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Tunnels at heart of Israeli fear

Near the Israel-Gaza border, July 29: The curved concrete top of the tunnel grazes the dark-brown buzz cut of Lt Col Oshik Azulai, putting it 5 feet and 7 inches above the sand floor.

The walls are about 30 inches apart — wide enough for two people to squeeze past each other, unless both are in body armour. It is cool in the tunnel, 46 feet under, and dark, of course. Cellphones do not work.

Col Azulai, deputy commander of the Israeli military’s Southern Gaza Division, said this tunnel stretched eight-tenths of a mile into Israel, next to a field filled with watermelon, ripe but unpicked because of the war.

It ended about 600 yards from Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, a rural enclave of 325, but was unfinished: Unlike the tunnels used to infiltrate Israel from Gaza in recent days, this one still had electric lines along the wall and carriage tracks used to ferry out dirt.

Destroying such tunnels was the stated goal of Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza, which began July 17. But 11 days into the mission, and after Israeli officials say they have found 31 tunnels and destroyed 15, Palestinian militants again penetrated underground into Israel last evening and confronted soldiers in a staging area.

Multiple soldiers were killed, a senior military official said, as was at least one of the men from Gaza.

“We will not complete the operation without neutralizing the tunnels, the sole purpose of which is the destruction of our civilians and the killing of our children,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel declared in a televised address afterwards.

“It cannot be that the citizens of the state of Israel will live under the deadly threats of missiles and infiltration through tunnels — death from above and death from below.”

Tunnels have lurked in the dark spaces of Israeli imagination at least since 2006, when Hamas, the militant Islamic movement that dominates Gaza, used one to abduct an Israeli soldier.

Far more than the rocket barrages that have sent Israelis scrambling for shelter throughout the bloody 21-day battle, the tunnel attacks — yesterday’s was the sixth of the current conflict — have shaken the collective psyche and stiffened resolve to continue or even expand the fight.

In cafes and playgrounds, on social-media sites and in the privacy of pillow talk, Israelis exchange nightmare scenarios that are the stuff of action movies: armed enemies popping up under a day care centre or dining room, spraying a crowd with a machine gun fire or maybe some chemical, exploding a suicide belt or snatching captives and ducking back into the dirt.

“It takes us a little bit to our childhood fairy tales of demons,” said Eyal Brandeis, 50, a political scientist who lives on Kibbutz Sufa, a mile from where 13 militants emerged from a tunnel at dawn on July 17. “It’s a very pastoral environment I live in, the quiet, the green grass, the trees. It’s not a pleasant thought that you sit one day on the patio drinking coffee with your wife and a bunch of terrorists will rise from the ground.”

An Israeli military spokesman said that in the tunnels uncovered so far, soldiers have found more than 70 side shafts. Inside the Ein Hashlosha tunnel, they picked up potato-chip bags dated as late as February. Elsewhere, there were dates, water and crackers; rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles; small rooms for sleeping or hiding; a kidnapping kit of tranquilizers and plastic handcuffs; Israeli Army uniforms; and a Bosch drill used for digging the tunnels that Col Azulai described as “a very good one”.

 
 
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