Disclosed: What Hamas planned to do with the terror tunnelswhat Hamas planned to do with those terror tunnels.
Last spring, Hamas was already sensing isolation. Egypt had begun curbing Hamas’s access to everything from cigarettes to guns. And a widely touted merger with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, according to analysts in the region and Israeli security sources, had brought Gazans limited economic benefit. Some observers—in Israel, the Arab world, and the West—perceived Hamas to be on the ropes. Around the same time, intelligence about a pending attack—electronic chatter and word from informants—began setting off alarm bells inside Israel’s stereotypically anxious security establishment.
“Hamas had a plan,” says Lt. Col. Lerner, summarizing on the record what six senior intelligence officials would describe on background. “A simultaneous, coordinated, surprise attack within Israel. They planned to send 200 terrorists armed to the teeth toward civilian populations. This was going to be a coordinated attack. The concept of operations involved 14 offensive tunnels into Israel. With at least 10 men in each tunnel, they would infiltrate and inflict mass casualties.”
As a senior military intelligence official later explained, the anticipated attack was designed with two purposes in mind. “First, get in and massacre people in a village. Pull off something they could show on television. Second, the ability to kidnap soldiers and civilians using the tunnels would give them a great bargaining chip.”
Mishal insists that “the tunnels may have been outwardly called ‘offensive tunnels,’ but in actual fact they are ‘defensive’ ones.’” When pressed to explain why most of the tunnels actually ended up under or near civilian communities or kibbutzim—not military bases—he concedes, “Yes, true. There are Israeli towns adjacent to Gaza. Have any of the tunnels been used to kill any civilian or any of the residents of such towns? No. Never! . . . [Hamas] used them either to strike beyond the back lines of the Israeli army or to raid some military sites . . . This proves that Hamas is only defending itself.”
Reports would later surface that Hamas’s main attack was planned to coincide with the Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah—in September 2014. “It may have been,” says a top intelligence official, in his office in the Kirya, Israel’s Pentagon. “But ultimately everything was moved up. Hamas’s grand plan for the tunnels failed because the kidnapping set things in motion before Hamas had everything ready.”
On July 7, Israeli jets bombed a tunnel that began in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, and exited near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, killing seven members of Hamas, who were trapped inside. To outward observers, it looked as if the casualties may have been incidental. But highly placed government sources tell Vanity Fair they feared these operatives were the first wave. “When the operation started, we expected the mass attack in July,” a senior military intelligence official explains. “We suspected they would hurry up and do it during the air war, before the ground operation.”
Hamas considered the men who died in the tunnel bombing to be among its most elite, warning publicly, “The enemy will pay a tremendous price.” The next day, all hell broke loose, with Hamas firing some 150 rockets. Over the next 10 days, Hamas would send some 1,500 more, while the Israeli air force and navy would pound sites in Gaza with little letup. Despite warnings by Israel to leave their homes, thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire. Human-rights groups charged that Israel failed to exercise sufficient restraint when hitting populated areas. Israel argues that Hamas used local citizens as human shields and fired rockets from civilian areas.
Golani’s mission was to destroy what intelligence officials believed were four particularly lethal tunnels that began in the Gaza Strip town of Shejaiya and ended a stone’s throw from Israeli kibbutzim. Shejaiya had long been Hamas’s first line of defense and Israel’s efforts to warn its 100,000 residents to flee only reinforced its symbolic and strategic importance in Hamas’s eyes. “In this war,” claims Alian, “the biggest fight, the hardest battle, was for control of that neighborhood.”
I.D.F. soldiers in Shejaiya and elsewhere quickly came to understand that tactical tunnels presented as imminent a threat as the strategic cross-border variety they were sent to find. On August 1—two weeks into Israel’s ground campaign—Lieutenant Matan (who offers only his first name) was in the Gaza town of Rafah, when he and his fellow soldiers heard shots, he says in his first interview about the incident. Tracing those sounds to a nearby guard post, a tunnel opening was discovered. He and another soldier clambered down three meters, descending into the darkness. After firing some warning rounds, he stopped in the dank passageway, only to find portions of a bloodied uniform belonging to a 23-year-old lieutenant named Hadar Goldin, later determined to have been killed and his body kidnapped, according to the I.D.F. spokesperson’s office. (Goldin, unbeknownst to his abductors, turned out to have been a relative of Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon.) “The Hamas operatives were like ghosts—honestly, like ghosts,” recalls Golani’s Sgt. Rafi. “If they wanted to shoot, they came out of a tunnel, shot, and ducked back into the tunnel.”
Israel’s troops, meanwhile, have moved north. On Vanity Fair’s recent visit, some of the same soldiers who had swept into Gaza are now manning a forward operating base in the Golan Heights—a contested mountainous area between Israel and Syria. The Israelis watch as the Syrian Army (unsuccessfully) battles rebels from the Nusra Front (the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda). These insurgents, after kidnapping and later expelling U.N. peacekeepers in September, have reignited a border that had remained peaceful for four decades. Recently, Israel shot down a Syrian aircraft that strayed into its territory. And to make matters worse, ISIS elements are entrenched farther north, attempting to establish a caliphate, using war-torn Syria and Iraq as their base.
Tensions have also escalated on Israel’s other northern border—with Lebanon. In the past week a member of the Syrian opposition was quoted as telling CNN that Hezbollah appears determined to flex its military muscle on the Israeli border. I.D.F. troops have fortified their positions there. And Israel has other worries as well. Sources in these northern neighborhoods tell Vanity Fair that the I.D.F. is planning to send an engineering team to one of the Israeli towns whose residents have been awakened by the subterranean clamor. Although some officials are publicly skeptical (possibly to avoid alarming residents and parry criticism that they have ignored another threat), privately they say they have serious concerns about what Hezbollah might have in the works. A recent account in the Arab newsmagazine Al Watan al Arabi quotes a Hezbollah member as asserting: “Quality-wise, [our tunnels] are on par with the metro tunnels in the major European cities.”
“We say in the I.D.F. that ‘procedures are written in blood,’” says one senior intelligence officer. Harkening back to previous aboveground attacks by Hezbollah, he continues, “I can see them doing it again and going underground to do it.”
And the goal of at least one of these Israeli platoons scheduled to arrive on the border with Lebanon? To plow deep into the ground to find and, hopefully, silence the source of those noises in the night.
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