Israel claims discovery of vast Hamas tunnel as success

'Flagship' excavation at Erez border crossing contains plumbing, electricity and sophisticated measures to repel attackers, says military

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Israel has announced that it had discovered the largest Hamas attack tunnel to date, just 400 metres from what used to be a key crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

The “flagship” tunnel, right next to the Erez border crossing, reaches as far as 50 metres underground and contains plumbing, electricity and sophisticated measures to repel enemy troops in the event of an attack, the military said on Sunday.

Four kilometres have been uncovered so far.

Hamas claimed in 2021 that its tunnel network spans 500 kilometres. Some are used for smuggling under the Egyptian border, but Israel is most concerned about the intricate network under Gaza which could be used by fighters to store weapons, supplies and Israeli hostages in secrecy.

Israel accuses Hamas of funnelling money, some of it western aid to Gaza, into the network at the expense of Gazan civilians, whose average private sector salary was about $12 a day in 2019, according to ReliefWeb International.

Spokesman Lt Col Richard Hecht said the tunnel by Erez was “large enough to drive vehicles through” and “intentionally dug near a crossing dedicated to the movement of Gazans into Israel for work and medical care”.

The military also released footage that appears to show Hamas in Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar driving through the tunnel in a car. They also said Sinwar’s brother, Muhammad Sinwar, was in charge of the project.

The discovery is being presented as a tactical success as Israel continues its push to eradicate Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

Hamas launched an assault into southern Israel on October 7, killing around 1,200 people and taking more around 240 people hostage.

Retaliatory strikes by Israel and a ground offensive in Gaza have killed almost 20,000 Palestinians.

Many of the hostages taken by Hamas are believed to be held underground in tunnels.

Yocheved Lifshitz, who was one of the first Israeli hostages to be freed from Gaza, described a “spider web of tunnels” that stretch for kilometres.

The tunnels also allow Hamas to launch military attacks against Israeli troops.

Bar-Ilan University geologist Joel Roskin told The National that “the tunnel was built to enable a larger and focused attack [on Israel] by mobilised vehicles”.

“The reported length would enable [Hamas] close to a completely concealed approach to the Armstice Line [with Gaza],” he added.

“It is more evidence of Hamas’s intentions to destroy and murder Israelis.”

The tunnel also gives Israel evidence that its campaign in Gaza is achieving operational successes, as pressure from allies continues to build over the heavy civilian toll.

Targeting Hamas’s vast tunnel network is a key objective in Israel’s campaign.

It says it has so far found hundreds of shafts, and that many “were built under hospitals, schools, kindergartens and other sensitive sites”.

The difficulty of fighting underground even prompted the military to form units within the special forces Yahalom combat engineering force to locate, fight within and destroy tunnels.

The logic of the mission and its consequences for Gaza's civilians have come under intense scrutiny since the Israeli military raided Al Shifa Hospital in November.

Israel claimed that the hospital, which was sheltering tens of thousands of civilians, was hosting a Hamas command centre and accompanying tunnels underneath the health facility. Hamas denied the claims.

After storming the hospital, the Israeli military was accused of failing to produce evidence of a significant tunnel network under the hospital.

Updated: December 19, 2023, 8:28 AM