Following the murder of three Israeli teenagers who Israeli officials believe were kidnapped by Hamas operatives while traveling through the West Bank last month, Israel initiated Operation Protective Edge on 8 July, the deadliest military operation to occur in Gaza since 2008-2009 during Operation Cast Lead.

The initiation of this operation is a direct result of escalating tensions between Hamas-controlled Gaza and its surrounding Israeli neighbors, escalations that are driven by accusations from both Hamas and Israel, but primarily attributed to continued and relentless attacks by Hamas against Israel.

According to experts on the issue, Hamas has been struggling to maintain relevancy in the eyes of its passive international supporters since it sided with the Assad regime in 2011, and has since then been fighting increased isolationism as a result of dwindling support from Syria and Iran.  By increasing attacks against Israel, Hamas seeks to create circumstances that would leverage the support of the less-informed members of the international community to cry for international criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinian grievance, which would allow Hamas to maintain its legitimacy and existence.

These circumstances were created for Hamas earlier this month, following the launch of several hundred rockets from Gaza into Israel, as Israeli forces initiated a major ground offensive into Gaza with the stated goal of  crippling Hamas’ ability to launch further attacks against Israel.

Informational graphic of Gaza tunnels from previous counter-tunnel operations, courtesy of the Ft Leavenworth FMSO.

Following a period of precision airstrikes and other standoff weapon systems engagements used to destroy previously designated command and control points, caches, known Hamas leadership locations, and tunneling/smuggling nodes, Israeli ground forces have succeeded in identifying and destroying a significant number of Hamas tunnels, but are working to press forward with their operation after locating an even more extensive tunnel system along the Gaza-Israel border than previously identified.

At the time of this writing, recent reporting regarding ongoing clearance operations in Gaza report that the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) has uncovered at least 34 shafts leading into approximately a dozen underground tunnels, some as deep as 30 meters underground.  The primary purpose of these tunnels is to provide Hamas operatives and other militants with transit routes that provide them freedom of movement between Gaza and Israel in order to conduct attacks inside Israeli territory.  The use of these tunnels was employed as recently as Saturday when Palestinian gunmen “disguised as Israeli soldiers infiltrated Israel from Gaza…killing two IDF soldiers and injuring several others…in an ambush attack.”

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Northern Gaza strip graphic, courtesy of Haaretz.com

Working to conduct clearance operations while demolishing the tunnels is tedious and dangerous work for the IDF, who lost thirteen soldiers Saturday night alone.  Israeli military sources speaking to the Blaze on Sunday reported the presence of an “underground city” in Gaza’s northeast district of Shujayeh, stating that, “Even with the intelligence the Israeli military keeps [on Gaza], they were caught by surprise at the extent of what they found below ground.”  Many of the tunnels in Hamas’ network contained Hamas fighters, who engaged the IDF while conducting their clearance operations.  Many also contained explosives and other booby traps designed to inflict heavy casualties against the IDF as they pushed deeper into the system.

As the IDF clears its way through the Hamas tunnel network, various engineering units are working to demolish the shafts/entry/exit nodes, tunnels, and accompanying infrastructure, many of whom are lined with “bomb barrels and communications lines.”  Primarily using bulldozers and controlled detonations, the IDF has even encountered scenarios where secondary explosions were detected during controlled detonations, “signifying the presence of additional [Hamas] explosives located inside the tunnel [network].”

The notorious Rafah smuggling tunnels along the Egypt-Gaza border, courtesy of MCT.

With Hamas’ tunnel system and associated infrastructure slowly being cleared by the IDF, one of the major hotbeds of activity in Gaza thus far is the northeast district of Shujayeh, also the location of significant tunneling operations.  The IDF has placed a significant amount of focus on Shujayeh and the associated clearance operations there, due to reporting that “more than 8 percent of more than 1,700 rockets fired at Israel since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge on 8 July originated from Shujayeh.”  This is significant because Shujayeh has seen the largest amount of casualties on both sides thus far, and has taken the brunt of not only “10 days of heavy airstrikes on targets linked to Gaza’s Hamas rulers” but also large numbers of IDF troops.

Equipment seized from Hamas militants by the IDF. From top to bottom: PKM HMG, RPG-7 launchers, magazines, tactical vests. Courtesy of Haaretz.com

As Israel continues to work towards crippling Hamas’ ability to target its infrastructure and people, the death toll of Palestinian civilians inevitably caught in the cross fire has also increased.  At the time of this writing, current numbers are reported by Palestinian health officials as “at least 65 people were killed and 288 wounded in Shijaiyah alone, bringing the overall Palestinian toll since July 8 to 425 dead and some 3,000 wounded. Close to half of the dead were killed since the start of the ground offensive.”  Current projections from the UN also estimate approximately 81,000 people in Gaza are currently displaced, raising additional humanitarian concerns for the operation as well.

In response to the rising civilian casualty count, Israeli officials have noted Hamas’ desire to leverage the deaths of innocent civilians in pursuit of its terrorist goals, stating that “the IDF will continue in its unprecedented efforts to limit civilian harm.”  Following a failed cease-fire agreement between Hamas and Israel several days earlier, it remains to be seen how much longer Israel will conduct clearance operations in Gaza, as SOFREP has previously reported.

Thanks for listening.

(Feature image courtesy of the International Business Times.)