As Hamas expands its tunnel network in Gaza, Israel, and the United States are collaborating on a clandestine project to thwart the Islamist group’s subterranean advantage.
AN YOUNIS, Gaza — Bassem al-Najar has been homeless since August 2014, when Israeli warplanes demolished his house during the 50-day conflict that killed more than 2,000 Gazans and 72 Israelis. Najar lost his brother in the war, and for the next four months, he lived in a U.N. school with his wife and four children, along with 80 other families. They moved into a prefabricated hut, resembling a tool shed, in December 2014, where they expected to live for just a few months until their home was rebuilt. Today, he is still one of an estimated 100,000 Gazans who remain homeless.
Yet while much of Gaza still lies in ruins, what has taken less time to rebuild is Hamas’s subterranean tunnel network, the very thing Israel entered Gaza to destroy.
During Operation Protective Edge, the name used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for the 2014 war, the military uncovered and destroyed 32 cross-border tunnels that snaked for miles beneath Gaza and reached into Israeli territory. Many of them, according to the IDF, began inside homes and mosques in Gaza and ended inside or on the edge of Israeli border towns.
Hamas has made no secret of its efforts to fortify its labyrinth of tunnels, which have emerged as the group’s most powerful weapon — far more effective than its rocket arsenal. In just a handful of tunnel attacks over the course of that summer, Palestinian militants managed to kill 11 Israeli soldiers and capture the bodies of several soldiers in the hope of arranging a future prisoner exchange, in which Israel would trade Palestinian prisoners for the return of soldiers’ bodies.
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