Inside Hamas’ 9/11 Plot: Tunneling Through the Hype

A Hamas 'Terror Tunnel' (CC-BY-SA,Israel Defense Forces,Wikipedia)
A Hamas ‘Terror Tunnel’
(CC-BY-SA,Israel Defense Forces,Wikipedia)

Introduction: Mapping Out the Hysteria

The eerie discovery of Hamas’ expansive cross-border tunnel network sent shockwaves across Israel’s war-gripped social media. A tidal wave of apocryphal and outlandish assessments followed suggesting that the group intended to leverage such infrastructure to catch the IDF with its pants down and flood the country with “thousands” of fighters. The objective? To vanquish the Israeli heartland and herald the country’s “annihilation.”

To be sure, Israel was privy to Hamas’ tunnel enterprise for quite some time. It was last October that Haaretz reported on a “1,800-meter tunnel, stretching 300 meters into Israel” situated just 2km away from Kibbutz Ein Hashlosh” which the IDF deemed a “long range effort by Hamas to be used at the right time for the organization-for an attack or an abduction that would give Hamas the means to pressure Israel.”

Still, it wasn’t until the recent break out of hostilities that the full extent of these undertakings (no pun intended) came to light. Since then, the army has located and destroyed dozens of floridlyexcavated burrows; some of whose exits were just a minutes walk from nearby communities and contained IDF uniforms, motorcycles, sedatives, and handcuffs—all the ingredients for a large-scale kidnapping.

Chilling information was soon extracted from captured Hamas operatives and diggers, which spoke of an impending plot to effectuate the tunnels on the Jewish New Year/Rosh Hashanah (September 24)—when Israelis would presumably be consumed by holiday revelry—in a mega-attack “on the same scale as the 1973 Yom Kippur War”; when up to 2,800 Israelis lost their lives. The scheme, senior defense officials warned–which allegedly called for an initial swarm of 200 Hamas shock troops paving the way for a sally of “thousands” more “wearing IDF uniforms”–would have brought the country “to its knees.”

Leaving aside the dubious feasibility of such an operation—whose participants would have to slip under the radar of Israel’s robust intelligence apparatuses while proceeding mostly on foot across miles of unfamiliar terrain—it’s clear Hamas didn’t invest $90 million and thousands of tons of cement so its kids could have another playground.’ And yet, while the loss of hundreds of Israelis would be tragic, it would by no means pose an existential or even strategic threat to the Jewish State.

Regrettably, the sensationalism obfuscates the real nature of Hamas’ designs: securing an Iron Dome-impervious weapon of last resort that could secure its existence.  

Tunneling Under the Iron Dome

An Iron Dome battery intercepts an incoming Hamas rocket (CC-BY-SA, Nehemiya Gershoni, Wikipedia)
An Iron Dome battery intercepts an incoming Hamas rocket
(CC-BY-SA, Nehemiya Gershoni, Wikipedia)

For Hamas, the Iron Dome’s stellar fare against its attempts at buffeting the Israeli home front with rockets during the November 2012 ‘Pillar of Defense’ (PoD) was foreboding. It seemingly imbued Israelis with a political complacency that compromised the group’s only trump card. Sure, the harrowing sirens that punctuated the Israeli routine afforded some leverage; but not of the sort needed to rescue the group from outright implosion.

For that, only major upheaval–the likes of which could kill Israelis and goad the IDF into an ugly urban war of attrition (thereby killings thousands of Palestinians)—would suffice.

No doubt, a total war would deliver Hamas an unprecedentedly painful blow. But when its options are either terminal bleeding (i.e. manifested through economic and thereby governmental collapse) or life-saving amputation, the choice is clear. As one Hamas leader putit:

“We will not wait until Israel slowly and calmly, under the radar, disarms us and destroys our capabilities. If they want to move to confrontation, let it be an open confrontation. At least then we can make use of what is being destroyed. Otherwise we will get to the point that we can’t confront them at all. This is death by a thousand cuts.”

Thus, its ploy now effete from the air, Hamas had to find a way to simulate its effects on the ground. And soon after the PoD ceasefire it got to work, investing roughly a tenth (though once source puts it at 40%) of its tight $894 million budget on the round-the-clock construction on a subterranean attack vector.

Digging Against the Clock of Doom

The overthrow of its Muslim-Brotherhood (MB) progenitor in Cairo, and the assent of an Islamist-loathing military dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, culminated in a series of vicissitudes that only stiffened Hamas’ resolve for completing its dastardly project.  Charging it as co-conspiring with the MB and others to perpetrate acts of domestic terrorism, el-Sisi was venomous in his dealings with the group, seeking to spite it anyway he could.

Relishing Hamas’ meteoric plunge from Egypt’s ‘best friend’ to now worst enemy, Israel was whetted by the opportunity to whipsaw the group into further decay. As the Wall Street Journal recentlyreported, Egypt “secretly coordinated with senior Israeli officials led by Maj. Gen. (Res.) Amos Gilas, the direction of the political military affairs at Israel’s Defense Ministr…to advance their shared interests and increase pressure on Hamas.”

The consortium was effective; too effective in fact. By early this year, Egypt issued a ‘progress report’ celebrating to Israel its destruction of 95% of Hamas’ smuggling tunnels along the Sinai-Gaza border; the arteries fueling roughly two-thirds of Gaza’s economy.

Adding insult to injury, Egypt never offset the ensuing fallout by relaxing heightened strictures on goods and people flowing in/out of its border crossings.

On Israel’s side of the enclave, despite its obligations under the 2012 Egyptian-sponsored ceasefire agreement that ended PoD, whichcalled for, among other provisions, “opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of good,” the noose was tightened as well. Fewer exports—the principal source of revenue for Gaza’s private sector—and civilians were permitted to transit Israeli border crossings, while the IDF reinstated its security buffer zones both on land and sea. In effect, 35% of Gaza’s arable land was rendered ‘off-limits,’ as were 70% of its fishing waters.

By January 2014, Hamas was headed for entropy. Stripped of the revenue it earned from taxing imported/exported goods, it ignominiously passed a budget that covered only “a quarter of its obligations.” Worse, that ‘quarter’ couldn’t remunerate the 43,000 civil servants responsible for dispensing its governance.

Teetering on the brink of collapse, Hamas’ only way out was joininginto a unity government with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Qatar had agreed to foot the bill for its salary crisis, and under the agreement—so Hamas thought—the PA would deliver the funds.

It would never be. Israel not only raised diplomatic hell over the unity pact itself, it also—with the help of its American allies–invoked longstanding US/EU legislation sanctioning any financial entity (in this case, the Amman based Arab Bank) transacting with Hamas or any government thereof. Naturally, the Arab Bank conceded.

An alternative route was to transfer the money through the United Nations, which one UN envoy insisted would “exclude all parties from legal liability.” But US resistance, as well as Israeli threats to expel the official for “trying to funnel money to Hamas,” nipped this idea in the bud.

With the international banking system a no-go, the remaining medium for doling out the tranches—totaling some $60 million–washand-delivering cash-stuffed suitcases via Gaza’s official crossings. Unsurprisingly, neither the blessings of Egypt nor Israel were forthcoming.

Its non-violent recourse exhausted, Hamas was left with forsaking its raison de’tre of resistance, relinquishing its war machine and singing ‘Kumbaya’; or bringing to bear what it had long been saving for a dark rainy day: a tunnel blitzkrieg that would forcefully upend its moribund status quo.

Hamas’ Defcon 1

In wracking the country with its own ‘9/11’, Hamas hoped that Israel, like the Americans before it, would have had no choice but to take the bait and embark on an unbridled campaign of retaliation in which thousands of Gazans would perish and the patience of the world would be tested.

Certainly, Israel would enjoy the sympathy and support—if only tacit—of most of the Western world. But the clock would be ticking. By some estimates, it would take the IDF up to 2 years to uproot Hamas’ entire terror infrastructure in Gaza. And whereas America, with its unparalleled political and economic clout, can get away with prolonged ‘inadvertent’ slaughter of thousands of civilians—Israel cannot.

Assuming the plot was to transpire as per the account of intelligence sources, Hamas was clearly intent on provoking far more than just a Operation Cast Lead-esque (OCL) retaliation–i.e. whereby Israeli soldiers would be mainly confined to Gaza’s urban outskirts. And in the absence of an impartial ‘monitor’ in Cairo, it would require more than just a flimsy PoD-like cease-fire accord that Israel could violatewith impunity.

No, with its existence hanging in the balance, Hamas sought an all-out and decisive showdown; one that would enflame the Arab world and galvanize Western involvement in a muscular enforcement regime that would end Israel’s economic strangulation once and for all.

Fortunately, Hamas’ hand was (apparently) forced by the kidnapping/murder of three Israeli teenagers and the attendantmass-arrest of 566 of its West Bank cadres; including nearly all of its local senior leaders and dozens of those previously released in 2011 ‘Shalit’ deal.

What followed was an escalation, marked by a renewal of rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes, which devolved into the IDF ground-offensive that blew the lid off of Hamas’ underground labyrinth.

Unanswered Questions

Many questions still remain. Above all, if Hamas planned on carrying out its ‘9/11’, why did it allow for a situation in which its secret weapon—the tunnels—would no longer be so secret?

As most of the facts are still up in the air, we can only speculate a priori. Nonetheless, some educated assumptions can be made. For instance, although it’s still in dispute, it’s highly unlikely that Hamas leadership directly ordered the Israeli hitchhiker slayings above. Among other predications, was a bargaining chip of 3 dead bodies really going to extricate it from the abyss?

Whatever the case, Hamas initially appeared reluctant to entangle itself in a conflict that would conceivably divest precious resources from its autumn extravaganza. Indeed, it wasn’t until weeks (June 29, specifically) after Israel carted off hundreds of its henchmen to prison that Hamas finally joined unaffiliated militant groups in firing rockets. True, the latter couldn’t have been the forerunners without the connivance of the former’ (if only begrudgingly). But that Hamas eschewed direct participation indicates it had an interest in keeping tensions at a threshold short of war.

Once Hamas joined the fray things got a little hazy. While engaging in “intensive contacts” to broker a ceasefire, Hamas officials issued discordant conditions ranging from a cessation of airstrikes tofacilitating the salary transfers and lifting the blockade. Israel probably would have satisfied the first, but that’s about it.

As IDF ground troops deployed along the Gaza border fence in the days prior to the war, Hamas’ attack tunnels were still on the down-low; at least those abutting Israeli border communities. But if that’s the case, why didn’t Hamas accept the Egyptian brokered ceasefire and diffuse the situation? Why not bide its time until September when it presumably could have enjoyed laxer IDF vigilance level and thereby a better chance of infiltrating Israeli communities and obtaining a bigger payout?


There are several possibilities, most of which aren’t mutually exclusive:

1) Hamas’ couldn’t hold out until the Fall; it needed economic relief pronto lest Gaza, with its 41% unemployment, 80% dependent on foreign aid, and 12 hours of electricity per day, succumb to anarchy.

Assessment: Unlikely    The problem with this theory is that Hamas was in dire straits for quite some time and thus would have been conceivably able to calculate how long was left before the roof caved in. True, the interdiction of its salary payments was unexpected and could have put it over the edge. But if that’s the case, why was it so halting thereafter in committing to battle?

2) Managerial Disunity; some of the group’s chieftains wanted quiet—but those voicing more ambitious demands were stronger and refused to backpedal, fearing that doing so would convey weakness to their constituencies and empower both their more radicalcompetitors and also the party (i.e.Israel) who, in previous weeks, sabotaged the unity agreement and eviscerated Hamas’ West Bank subsidiary.

Assessment: Likely    Underpinning this hypothesis is the narrowedpublic approval gap that surfaced before OPE showing a redoubling of support for Islamic Jihad (IJ) at the expense of Hamas. Gaza’s deteriorating economy, coupled with a growing perception of Hamas failure to confront Israel’s chokehold was seen as largely responsible for this dynamic. Tellingly, surveys show that OCL and the 2012 POE “lifted [Hamas] popularity to unprecedented levels.”

As such, once IJ started firing rockets, its likely Hamas couldn’t allow itself to be upstaged. Capitulating to the Egyptian ceasefire—which would have conferred 0 concessions beyond a return to an abject status-quo ante—would have damaged whatever credibility it had left.

3) Hamas calculated that the IDF wouldn’t be able to find/eliminate all its tunnels in a limited campaign; that it’d be able to rebuild that which was destroyed; and that it could revitalize or better the post PoD ceasefire terms without recourse to its ‘Samson option.’

Assessment: Likely     An ‘underground Iron Dome’ is at least yearsaway. And while one mustn’t readily valorize Hamas’ claim that “only a fraction” of its tunnels were located—though even a senior IDF engineer conceded they “wouldn’t find them all”–what’s to prevent Hamas from digging more?

Taken together, Hamas bet it could revamp the reality on the ground while keeping its doomsday apparatus—to be activated should its survival be imperiled again in the future–mostly intact.

4) There was no ‘Rosh Hashanah’ conspiracy; the Israeli government either fabricated or inflated all the details as a pretext for launching a wider operation to hurt Hamas. The latter may have intended to use the tunnels to kidnap or kill            soldiers/civilians but not to the extent portrayed by the government.

Assessment: Sketchy     I’m naturally skeptical towards anything ‘conspiracy’ and will therefor defer to the proponent himself. However, if true, it wouldn’t be the first time Israel has done such a thing.

Conclusion: Pleasant? ‘No’ Pragmatic? ‘Yes’

The hackneyed trope that ‘terrorism is a weapon of the weak’ is eminently relevant in the case of Hamas’ Rosh Hashanah plot. The group faced an existential crucible in which its options were limited to either going for broke to preserve itself or yielding to collapse. As the object of any organization—political or economic—is its survival, Hamas chose the former. This is not to justify the base selfishness of throwing its people under the bus by doing so. Rather, whatever pejorative one wishes (and rightfully so) to call it–the decision was pragmatic to a fault.

One can argue that Hamas has an alternative to collapse or doomsday operations: it can tear up its charter, abjure violence, and rule as the Gaza branch of ‘Peace Now.’

In reality though, just like many Israelis are convinced that Palestinians want to vanquish all of Israel—so too does Hamas and many other Palestinians suspect the same is true of Israelis. Theexplosion of Israeli settlements over the years, even amidst serious peace negotiations, does little to quell these concerns. As long the diplomatic track is perceived as forlorn and Israel is as flimflamming, how can Hamas be expected to annul its mantle of resistance?

The rub is that Hamas’ refusal to abnegate the platform above disposes Israel towards a policy, which as confirmed by Wikileaks, aims to “keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse.” Against this backdrop, Hamas can only improve its lot by lashing out at Israel and forcing it to loosen the noose. But with the heft of its rocket arsenal vitiated by the Iron Dome, Hamas—lest Israel think it can choke it with impunity–had to contrive something else: cross-border attack tunnels.

In the end, when the situation became grim and it had nothing else to lose (but itself) Hamas was compelled to play its Ace.  The lesson? Terrorist organizations are predictably violent when they’re at their weakest.

Alas, instead of giving Hamas something to lose, Israel has spent nearly a decade trying to enfeeble and smother it out of existence. With Hamas interminably oscillating between ‘afloat’ and ‘sinking’, that Israel has to go to war every few years (when Hamas is sinking) is no surprise. The Iron Dome may help cushion this sorry reality but, as the tunnels exemplify, every billion-dollar counter-measure is inevitably going to inspire another counter-measure to the counter-measure. How long can Israel afford to run in circles?

About the Author
Zach Goldberg is a former Israeli Army infantryman and a holder of a Bachelors degree in Government as well as a Masters in Terrorism and Homeland Security from the IDC Herzliya.