(November 2, 2017 / JNS)
When it comes to terrorism emanating from the Gaza Strip, most public attention usually focuses on Hamas, the group that rules the coastal enclave. But Israel’s latest discovery and destructionof a cross-border attack tunnel has brought to light the role of Gaza’s second-largest terror faction, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).
The IDF is on high alert for the possibility of revenge attacks from PIJ following Israel’s destruction of the tunnel on Oct. 30. PIJ dug the tunnel, which had crossed into Israeli territory, and the terror group reportedly sustained most of the 15 casualties that resulted from the IDF’s explosion of the tunnel.
The Israeli defense establishment believes that PIJ has around 10,000 armed members as well as its own rocket arsenal and tunnel network. It has a unique religious affinity with the Iranian Shi’a regime, and may be receiving messages from Tehran to escalate the Palestinian conflict with Israel. Hamas, on the other hand, is likely pressuring PIJ to avoid sparking a renewed round of violence at this time, due to Hamas’s desire to avoid endangering its agreement to form a Palestinian unity government with the Fatah faction by Dec. 1.
Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, noted that from its inception, PIJ “acknowledged the importance of the Iranian revolution and its influence.” He said that PIJ—not Hamas—has been the “real proxy of Iran.”
PIJ’s command center is located in Damascus, Syria, and the group coordinates its actions with Iran, according to Israeli assessments.
At the same time, Karmon told JNS.org, PIJ “cooperates with Hamas in the digging of tunnels, and making use of them.”
Before Egypt demolished most of the smuggling tunnels that linked Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula, PIJ used its own tunnels to import Iranian weapons, but it coordinated this activity with Hamas in order “to avoid stepping over its boundaries,” Karmon said.
The fact that Hamas personnel “acted immediately to take part in the rescue operation of the trapped diggers” following this week’s destruction of the tunnel is the latest evidence of the terror groups’ cooperation, he added.
Looking ahead, Karmon argued that “due to Hamas’s interest to continue with the reconciliation effort [with Fatah], and despite possible pressure by Iran [to escalate the security situation], I believe that PIJ will not act immediately to revenge the killing of its people, and if it does, it will try to do so in the form of a terror attack inside Israel.”
Will violence escalate?
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom, a senior research associate at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said it is important to view the constraints that exist on Gazan terror factions in political—not only military—terms.
“Hamas signed an agreement with Fatah, and it is in the first stages of implementation,” Brom, a former director of the Strategic Planning Division in the IDF General Staff, said. “It is clear to Hamas that an escalation with Israel now could lead to a collapse of this initiative, which they have a big interest in.”
Gaza’s cash crisis, and the pressure placed on Hamas by the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority, which included a cut to the coastal territory’s electricity supply, purportedly drove Hamas to agree to the unity government. Using the unity government to escape its isolation remains Hamas’s “main concern” right now, Brom stated.
“Most chances are that the truce will be safeguarded. But that doesn’t mean there will not be a [Palestinian] response [to Israel’s destruction of the tunnel],” he cautioned.
Retaliation could take the form of a limited attack out of Gaza, which would enable Israel to return fire—possibly at a Hamas target, but in a way that would avoid an escalatory dynamic, Brom said.
The future of the tunnel threat
Whichever way events develop, it is clear that Israel has begun using new technology to detect and destroy the tunnel threat to its southern communities.
Combined with Israel’s underground anti-tunnel wall that is under construction, it would appear as if the days of Gaza’s cross-border tunnels are numbered.
Nevertheless, inside Gaza, Hamas has constructed what IDF officials describe as an “underground city”—a maze of subterranean pathways that enable terrorists to move around, mobilize weapons, launch strikes and stay out of the Israeli Air Force’s sights.
But the assumption that this underground city is a safe zone is deeply flawed, according to a source from the IDF Southern Command.
“[Hamas] built this underground city to operate out of our sight. These tunnels will become death traps in the next war. My advice to them is, stay out of the tunnels,” the source told JNS.org.
With Israel’s enhanced tunnel-detection capabilities, which include dedicated teams of specialists sifting through intelligence to map out the tunnels, the underground structures will become liabilities for Hamas, rather than assets, according to the source.
“In officer-training courses, commanders are taught to make decisions on the battlefield based on the situation at hand—to go left or right, forward or backwards. But if you dig a tunnel, once you enter it, you can only move in one direction. You can only decide to go forward or not to go forward. The route is set,” the source said. “And I’m telling them, do not go in. Those who enter tunnels will not come out. The tunnels will either collapse with the people inside, or they will collapse empty.”
In the next war, he said, “I will not check to see if [terrorists] are inside the tunnels or not.”