Run Deep

Israel Says It Invaded Gaza Over Tunnels Like These

Gazans have been building tunnels to the Sinai desert for years for smuggling. In this war, they dug out new tunnels to send fighters into Israel. That’s what the Israelis are trying to destroy.

07.18.14 7:44 PM ET

Since Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza in 2005, it has tried to stop locals there from building a network of tunnels into Egypt to import weapons, cash and fuel. This week, Israel discovered something more harrowing: tunnels into Israel to launch attacks.

On Thursday, the Israel Defense Forces thwarted an attack of 13 Palestinian gunmen who emerged near Kibbutz Sufa near the border. By that evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a ground invasion into Gaza with the limited goal of destroying those tunnels.

Of course, the tunnels aren’t the only reason for the latest Israeli assault on Gaza; tensions have been mounting for months. But they are a major one.

Palestinian tunnel workers smoke cigarettes as they rest inside a smuggling tunnel flooded by Egyptian security forces, beneath the Gaza-Egypt border in the southern Gaza Strip September 10, 2013. Egyptian security forces have stepped up a crackdown campaign on smuggling tunnels on the border between Egypt and Gaza Strip since last July, Hamas officials said. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa (GAZA - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX13G9Y

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

In a briefing Friday for reporters in Washington, senior Israeli officials said the network of tunnels into Israel marked a new tactic for Hamas. The militant group has in focused on launching rocket and missile salvos into Israel, instead.

One of the Israeli officials said children, paid less than a dollar an hour, do most of the digging of the tunnels into Israel. But the networks of the tunnels are nonetheless sophisticated. In some cases, tunnels have make shift railway tracks, this official said. This official also said the tunnels featured crude telephone wires because Hamas knows that their wireless communications would be intercepted by Israel.

The entrances to the tunnels are often in the garages of personal homes or inside greenhouses to obscure the opening of the tunnel from Israel’s overhead surveillance.

Along with the tunnels, the Israeli officials also said Hamas had in the last four to five years trained a cadre of special operations units capable of amphibious landings known in some militaries as “frog men.”

Israeli leaders have said the strategic goal of the ground campaign is to restore quiet but also re-establish deterrence. When the latest war started earlier this month, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) estimated Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other factions had 11,000 missiles. As of Friday, Palestinians have fired 1,500 of those rockets and the IDF estimates they have destroyed 2,000 more.

“We’re not trying to stop every rocket,” the senior Israeli official said. “We’re trying to create deterrence.”

But the price for such deterrence has been awful. The death toll in Gaza has passed 260 souls.