Militants, arms transit Gaza tunnels despite crackdown

Aug 22, 2014, 12:02 AM EDT
Overview of a tunnel built underground by Hamas militants leading from the Gaza Strip into Southern Israel, seen on August 4, 2014 near the Israeli Gaza border, Israel.
AFP/Getty Images

While tunnels used by Gaza's dominant Hamas militants to infiltrate Israel were a priority target of an Israeli offensive in the Palestinian enclave this summer, many smuggling conduits into Egypt have skirted detection. Reuters reports:

That has allowed transports of weapons, building materials, medicine and food to continue to and from the small, coastal territory that is subject to blockade by both Israel and Egypt, tunnel operators say and Egyptian security sources acknowledge.

"During the Gaza war, business has flourished," said a Bedouin guide who gave Reuters access to one of the tunnels and a rare look at how the illicit, lucrative industry has evolved since Egypt began trying to root out the passages in 2012.

Egypt sees a halt to the flow of weapons and fighters as important to its security, shaken in the past year by explosions and shootings by an Islamist insurgency based mainly in the Sinai Peninsula bordering Gaza and Israel. Humanitarian supplies and building materials headed in the other direction have provided a vital lifeline to the 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza who have been living under the Israeli-imposed blockade since Hamas seized the enclave in 2007.

Cairo mediated talks this month between Israel and Palestinian factions led by Hamas to try to end the war in Gaza but refused to discuss easing its tight control of the Rafah border crossing as part of the deal Hamas seeks.

A 10-day ceasefire expired on Tuesday without a deal to extend it indefinitely, with Israel resuming air strikes on Gaza and Hamas and other Islamist militants their rocket salvoes into the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, the latest round of fighting appears to have given Israel the upper hand in a conflict that has already outlasted all expectations and is increasingly becoming a war of attrition. The New York Times writes:

Barrages of rockets from Gaza sailed into Israel nearly nonstop on Thursday, but they did little damage, and a Hamas threat against Ben-Gurion International Airport failed to materialize.

Israel, meanwhile, killed three top commanders of Hamas’s armed wing in predawn airstrikes, and by afternoon had called up 10,000 reservists, perhaps in preparation for a further escalation but in any case a show of strength. Israel’s advantage has never looked more lopsided.

In contrast to the earlier phase of the war, Israel this week deployed its extensive intelligence capabilities and overwhelming firepower in targeted bombings with limited civilian casualties less likely to raise the world’s ire. Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian faction that dominates Gaza, buried some of its most beloved and effective leaders while launching largely futile homemade rockets from its depleted stock. “There’s a longstanding conventional wisdom that Israel doesn’t do well in wars of attrition,” said Michael B. Oren, an Israeli historian and a former ambassador to the United States.

That overlooks a broader historical view that Israel’s entire existence has been a war of attrition, and we’ve won that war.” The long-term impact of the strikes against the Hamas commanders, which followed an attempted assassination of the head of the armed wing on Tuesday night, may be limited.

Hamas waged its fiercest fight ever this summer despite Israel’s 2012 hit on the director of day-to-day military operations. But in killing Hamas militant leaders responsible for years of headline-grabbing attacks, including the 2006 abduction of Sgt. Gilad Shalit, Israel dealt a profound psychological blow to the enemy while giving the home front something clear to celebrate.