Inside Hamas's tunnel complex

26 May 2021

3:30 PM

26 May 2021

3:30 PM

In the wake of its ceasefire agreement with Israel, Hamas has again attempted to paint itself as a struggling resistance movement against an occupying force. After 11 days of fighting, which left more than 250 people dead, Hamas’s co-founder, Mahmoud Zahar, claimed a strategic and a symbolic victory.

‘The new element here is the degree of the resistance movement, in particular in Gaza, to attack the Israeli targets and very important points, including most of the overcrowded areas… the civilian society,’ he told Sky News. ‘So for how long will the Israelis accept that?’

By painting itself as a plucky victim, Hamas is trying to convince the Arab world – and Muslims in the West, like me – that we should be on its side. But the reality is that the terror group’s ever escalating appetite for conflict does nothing to serve the Palestinian cause. While Hamas’s leaders live in the luxury and safety of Qatar, millions of dollars, which should have been used to help Palestinians, has been syphoned off to build the Islamist group’s complex network of tunnels throughout Gaza.

During this latest conflict, the Israel Defence Forces destroyed more than 60 miles of these tunnels, known as the ‘Metro’. ‘They were originally used by Hamas operatives to hide after firing rockets at Israel,’ the IDF explained in a video last week. ‘Hamas connected its smaller tunnels until they became a complex underground system allowing terrorists to hide, train, and transport weapons.’ The IDF noted that the network has been years in the making, after much of it was destroyed in 2014 during ‘Operation Protective Edge’.

The word ‘tunnel’ conjures up an idea of something small and dirty. But when I explored these tunnels in Gaza with the IDF in 2018 during a guided tour, the reality was rather different. I entered wearing a tailored white jacket and emerged completely spotless.

It was not a ramshackle trench, as I had expected. Far from it. Ventilation ensured the air in the tunnel was fresh. There was electrical wiring and concrete finishing. They are well-illuminated and carefully engineered. I was also shown the exit of the tunnel, which led directly to an Israeli farmer’s field metres away from a kindergarten.

These tunnels are not built by amateurs but by a dedicated war machine obsessed by its hatred of Israel.

Unknown-1.jpegCredit: IDF

The structure of the tunnels, which run at least 30 feet below ground, is also far more complex than many realise. Satellite images from the tour (which I undertook at my own expense) made the sophisticated complexity of the London Underground and the New York subway system look like child’s play. Hamas’s tunnel network looks more like a lattice of intricate crochet.

My guide, Gaza deputy colonel commander Yacov ‘Kobi’ Valer, led us down the deep steps into the labyrinth. As we went further in, Colonel Kobi folded at the waist, and craned his neck forward. With his weapon loaded, he aimed into the dark. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness as we left the electrical lights behind us. As we went further, the darkness deepened, the temperature cooled and only the LED light beam from the muzzle of his M16 shone into the abyss.

Soon I could see only his silhouette. I was worried he would disappear from sight. Even though the tunnel had been secured by the IDF, and Hamas could not get through, I couldn’t shake the primal fear that I wanted to leave. I remembered the story of a lion destined for Gaza zoo, smuggled in through Egypt, that woke up from sedation in one of the tunnels. Terrified, it lashed out and tore apart a handler. I needed to get out. It was not so much the claustrophobic surroundings or the mounting darkness, it was the tunnels’ testament to hatred that began to engulf me.

‘I’ve seen enough,’ I called out to Colonel Kobi. With the beam from his M16, he helped turn me around and guide us out. Only when I reached the blistering sunlight above ground did I realise I had been holding my breath.

The most concerning aspect of this latest round of fighting is the evolution of Hamas into a much more formidable and aggressive force. The enormous numbers and range of Hamas’s missiles in this conflict confirm this. Military and financial funding from Iran has allowed Hamas’s structure and ranks to start resembling the sophistication and daring of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s combat units. Make no mistake: without the Iron Dome, the death toll of Israeli civilians would have been much higher.

Away from Israel, Iran has its sights set on even bigger, bloodier future conflicts. In Iraq, for instance, Tehran has assembled increasingly covert pro-Iranian Iraqi militia units with special paramilitary skills, such as drone warfare, surveillance and online propaganda. These units, who received training from Hezbollah in Lebanon, answer directly to officers in Iran’s Quds Force, the arm of its Revolutionary Guards that controls its allied militia abroad.

The Arab world, in contrast to Iran, is deeply vested in normalising ties with Israel. Former president Donald Trump’s proposed Israel Palestine Peace to Prosperity Plan was widely mocked as Jared Kushner’s vanity project. But the Arab nations involved in the Abraham Accords, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, are deeply engaged in developing relations across the board, from economic, agricultural, tourism, trade, intelligence and military ties.

Kushner envisioned that his plan would have allowed Palestinians in Gaza a better economic future, mobility and freedom. The Palestinians rejected it at inception, setting aside the opportunity for $50bn (£35bn) of Gulf nations’ investment, the chance for a free and mobile economy and regional development.

My hope is that this proposal (or a similar one under president Joe Biden) will come to life when the Palestinian leadership recognises that Gaza must be demilitarised and that Israel has a right to exist. Only then can there be peace.

It is time for the Arab world to stand in defence of human values by repudiating Hamas’s shameful use of Palestinian people as human shields. The moment Hamas, hiding in its tunnels, elected to bombard a civilian population in a sovereign state, which is home to – and safeguards – religious freedom for the three monotheistic faiths, they abandoned any semblance of ethics, any remnant of Geneva conventions, and any right to decry Israel’s actions. Claiming to defend Muslim Palestinians, Hamas instead violates all Islam’s codes of just war which expressly forbid the targeting of unarmed civilians, women, children, the elderly and the disabled.

If the conflict is ever to end, Hamas must not only be muzzled, but fully defanged. Dismantling the tunnel network would be a start. Israel deserves support from the Arab world in its legitimate efforts to safeguard all peoples in its sovereign territory. It is time the Arab world demanded the disarmament and neutering of Hamas. Only then, will the Palestinians have a chance at achieving peace and prosperity.<//>

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