While seemingly low-tech, tunneling requires copious quantities of cash, cement, fuel, and rebar. Fortunately for Hamas, world events conspired to assist in this effort. During the Arab Spring, while Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was busy fighting for his political and personal survival, Hamas built a virtual underground super-highway to the Sinai through which it managed to import an ever-more-sophisticated arsenal, including longer-range rockets, anti-tank guided missiles, and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. By 2012, when Egypt elected Mohammed Morsi (the head of the Muslim Brotherhood—and a Hamas ally), Hamas was riding high. It had significantly expanded the scope and use of what has come to be known as “subterranean Gaza,” even creating a special engineering unit within its Al-Qassam Brigades to handle tunnel excavation.
In addition, Hamas created a secret commando unit, called Nukhba (the “selected ones”), and trained its men to fight and maneuver through the tunnels on foot and on small motorcycles. According to an official in the Shin Bet, which has been interrogating Hamas members who were captured during the fighting, “The offensive tunnels were top secret not only because [Hamas] had spent a fortune building them, but because they understood that once we found out about the project, there would be no turning back.” Hamas detainees have told their Israeli interrogators that they received $300 a month for excavation work and that there were two tiers of laborers. The master tunnelers were supposedly told where in Israel proper their excavation work would end up; such knowledge was not shared with the work-for-hire diggers. As for the Nukhba fighters, the Shin Bet official tells Vanity Fair, “They were an elite force . . . [trained] to execute strategic terrorist attacks. . . . [For the eventual operation, they would be] heavily armed: R.P.G.s, Kalashnikovs, M-16s, hand grenades, and night-vision equipment.” To maximize the element of surprise, they would wear—as can be seen from their own videos—I.D.F. uniforms, including mitznefet, the distinctive helmet covers worn by Israeli soldiers.
...By April, the Shin Bet tells Vanity Fair, Israeli officials firmly believed something big was in the works—and Hamas did nothing to assuage their fears. “The occupation is hysterical and confused in the face of the resistance army’s tunnels,” said Abu Obeida, spokesman for Al-Qassam Brigades. “[B]ut we’re ready for any scenario and we’ll teach the enemy a harsh lesson.”
...Last spring, Hamas was already sensing isolation. Egypt had begun curbing Hamas’s access to everything from cigarettes to guns. And a widely touted merger with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, according to analysts in the region and Israeli security sources, had brought Gazans limited economic benefit. Some observers—in Israel, the Arab world, and the West—perceived Hamas to be on the ropes. Around the same time, intelligence about a pending attack—electronic chatter and word from informants—began setting off alarm bells inside Israel’s stereotypically anxious security establishment.
“Hamas had a plan,” says Lt. Col. Lerner, summarizing on the record what six senior intelligence officials would describe on background. “A simultaneous, coordinated, surprise attack within Israel. They planned to send 200 terrorists armed to the teeth toward civilian populations. This was going to be a coordinated attack. The concept of operations involved 14 offensive tunnels into Israel. With at least 10 men in each tunnel, they would infiltrate and inflict mass casualties.”
As a senior military intelligence official later explained, the anticipated attack was designed with two purposes in mind. “First, get in and massacre people in a village. Pull off something they could show on television. Second, the ability to kidnap soldiers and civilians using the tunnels would give them a great bargaining chip.”
Mishal insists that “the tunnels may have been outwardly called ‘offensive tunnels,’ but in actual fact they are ‘defensive’ ones.’” When pressed to explain why most of the tunnels actually ended up under or near civilian communities or kibbutzim—not military bases—he concedes, “Yes, true. There are Israeli towns adjacent to Gaza. Have any of the tunnels been used to kill any civilian or any of the residents of such towns? No. Never! . . . [Hamas] used them either to strike beyond the back lines of the Israeli army or to raid some military sites . . . This proves that Hamas is only defending itself.”
Reports would later surface that Hamas’s main attack was planned to coincide with the Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah—in September 2014. “It may have been,” says a top intelligence official, in his office in the Kirya, Israel’s Pentagon. “But ultimately everything was moved up. Hamas’s grand plan for the tunnels failed because the kidnapping set things in motion before Hamas had everything ready.”
...On July 7, Israeli jets bombed a tunnel that began in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, and exited near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, killing seven members of Hamas, who were trapped inside. To outward observers, it looked as if the casualties may have been incidental. But highly placed government sources tell Vanity Fair they feared these operatives were the first wave. “When the operation started, we expected the mass attack in July,” a senior military intelligence official explains. “We suspected they would hurry up and do it during the air war, before the ground operation.”
Hamas considered the men who died in the tunnel bombing to be among its most elite, warning publicly, “The enemy will pay a tremendous price.” The next day, all hell broke loose, with Hamas firing some 150 rockets. Over the next 10 days, Hamas would send some 1,500 more, while the Israeli air force and navy would pound sites in Gaza with little letup.
...Once the I.D.F. entered Gaza, dodging R.P.G.s and fire from heavy machine guns, says Alian, they came to a harsh realization: “Entire houses were rigged to explode and collapse on our soldiers. There were all sorts of explosive devices. Some [were set to be] triggered by cell phones and other remote controls. Others were pressure activated and hidden under ordinary looking house tiles.” His cohort, Sergeant Rafi (whose last name has also been withheld for security reasons), concurs, “We went to many houses and found tunnels inside houses, outside houses, defensive tunnels, offensive tunnels. They spent years planning for this.”
Golani’s mission was to destroy what intelligence officials believed were four particularly lethal tunnels that began in the Gaza Strip town of Shejaiya and ended a stone’s throw from Israeli kibbutzim. Shejaiya had long been Hamas’s first line of defense and Israel’s efforts to warn its 100,000 residents to flee only reinforced its symbolic and strategic importance in Hamas’s eyes. “In this war,” claims Alian, “the biggest fight, the hardest battle, was for control of that neighborhood.”
I.D.F. soldiers in Shejaiya and elsewhere quickly came to understand that tactical tunnels presented as imminent a threat as the strategic cross-border variety they were sent to find. On August 1—two weeks into Israel’s ground campaign—Lieutenant Matan (who offers only his first name) was in the Gaza town of Rafah, when he and his fellow soldiers heard shots, he says in his first interview about the incident. Tracing those sounds to a nearby guard post, a tunnel opening was discovered. He and another soldier clambered down three meters, descending into the darkness. After firing some warning rounds, he stopped in the dank passageway, only to find portions of a bloodied uniform belonging to a 23-year-old lieutenant named Hadar Goldin, later determined to have been killed and his body kidnapped, according to the I.D.F. spokesperson’s office. (Goldin, unbeknownst to his abductors, turned out to have been a relative of Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon.) “The Hamas operatives were like ghosts—honestly, like ghosts,” recalls Golani’s Sgt. Rafi. “If they wanted to shoot, they came out of a tunnel, shot, and ducked back into the tunnel.”
Gilad Sha’er, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrah may have indirectly saved hundreds of Israeli lives.