Israeli troops hunt for Gaza tunnels

Gaza Strip - Israeli Colonel Tomer was literally tipped off to the tunnel snaking under a Palestinian village when the tank-churned earth gave way under the weight of one of his behemoth bulldozers.

Twenty-four hours later, on Wednesday, his forces cleared a greenhouse that had provided cover and dug a 3m-deep crater exposing the concrete-reinforced passage wide enough for a man in battle gear to squeeze through.

It would take several days, the officer told Reuters at the scene - the exact location could not be reported under military rules - to map out the half-dozen suspected access shafts to the tunnel, one of which, he said, was concealed by a Palestinian home.

Then explosives would be dropped in and the network destroyed as part of a tunnel-hunt throughout the Gaza Strip's eastern frontier that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says will be completed, whether or not Israel reaches a ceasefire with the territory's dominant Hamas Islamists.

Tomer's soldiers, a mix of tank crew and army engineers, watched the dark, descending void of the tunnel aperture with assault rifles raised, on guard for any gunmen that might storm out. An electric whizz overhead signalled a Palestinian sniper shot gone wide; Israeli tank machine-guns chattered back.

"We don't put men in the tunnels. There is too much risk of booby traps," Tomer, who under military rules can be identified only by his first name, told a Reuters correspondent invited by the army to view his force's operations.

Instead, he said, the army sends in sniffer dogs and robots that relay back video images through which the layout can be learned.

So guided, an earth-mover digs into the next stretch, where the process is repeated, to continue until the entire 1.5km stretch to the Gaza-Israel border is covered.

Were the troops to track the tunnel in the other direction they would end up 2km deeper in Gaza, in the middle of a bustling neighbourhood, Tomer said. But that route, on the other side of the crater, was blocked with sand.

"We don't want to go there. What concerns us is the stretch headed toward Israel," he said.

Personal mission

The hunt is personal for Tomer, who lost one of his officers and a conscript in a 19 July clash with Hamas gunmen who had tunnelled into Israel. The military said one of the infiltrators was killed and the rest of the group escaped back into Gaza.

About 32 tunnels, some as deep as 25m, and dozens of access shafts have been uncovered since ground forces moved into Gaza following an air and naval barrage launched on 8 July, the military said.

Several troops have been wounded by booby-trap bombs at tunnel apertures, and a dog sent down to probe a passage in the southern Gaza Strip never returned.

Israel says the tunnel search is vital to fending off infiltrations in which their southern villages and army bases might be raided by gunmen.

Lieutenant-Colonel Roi, one of Tomer's battalion commanders, said several armoured vehicles - tanks, troop transports, D9 bulldozers and earth-movers, some with code names like "Bella" or "Cruella" - accompany each tunnel hunt, both for the heavy lifting and to provide a wall of steel around the foot-soldiers involved.

Hamas and its Palestinian guerrilla allies regard the tunnels as strategic assets against their militarily superior enemy. Each one of the secret passages cost $500 000 to $2m to build, with each kilometre stretch taking about a year to complete, according to Israeli estimates.

Tomer's unit, the 188th Armoured Brigade, has found two tunnels and several access shafts so far. He said the searches were based initially on rough coordinates given following surveillance of suspected digs and other intelligence.

Realising the extent of the tunnel warren, and the lethal threat they pose, has set off recriminations in the government and military, which warned about the phenomenon years ago but apparently did not prepare adequate counter-measures.

Yossi Langotsky, a geologist and retired army colonel who formerly advised the Defence Ministry, said his calls to develop a seismic technology to "hear" tunnel digs had been ignored.

A current Defence Ministry official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Israel was close to deploying a tunnel detection technology. But were that to be used on the Israeli side of the border, it would still leave Palestinians free to carry out most of the dig under the frontier. Some Israeli officials have proposed that the military set up a long-term buffer zone inside Gaza.

Read more on: palestine israel gaza
Dylan Whittal 2014/07/30 10:00:17 PM
come on israel finnish up the tunnel opperation and get out the loss of life is now getting stupid!!!! please halt airstrikes if it isnt immediately necessary
Willie Olivier 2014/07/30 10:01:00 PM
God bless Israel!
Salum Mnape 2014/07/30 10:11:46 PM
Allah bless Israeli
Kevin Lester 2014/07/30 10:17:41 PM
The hunters becomes the hunted!
Mohammad Sulaiman 2014/07/30 10:20:31 PM
One man, one vote from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river.
Paul Koski 2014/07/30 10:41:36 PM
Ignore the collateral damage. Keep going Israel. All blood is the responsibility of the animals they call Hamas.
Daniel 2014/07/30 10:55:09 PM
Uhm. 6 000 000
Andrew MacDonald 2014/07/30 11:42:11 PM
Close the tunnels kill the terrs and know that more than just jews stand with israel.
Avi Finkelstein494 2014/07/31 12:22:38 AM
There is a lot of black jews in Israel. If a person is not Jewish and they want to become jewish they have to convert. Please don't bring wrong/ incorrect information.
Mohammed Salajee 2014/07/31 04:54:01 AM
Last night was the worst night by far. Please read and help share this with the world. Words you wouldn't usually read. By Khalid Elmezaini from Gaza. "Last night was the worst night by far. Around 1 am the bombing was so intense that we decided to huddle together as a family in the living room away from the windows. Then a huge blast, so powerful it felt like the building was going to collapse. We hear screaming from the floor above us. We rush to the door, there is a woman carrying her 3 children running downstairs, "they hit our apartment" she screamed repeatedly. Was this a roof knock? Was her apartment really hit? Myself and 2 more ran upstairs to see, all we can see is smoke in her apartment, the bedrooms where her children sleep have smashed walls, a missile has hit her home. We couldn't take chances. With the cloths on our backs we all ran downstairs to the ground floor. Do we leave? Where do we go? There is no place to go. And if we make a run for it they will target us, they always target moving groups. We decided that the 23 families should stay on the ground floor near the stairs. The children were crying, so were their mothers, it was chaotic. Then an even bigger bomb, louder than the first, the whole building shook, rubble flying onto our building, windows and glass smashing everywhere. We took our shahada, we were convinced this is our last night, that we wouldn't make it. The bombing was intense, everywhere, north, south, east, west, it was random, every minute non-stop, we were just waiting our turn, like cattle for slaughter. 4 hours passed, non-stop shelling, then we can hear them coming, by their sound, the F16 fighter jets have arrived. By the time we made that realization, an explosion so powerful dropped us to the ground, rubble and smoke flew in, then quickly another closer one, then a third one a little further. All we could see are huge fire balls in the sky, light almost turning around corners. Moments later, a funny smell, we ran for any wet cloth, water on shirt and over the face will do. Time has passed, it was quiet for an hour. Was it over? The sun is now up, and we were happy to see it. We knew the zionist don't hit as hard in day light as they do at night, where the cameras can't capture the full scale of the destruction. We decided to go back to the lower level apartments, we were tired, we huddled and slept close to the door when deep down we knew that just like there is no where safe in Gaza, no place in our house is safer than any other. Every house was hit, every building, every mosque, they have no targets, they do not know what they are doing. This isn't a fictional story, this is how we spent last night. And if the zionist think that this will scare us into submission, they need to think again, we only submit to Allah, we will never give up, we live and die with dignity and honour."