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Hamas Spends Downtime Digging Tunnels

The military branch of Hamas is struggling to keeps its soldiers occupied and maintain the cease-fire.
A member of the media stands inside a tunnel exposed by the Israeli military near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, just outside the southern Gaza Strip October 13, 2013. Israel displayed on Sunday what it called a Palestinian "terror tunnel" running into its territory from the Gaza Strip and said it was subsequently freezing the transfer of building material to the enclave. REUTERS/Amir Cohen (ISRAEL - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX149S9

When the spokesman of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades — Hamas’ military wing — responded to the exposure of the enormous underground tunnel from Gaza that went all the way to a kindergarten in Israel, he told the whole story: “The [Palestinian] factions are capable of digging many more tunnels,” wrote Abu Obeida. “The determination deep in the hearts and minds of resistance fighters is more important than tunnels dug in the mud.”

Hamas has pledged to uphold the cease-fire after Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip in November 2012. The leaders of the movement's political and military wings fully realize that violating this commitment will result in serious consequences for Hamas. That is why it also enforces the cease-fire on other Gaza-based organizations that can hardly wait for the chance to act against Israel.

These organizations now level heavy criticism at Hamas, alleging that the movement has lost all its assets. Not only has it not improved the quality of life for the residents of the refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, but it has also relinquished its jihad against Israel so that it can remain in power. In the vernacular of Gaza, there cannot be a more serious accusation.

Since its foundation, but primarily after its victory in the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections, Hamas has worked with all its might to show that it can obliterate the stigma that the PLO had pinned on it, namely that it is unable to represent the Palestinian people. Hamas has dreamed of the day when it can prove to be just as legitimate as the PLO and even more so than Fatah.

This day has come, yet only in part. Hamas earned legitimacy at the ballot box when it won the elections. However, it has not succeeded in being a better leadership alternative for the Palestinian population. Too many forces and factions inside Hamas are engaged in a tug-of-war, mainly the military members, and the results speak for themselves. Since the elections, and particularly after the coup Hamas staged in Gaza in June 2007, conditions for residents of the Gaza Strip have continually deteriorated. The ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt has also quashed any glimmer of hope for improvement.

The movement’s leaders — the members of the political wing in Gaza as well as the members of the diplomatic wing outside the Strip — know that in light of the movement’s precarious situation today, and without the support of Egypt, Qatar or Iran, they would be well advised not to open a front against Israel. It was with good reason that Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, commander of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Southern Territorial Command, warned that “If Hamas were to mount a terror attack … it would pay dearly … and Gaza would not look the same once we react.”

Ever since Operation Pillar of Defense was launched, Hamas’ military wing has remained inactive. The movement’s armed militants have been, for the most part, tasked with maintaining quiet and preventing other organizations — the Popular Resistance Committees, Islamic Jihad and other small organizations known as Jalalat — from violating the cease-fire and entangling Hamas in trouble with Israel.

So what do you do with the thousands of motivated armed men with the urge to fight? You come up with some operational occupation. Digging an underground tunnel is a daunting task, overseen by Hamas’ military wing in the north of the Gaza Strip. The person in charge of the operation was the commander of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam in the northern sector, Ahmed Randur. Judging by the size of the tunnel, this was a large and costly quarrying operation, and it is quite possible that the planning and execution started close to the Israeli operation in Gaza about a year ago.

It is uncertain whether the movement’s leaders, chief among them Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, were aware of the military wing’s project. Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal, the chief of the movement’s political bureau, knew nothing about the planning of the kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006. But as far as they’re concerned, this lack of knowledge pays off. Digging the tunnel kept the military busy, and the work was carried out stealthily underground without violating the status quo or the cease-fire with Israel.

A week before the April 17, 2004, assassination of Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, who succeeded Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, he met with Mohammed Dahlan, who was then security advisor to Palestinian Chairman Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas). Dahlan advised him to think carefully about his own ways and the ways of the movement following the assassination of its leader. He recommended that the movement lay down its arms and merge with the forces of the Palestinian Authority.

“And what will the 1,500 armed men, for whose livelihood I am responsible, do?” Rantissi asked.

Like Rantissi, the spokesman of Hamas’ military wing has also exposed the true flywheel that propels the movement: Keeping the movement’s thousands of armed men, who have nothing to do, busy. On one hand, they’re motivated to fight, because this is the indoctrination they undergo from the moment they are inducted. On the other hand, they hear dismissive voices from other Gaza-based organizations. Digging tunnels is an excellent distraction that instills hope in them that one day, those tunnels will have an operational purpose against Israel. 

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

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