Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the support of something like 84% of his fellow citizens for his effort to destroy the dozens of tunnels Hamas has dug under Israeli territory over the last few years because every Israeli knows that they allow Hamas fighters to infiltrate their country to kidnap and kill Israeli civilians or worse.
These tunnels are not simple holes in the ground or a nuisance, but make up a sophisticated complex of concrete reinforced underground pathways into the heart of Israel. They originate in civilian residential areas, homes and schools in Gaza and allow Hamas fighters a safe, clear road into Israel itself and are central to Hamas' effort to destroy the hated Jewish state.
The Israelis have known of their existence for some time, but few realized how many or how sophisticated they were until the current fighting gave the IDF an opportunity to uncover, capture and destroy them. Once they saw what they were dealing with, Netanyahu's government quickly decided that there can be no real cease fire until they have been destroyed. Because they originate in highly populated residential areas, the effort to destroy them has entailed heavy civilian casualties, but the Israeli government seems intent on finishing the job regardless of criticism from the US, the UN and Israeli critics the world over.
Critics of Israel tend to minimize the threat posed by the tunnel complex or claim destroying them is not worth the cost in lives and destruction in Gaza, but history suggests Hamas like Iran is looking for ways to overcome the stale-mate on the ground that has thus far prevented them from over-running and destroying both the state of israel and her citizens.
A century ago during World War I opposing European armies found themselves bogged down in a war of attrition that cost each side millions of dead and wounded without anything even resembling a breakthrough. The trenches that stretched for hundreds of miles across the continent combined with the artillery and machine guns that dominated battle after battle forced officers on both sides of the trenches to think up new ways to break the deadlock.
Winston Churchill championed the tank, both sides toyed with poisonous gas and the Germans turned to the submarine to break the will of their adversaries while generals sacrificed millions of men in frontal assaults against each others lines. It was to avoid trench warfare in the future that the Germans came up with the Blitzkrieg used so successfully in the opening days of World War II.
Among the ways in which the British tried to break the stalemate was by tunneling under enemy trenches to give them a chance to destroy from underground what their best efforts had failed to destroy through surface warfare. Beginning in 1916, British miners began tunneling near Messines in Belgium toward and then under the German trenches.By June of 1916 they had managed to dig twenty-one horizontal tunnels a hundred feet below the German lines and fill them with something like a million pounds of high explosives.
In the early hours of June 7th, the British set them off, obliterating the German tunnels above and burying some 10,000 German infantrymen. Paul Fussell wrote in his monumental "The Great War and Modern Memory," the explosion "jolted" British Prime Minister Lloyd George "in Downing Street 130 miles away." In a rare breakthrough, the British almost immediately captured 7,000 panicked Germans and occupied the strategically important Vimy Ridge.
Today as Hamas finds itself incapable destroying the hated Israeli state, its leaders have been searching for a means of altering the balance of power or terror in their favor. Hey haven't been able to do it on the ground, but have been hoping to trump the Israeli's beneath the ground. That's why they've expended millions of man hours and poured hundreds of thousands of tons of concrete into a sophisticated tunnel complex from which their fighters can literally pop up within Israel to kill or kidnap Israeli civilians or soldiers. That's what they've been doing thus far, but at some point there is the added danger that they could stuff their tunnels with explosives and do the sort of damage that took place when the Brits blew theirs so many years ago.
It should be remembered that the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas and then traded for a thousand Hamas fighters was kidnapped inside Israel using the tunnels, that Israel has unearthed and thwarted Hamas plans for major assaults mounted from the tunnels and that Hamas leaders have called for the capture of hundreds of Israelis to be used in Gaza as human shields. One of Iran's top military leaders as recently as July 24th, advised Hamas in an open letter that "Ten to fifty Zionist hostages in each (Palestinian) city are the best defensive battery for the city." Given the very real threat the tunnels pose, it should surprise no one that Netanyahu is willing to risk international condemnation to destroy them.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.
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