Israeli troops hunt for Gaza tunnels

2014-07-30 21:46
A Palestinian man reacts as flames engulf the fuel tanks of the only power plant supplying electricity to the Gaza Strip after it was hit by overnight Israeli shelling. (Mahmud Hams, AFP)

A Palestinian man reacts as flames engulf the fuel tanks of the only power plant supplying electricity to the Gaza Strip after it was hit by overnight Israeli shelling. (Mahmud Hams, AFP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Gaza Strip - Israeli Colonel Tomer was literally tipped off to the tunnel snaking under a Palestinian village when the tank-churned earth gave way under the weight of one of his behemoth bulldozers.

Twenty-four hours later, on Wednesday, his forces cleared a greenhouse that had provided cover and dug a 3m-deep crater exposing the concrete-reinforced passage wide enough for a man in battle gear to squeeze through.

It would take several days, the officer told Reuters at the scene - the exact location could not be reported under military rules - to map out the half-dozen suspected access shafts to the tunnel, one of which, he said, was concealed by a Palestinian home.

Then explosives would be dropped in and the network destroyed as part of a tunnel-hunt throughout the Gaza Strip's eastern frontier that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says will be completed, whether or not Israel reaches a ceasefire with the territory's dominant Hamas Islamists.

Tomer's soldiers, a mix of tank crew and army engineers, watched the dark, descending void of the tunnel aperture with assault rifles raised, on guard for any gunmen that might storm out. An electric whizz overhead signalled a Palestinian sniper shot gone wide; Israeli tank machine-guns chattered back.

"We don't put men in the tunnels. There is too much risk of booby traps," Tomer, who under military rules can be identified only by his first name, told a Reuters correspondent invited by the army to view his force's operations.

Instead, he said, the army sends in sniffer dogs and robots that relay back video images through which the layout can be learned.

So guided, an earth-mover digs into the next stretch, where the process is repeated, to continue until the entire 1.5km stretch to the Gaza-Israel border is covered.

Were the troops to track the tunnel in the other direction they would end up 2km deeper in Gaza, in the middle of a bustling neighbourhood, Tomer said. But that route, on the other side of the crater, was blocked with sand.

"We don't want to go there. What concerns us is the stretch headed toward Israel," he said.

Personal mission

The hunt is personal for Tomer, who lost one of his officers and a conscript in a 19 July clash with Hamas gunmen who had tunnelled into Israel. The military said one of the infiltrators was killed and the rest of the group escaped back into Gaza.

About 32 tunnels, some as deep as 25m, and dozens of access shafts have been uncovered since ground forces moved into Gaza following an air and naval barrage launched on 8 July, the military said.

Several troops have been wounded by booby-trap bombs at tunnel apertures, and a dog sent down to probe a passage in the southern Gaza Strip never returned.

Israel says the tunnel search is vital to fending off infiltrations in which their southern villages and army bases might be raided by gunmen.

Lieutenant-Colonel Roi, one of Tomer's battalion commanders, said several armoured vehicles - tanks, troop transports, D9 bulldozers and earth-movers, some with code names like "Bella" or "Cruella" - accompany each tunnel hunt, both for the heavy lifting and to provide a wall of steel around the foot-soldiers involved.

Hamas and its Palestinian guerrilla allies regard the tunnels as strategic assets against their militarily superior enemy. Each one of the secret passages cost $500 000 to $2m to build, with each kilometre stretch taking about a year to complete, according to Israeli estimates.

Tomer's unit, the 188th Armoured Brigade, has found two tunnels and several access shafts so far. He said the searches were based initially on rough coordinates given following surveillance of suspected digs and other intelligence.

Realising the extent of the tunnel warren, and the lethal threat they pose, has set off recriminations in the government and military, which warned about the phenomenon years ago but apparently did not prepare adequate counter-measures.

Yossi Langotsky, a geologist and retired army colonel who formerly advised the Defence Ministry, said his calls to develop a seismic technology to "hear" tunnel digs had been ignored.

A current Defence Ministry official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Israel was close to deploying a tunnel detection technology. But were that to be used on the Israeli side of the border, it would still leave Palestinians free to carry out most of the dig under the frontier. Some Israeli officials have proposed that the military set up a long-term buffer zone inside Gaza.

Read more on:    palestine  |  israel  |  gaza

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.