In a groundbreaking revelation in December 2023, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) exposed a significant underground terrorist facility near the Erez border crossing in the northern Gaza Strip. It stands out as the largest among the nearly two thousand Hamas tunnels unearthed to date. The specific tunnel in question spans approximately four kilometers and plunges to a depth of 50 meters. Remarkably, it features multiple branches and showcases meticulous construction with high-quality materials and military infrastructure. While the unveiling of this single tunnel garnered substantial attention, it is merely a fragment of a larger network known as the “Gaza metro”, estimated to extend approximately 500 kilometers beneath the Gaza Strip.
This prompts some fundamental questions:
First, assuming that we’re dealing with approximately 500 kilometers of tunnels, each averaging 15 meters below the surface, 2 meters high, and 2 meters wide, without factoring in additional structures like halls or operation rooms, we’d be looking at an estimated requirement of around 40 million tons of cement, a staggering value of over $2 billion. Despite uncertainties related to concrete density, exact depth, and additional structures, it’s clear that significant financial resources are involved.
Both historical and recent Israeli assessments in Gaza emphasize that Hamas has essentially diverted billions of dollars, without substantial opposition from UN agencies, World Bank committees, or other international institutions.
Despite some Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and anti-terrorism actions taken primarily by the US and Israel, Hamas, with an official annual budget of $350 million, along with approximately $750 million in crypto, cash, and unofficial investment funds, has redirected vital resources away from crucial civilian infrastructure projects such as hospitals and schools, and surprisingly, faced minimal resistance in doing so.
Despite the diligent efforts of Israel’s intelligence agencies and entities like the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in tracking Hamas’ financial sources, the organization seemingly operates with near-unrestricted freedom. Hence, they could establish an extensive underground infrastructure, acquire weaponry, make substantial financial transactions, and engage skilled engineers in subterranean construction. While these activities are well-documented, there appears to be a lack of a serious, coordinated, or efficient plan to counteract this formidable economic influence.
Moving beyond the shortcomings in financial tracking, a second mystery warrants investigation. Returning to the Erez maxi-tunnel, one cannot help but wonder how the Israeli intelligence community, armed with vast expertise and a yearly budget in the billions, failed to detect a project so close to the Israeli border. While the strategic intelligence failure, particularly in HUMINT and SIGINT, will be dissected post-war to understand the misunderstanding of Hamas’s long-term plans, it is apparent that overall intelligence fell short. The lapse in tactical and operational intelligence is particularly glaring.
Directing attention to the recently discovered facility raises disconcerting questions about the effectiveness of Israel’s geospatial GEOINT and “measurements and signatures” MASINT intel tools.
Simultaneously, Israeli intelligence communities acknowledge a significant misjudgment, reminiscent of the Yom Kippur war intelligence failure, prompting investigations and potential personnel changes. However, beyond interpreting signals, it appears that classic human intelligence methods and advanced scientific practices are lacking and require a comprehensive review.
To ensure transparency and accountability, advocating for an independent oversight committee becomes crucial. Such a committee would not only scrutinize the future horizons of Israeli Intel but also contribute to enhancing internal accountability mechanisms within the Intel community.
There’s a third significant player in the Gaza narrative, marking the focus of the third inquiry—the porosity of the Egyptian border and its detrimental impact on Israel’s ability to thwart Hamas’ hostile plans.
As early as 2015, Hamas intensely prioritized tunnel warfare for smuggling weapons and trading goods with Sinai’s jihadist fighters. Following Mohamed Morsi, strongly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and his Egyptian open-border policy with Gaza, President El-Sisi collaborated with Israel to maintain Gaza’s closure. President El-Sisi, rightly alarmed by Hamas’ security threat to his regime, did not hesitate to face condemnation from Palestinian, Arab, and global organizations, opting to flood Hamas tunnels with seawater.
However, neither President El-Sisi’s determination nor the training exercises by the US army for the Egyptian border police proved sufficient to halt Hamas’ traffic across the border.
Two critical factors are essential for the Gaza-Egypt border to be efficiently sealed: firstly, recognizing local socio-economic factors, especially the low wages of Egyptian border police, and secondly, addressing Sinai’s Bedouin culture of smuggling.
These elements contribute to the thriving illicit trade between Gaza and Sinai, facilitating the flow of people and goods, including weapons, gold, construction materials and drugs. The persistence of these cultural factors hampers effective border control, indirectly bolstering Hamas’ economic and political power in Gaza. Without a reliable border police force and a clampdown on the smuggling culture, neither techniques nor staff can keep the gates locked. This ongoing issue of the Egyptian border’s porosity underscores a longstanding weakness, posing a potential future threat to Egypt itself.
The fourth question delves into the complexities arising from the ongoing conflict in Gaza, specifically examining Israel’s potential involvement beyond its borders.
Indeed, the recent discovery of underground tunnels indicates a statistical likelihood of numerous undisclosed tunnels, potentially larger than those uncovered. One plausible scenario involves an undisclosed strategic tunnel extending from near the Rafah terminal deep into Egypt, possibly serving as a relocation point for hostages held by Hamas following the IDF’s campaign in North Gaza.
While Israel concentrates on Gaza, the demonstrated ability of Hamas to surprise necessitates proactive measures to prevent underestimating their potential movements beyond the border. This prompts a crucial inquiry into Israel and its allies’ readiness to enhance surveillance over a vast Egyptian territory near Gaza—comparable in size to cities like Miami or Paris.
The challenge for Israel lays in the possible need to extend influence beyond borders for security, like potential hostage release. This unconventional strategy requires international cooperation, constrained by the Peace Treaty with Egypt limiting Israel’s presence in Sinai and general military operations.
Another challenge related to Israel’s role beyond its borders concerns “the day after” in Gaza. It appears that post-conflict governance in Gaza will pose formidable challenges. An alternative approach to Hamas policy of terror, hate and plunder, is desired, akin to Economist Homi Kharas’ exploration of Gaza emulating Singapore’s economic success. The current situation demands a practical and methodical reassessment, prioritizing security and prosperity for Israel and the 2 million Arab civilians in Gaza (assuming the figures provided by the PA and Hamas are trustworthy). Ensuring security, democracy, quality education, an end to incitement against Jews, and sustained economic development on both sides of the border is essential.
But who, beyond the IDF, is capable of shouldering that responsibility? Assuming such an entity exists, how could its administration of Gaza be legitimized for the well-being of millions of Arab civilians in Gaza and regional prosperity?
However, it is obvious that the old regional political paradigms no longer apply. The complexities go beyond borders, requiring innovative solutions and a collective international effort to secure a peaceful future.
With more than 130 hostages still shrouded in secrecy after three months of conflict, the road ahead stretches far beyond the underground abysses, awaiting the glimpse of light at the tunnel’s end, towards peaceful horizons.
Adolfo Arranz et al., “Inside the Tunnels of Gaza,” Reuters, December 31, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/graphics/ISRAEL-PALESTINIANS/GAZA-TUNNELS/gkvldmzorvb/. ↑
Debbie Mohnblatt, “Mossad Agent Explains: How Hamas Funneled Millions for Gaza Terrorism,” The Media Line, December 27, 2023, https://www.jpost.com/israel-hamas-war/article-779675. ↑
“Inside Hamas’s Sprawling Financial Empire,” The Economist, November 20, 2023, https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2023/11/20/inside-hamass-sprawling-financial-empire ↑
Emily Harding, “How Could Israeli Intelligence Miss the Hamas Invasion Plans?” Commentary, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), October 11, 2023, https://www.csis.org/programs/latest-analysis-israel-hamas-war. ↑
Bruce Riedel, “Enigma: The Anatomy of Israel’s Intelligence Failure Almost 45 Years Ago,” The Brookings Institution, September 25, 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/enigma-the-anatomy-of-israels-intelligence-failure-almost-45-years-ago/ ↑
Giuseppe Dentice, “The Geopolitics of Violent Extremism: The Case of Sinai,” 36 Papers IEMED – The European Institute of the Mediterranean, February 2018, ISSN 1888-5357. ↑
Homi Kharas, “Gaza’s Economy: Can Singapore’s Model Offer Hope?” Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution, February 16, 2016. ↑