IDF announced it had found and destroyed the longest and deepest tunnel ever dug by Palestinian Islamists Hamas (pictured, the site of the tunnel in 2018)

The tunnel, which Israel says would have ‘cost millions to build’, allegedly began below the Gaza Strip and went on for ‘several kilometres’, well into Israeli territory (pictured, an Israeli soldier inspects a disused tunnel in 2018)

The Islamic Republic provided rockets and missiles to replenish Hamas’s arsenal after the 2014 and supplied engineering equipment to allow fighters to re-build tunnels in Gaza (pictured, a Palestinian militant gets out of a tunnel during a graduation ceremony in 2016)

The IDF repeatedly says it is able to make tunnels inoperable by filling them with materials after they are discovered (pictured, an Israeli soldier walks through a tunnel the army discovered and seized in October 2013)

Israel has since turned to more creative means of finding and destroying Hamas’s tunnels in Gaza – building a massive underground slurry wall along the Strip to stop militants constructing ‘attack’ tunnels. 

Construction on the three billion shekel project (£640 million) started in mid-2017 and finished in March 2021.

The concrete wall, which is accompanied by motion sensors designed to detect tunnel digging, is about eight metres high and spans 41 miles along the Israel-Gaza border.   

The barrier was built on Israeli territory, east of the existing border fence, near the town of Sderot, off the northern Gaza Strip, and the Nahal Oz area near Gaza City.

It also includes an offshore barrier intended to stop sea-based commando attacks. 

In October 2020, motion sensors on the wall detected a tunnel from the southern Gazan city of Khan Younis that ran several dozen metres into Israeli territory.  

Israel has since turned to more creative means of finding and destroying Hamas’s tunnels in Gaza, building a massive underground slurry wall along the Strip to stop militants constructing ‘attack’ tunnels (pictured, and Israeli soldier keeps guard next to a tunnel entrance)

Since 2014, Israel has turned to more creative means of destroying Hamas’s tunnels in Gaza – building a massive underground slurry wall along the Strip to stop militants constructing ‘attack’ tunnels (pictured, an Israeli soldier leaves a secured Hamas tunnel in 2014)

Despite the barrier, which was was built on Israeli territory, east of the existing border fence, near the town of Sderot, off the northern Gaza Strip, and the Nahal Oz area near Gaza City, Hamas has continued to dig new tunnels

Several Hamas members were killed in tunnel collapses in 2016 and 2017 (pictured, the organisation’s fighters in Gaza City gather to pay tribute to their fallen fellow militants)

In October 2020, motion sensors on the wall detected a tunnel from the southern Gazan city of Khan Younis that ran several dozen metres into Israeli territory (pictured, a different Hamas tunnel discovered by the IDF)

Israel versus Gaza: History of 70 years of conflict

BY SARA MALM FOR MAILONLINE

Gaza is a coastal strip of land that lay on ancient trading and maritime routes along the Mediterranean shore. 

Held by the Ottoman Empire until 1917, it passed from British to Egyptian to Israeli military rule over the last century and is now a fenced-in enclave inhabited by two million Palestinians.

Here are some of the major milestones in its recent history.

Today: Palestinian protesters use slingshots against Israeli security forces as they burn tires during the mass-protests in the first week of April, 2018

1948 – Refugees and Egyptian military rule

As British colonial rule came to an end in Palestine in the late 1940s, violence intensified between Jews and Arabs, culminating in war between the newly created State of Israel and its Arab neighbours in May 1948.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians took refuge in Gaza after fleeing or being driven from their homes. The invading Egyptian army had seized a narrow coastal strip 25 miles (40 km) long from the Sinai to just south of Ashkelon. The influx of refugees saw Gaza’s population triple to around 200,000.

Egypt held the Gaza Strip for two decades under a military governor, allowing Palestinians to work and study in Egypt.

In the 1950s and 1960s armed Palestinian ‘fedayeen’ – many of them refugees – mounted attacks into Israel, drawing reprisals. The United Nations set up a refugee agency, UNRWA, which today provides services for 1.3 million registered Palestine refugees in Gaza, around 70 per cent of the population, as well as for Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank.

1967 – War and Israeli military occupation

Israel captured the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war. An Israeli census that year put Gaza’s population at 394,000, at least 60 percent of them refugees. It found that 65 percent of working-age men in the 145 sq. mile (375 sq. km) territory were employed in Gaza before the 1967 conflict, mainly in agriculture, fishing, industry and quarries.

With the Egyptians gone, the focus of many Gazan workers shifted. Thousands took jobs in the agriculture, construction and services industries inside Israel, to which they could gain easy access at that time. Israeli troops remained to administer the territory, and to guard the settlements that Israel built in the following decades. These became a source of growing Palestinian resentment.

Two sides: A Palestinian police officer, left, aims his AK-47 assault rifle at Israeli soldiers during a confrontation in the Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis in January 1998

1987 – First Palestinian uprising and birth of Hamas

Twenty years after the 1967 war, Palestinians launched their first intifada, or uprising. It began in December 1987 after a traffic accident in which an Israeli truck crashed into a vehicle carrying Palestinian workers in Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp, killing four. Stone-throwing protests, strikes and shutdowns followed.

Seizing the angry mood, the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood created an armed Palestinian branch – Hamas – with its power base in Gaza. Hamas, dedicated to Israel’s destruction and restoration of Islamic rule in what it saw as occupied Palestine, became a rival to Yasser Arafat’s secular Fatah party that led the Palestine Liberation Organization.

1993 – The Oslo Accords, and Palestinian semi-autonomy

Israel and the Palestinians signed an historic peace accord in 1993 that led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority. Under the interim deal, Palestinians were first given limited control in Gaza, and Jericho in the West Bank. Arafat returned to Gaza after decades in exile.

The Oslo process gave the newly created Palestinian Authority some autonomy, and envisaged statehood after five years. But that never happened. Israel accused the Palestinians of reneging on security agreements, and Palestinians were angered by continued Israeli settlement-building.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad carried out bombings to try to derail the peace process, leading Israel to impose more restrictions on movement of Palestinians out of Gaza. Hamas also picked up on growing Palestinian criticisms of corruption, nepotism and economic mismanagement by Arafat’s inner circle.

Palestinian boys and young men throw stones at an army camp in Gaza in 2000

2000 – Second Palestinian Intifada

In 2000, Israeli-Palestinian relations sank to a low with the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada. It ushered in a period of suicide bombings and shooting attacks by Palestinians, and Israeli air strikes, demolitions, no-go zones and curfews.

One casualty was Gaza International Airport, a symbol of thwarted Palestinian hopes for economic independence and the Palestinians’ only direct link to the outside world that was not controlled by Israel or Egypt. Opened in 1998, was deemed a security threat by Israel three years later. Israel destroyed its radar antenna and runway a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Another casualty was Gaza’s fishing industry, a source of income for tens of thousands. Gaza’s fishing zone, set by the Oslo deals at 20 nautical miles, was reduced by Israel to between three and 12 nautical miles. Israel said the restrictions were necessary to stop boats smuggling weapons. Palestinians accused Israel of reneging on Oslo.

United: An elderly Palestinian woman holds a rocket propelled grenade as she and others demonstrate in Gaza City in July 2006

2005 – Israel evacuates its Gaza settlements

In August 2005 Israel evacuated all its troops and settlers from Gaza, which was by then completely fenced off from the outside world by Israel.

Palestinians tore down the abandoned buildings and infrastructure for scrap. The settlements’ removal led to greater freedom of movement within Gaza, and the ‘tunnel economy’ boomed as armed groups, smugglers and entrepreneurs quickly dug scores of tunnels into Egypt.

But the pullout also removed settlement factories, greenhouses and workshops that had employed some Gazans.

2006 to 2007 – Isolation under Hamas

In 2006, Hamas scored a surprise victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Later that year, Hamas militants captured an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and killed two others in a tunnel raid. In 2007 Hamas seized full control of Gaza, overthrowing forces loyal to Arafat’s successor, President Mahmoud Abbas.

Much of the international community cut aid to the Palestinians in Hamas-controlled areas because they regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

Israel stopped tens of thousands of Palestinian workers from entering the country, cutting off an important source of income, and closed an industrial zone on the Gaza border. 

Israeli air strikes crippled Gaza’s only electrical power plant, causing widespread blackouts. Citing security concerns, Israel and Egypt also imposed tighter restrictions on the movement of people and goods through the Gaza crossings.

Gaza’s economy increasingly went underground, becoming more dependent on a network of smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt. Ambitious Hamas plans to refocus Gaza’s economy east, away from Israel, foundered before they even started.

White phosphorus bombs explode over Gaza city during Israel’s three week offensive in January, 200

2013 – Coup in Egypt

In 2011 the Arab Spring brought a window of opportunity for the Islamist-led government in Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood won parliamentary and presidential elections in Egypt, bolstering Hamas. But the Egyptian army slowed the flow of cash, food, building supplies, cars, petrol – and weapons that used to come through tunnels.

Egypt’s newly elected president, Mohammed Mursi, was overthrown after just a year. Viewing Hamas as a threat, Egypt’s new military-backed leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, closed the border with Gaza and blew up most of the tunnels. Once again isolated, Gaza’s economy went into reverse.

2008 to 2014 – Border wars

Gaza’s economy has suffered repeatedly over decades in the cycle of conflict, attack and retaliation between Israel and Palestinian militant groups, from the 1970s to recent years.

Israel and Gaza militants led by Hamas fought three wars since 2008 which resulted in widespread destruction and the killing of thousands of Palestinians and about 100 Israelis.

The worst fighting was in 2014. Hamas and other groups launched rockets at heartland cities in Israel. Israel carried out air strikes and artillery bombardment that devastated neighbourhoods in Gaza. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed, mostly civilians. Israel put the number of its dead at 67 soldiers and six civilians.

2017 – Palestinian split worsened 

In 2017, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas launched a series of economic sanctions on Hamas in a bid to force the group to relinquish control of Gaza. He orchestrated a reduction of electricity for Gaza and slashed salaries of 60,000 Palestinian Authority employees there by 30 percent, weakening buying power.

2018 – US cuts aid to Palestinians 

 President Donald Trump announced the United States would withhold some future aid payments to Palestinians, accusing them of unwillingness to talk peace with Israel. Washington held back $65 million of a first scheduled payment to UNRWA, the U.N. agency that cares for Palestinian refugees. 

It is unclear how much more, if any, it will contribute. UNRWA received $355 million from the United States in the 2017 fiscal year. UNRWA is funded mainly by voluntary contributions from U.N. member states, with the United States by far the largest donor. 

Dozens of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces during protests at the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip in the run-up to celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel.

And last month’s decision by Mr Trump to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, an issue that cuts to the heart of conflict in the region and has garnered international censure, sparked the worst outbreak of violence in four years and left more than 60 Palestinians dead.

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