TEL AVIV, Israel ― Israel on Thursday released detailed intelligence on how Hamas is using newly constructed residential buildings in the coastal strip to disguise the expansion of underground tunnels and command centers from which the Jewish state says the group plans to wage urban war against it.
Israel released the intel to make its case for what it insists is an unwanted, yet potentially necessary new round of combat in Gaza.
Briefing reporters here, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command, described two homes carefully mapped out by military intelligence ― complete with geolocation target coordinates ― that he insists prove “beyond a shadow of doubt that Hamas is operating within and underneath the cover of civilians, in preparation for the next war.”
During the highly unusual briefing aimed at bolstering Israel’s case should it need to destroy the structures built in heavily populated residential neighborhoods, Zamir insisted Israel possesses “many more such targets beyond what we’re showing you.”
He repeatedly referred to the structures ― one a six-story building and private parking lot with access to a tunnel network, and the other a family home with an entrance to a tunnel that connects to a nearby mosque ― as legitimate targets. “I say these are legitimate military targets, and whoever is endangering himself and his family needs to hold Hamas responsible for what happens,” he said.
The IDF commander said Israel is “fully aware” of the humanitarian distress to the nearly 2 million residents of Gaza, many of whom are subsisting at below poverty levels with a mere four hours of electricity each day. If Israel has to act, Zamir said, it will do so with technology, tactics and procedures aimed at minimizing the so-called collateral damage to uninvolved civilians.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that civilians would be harmed, which is exactly what Hamas and other Gaza-based groups are counting on “in order to try to damage Israel’s legitimacy.”
“Their concept of operation is to divert materials that were intended for civilian improvements for their own military purposes,” Zamir said. ”It validates our position that all responsibility for humanitarian conditions and harm to civilians must rest on the shoulders of Hamas.
“A large part of international humanitarian aid is going to terror purposes. This reality is extremely flammable … and could drag us into another round.”
According to the IDF commander, Israeli intelligence assessments show deterrence since the summer 2014 Gaza War is still holding, yet the “more or less stable” situation on the ground can “quickly deteriorate” and spiral into conflict. “We hope the relative quiet will be preserved. But we are on high readiness and prepared to get into another round if needed,” Zamir said.
He cited Israel’s ongoing work on a new security barrier to be built along Israel’s entire border with Gaza as a possible trigger for Hamas to initiate escalation. Nevertheless, he insisted work on the barrier ― which involves a concrete wall deep underground, along with a smart, sensor-fused wall to extend high above ground ― is scheduled for completion within two years.
“This barrier is a strategic necessity for the state of Israel to prevent terrorist infiltrations. And in the event there are attack tunnels, we will know how to locate them and neutralize them,” Zamir said. “We really hope they [Hamas] won’t challenge us in this regard.”
Israel fought a 51-day war with Hamas that ended in mid-August 2014, in large part to destroy dozens of tunnels that the country said were built for purposes of attacking the it or infiltrating its territory.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.