April 20, 2016 Special Dispatch No. 6393

Hamas's Tunnels: Preparation For The Next Conflict With Israel

April 20, 2016
Palestine | Special Dispatch No. 6393

Recently, the issue of Hamas's tunnels is again making headlines, following reports of tunnel collapses in the Gaza Strip in which Hamas activists died; Israel's finding of tunnels excavated from the Gaza Strip into Israel near Kerem Shalom; and reports on the defection to Israel of Sami Al-'Atawneh, the head of the tunnel network of Hamas's 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, east of Jabalia.

The excavation of the attack tunnels at the Israel-Gaza border began shortly after the end of the summer 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, as part of Hamas's renewal of its military preparations in advance of another conflict with Israel. (See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5863, Hamas' Construction Of Gaza Tunnels Continues, October 23, 2014).

Reports on the subject of tunnels have been published by Hamas media outlets, and Hamas officials have made many references to the importance of the tunnels, particularly in light of the deaths of many Hamas activists in collapses. Hamas officials warned repeatedly that the movement is continuing to excavate, even during the tahdiya (calm), in preparation for the next conflict with Israel, and that the tunnel that has been exposed by Israel was a mere "drop in the ocean." Likewise, an ethos of sacrifice and martyrdom has been built up around those who died in tunnel collapses, who have been dubbed "the martyrs of the preparations." 

As Hamas leaders were issuing these declarations about preparations for the next round of conflict with Israel and about the importance of building the tunnels for this purpose, at the same time, grasping the incendiary potential of such declarations, movement officials are sending reassuring messages that they are not aiming at an escalation and that the tunnels are strictly defensive. This, particularly in light of international criticism of Hamas's ongoing tunnel activity, particularly that of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who expressed alarm at Hamas's intention "to continue building tunnels and firing rockets at Israel" and added that "such statements and actions" put the reconstruction of Gaza at risk.[1] Hamas's backtracking on its statements may also be due to concern about a possible escalation vis-a-vis Israel at an inconvenient time for the movement.   

It should be noted that Hamas has yet to rebuild the Gaza Strip since the summer 2014 conflict, and that it is unclear whether it has fully restored its military infrastructure. Furthermore, it seems that the movement does not have the substantial political and financial backing it will need in a conflict, and this for the following reasons. First, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime has been ousted in Egypt, and the current regime, led by 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi, continues to be openly hostile to Hamas, except for various security understandings with it. Second, Hamas has been removed from the pro-Iran axis, because of its support for the Syrian rebels, and Iranian funding for its military wing has been substantially cut back. Third, Hamas's sponsors, Qatar and Turkey, have grown closer to Saudi Arabia, which considers the MB (considered to be Hamas's parent movement) a terrorist organization, as recently noted by Saudi Foreign Minister 'Adel Al-Jubeir.[2] As a result, Hamas has distanced itself from the MB, and has said that it does not take orders from it and that the ties between the two movements are purely ideological, not political.[3]

Types Of Tunnels And Their Purpose

Hamas constructs three types of tunnels in the Gaza Strip:

1. Attack tunnels that start in Gaza and approach the Israeli border. They are intended for launching attacks, including kidnappings, inside Israel, in settlements or army bases near the border.

2. The smuggling tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border, often referred to as "Gaza's lifeline." Used to bring in goods and weapons, they have been less active since the removal of the MB regime in Egypt, especially since the current regime regularly floods them with seawater.

3. The "Gaza underground" - a network of tunnels running beneath Gaza City, used for hiding Hamas members, for storing weapons and equipment, for communications among Hamas members, and for providing secure passage within the city. Rockets are launched from some of them, and some also serve as observation posts.

The military role of the tunnels has been discussed by writers and commentators on Hamas websites. Columnist Iyad Al-Qara, on Hamas's Filastin website, wrote: "There is a tunnel unit in Gaza, alongside other units such as the rocket unit and the frogmen. There is also a new unit established recently to hold future kidnapped [Israeli] prisoners. Currently, this unit is holding missing Israelis who are in Gaza.[4]

Dr. 'Adnan Abu 'Amer, a commentator on Hamas websites, wrote about the tunnels: "Hamas fighters in black uniforms patrol the Gaza tunnels, [armed] with automatic rifles. They feel at home [deep] beneath the [Gaza] Strip, in the network of tunnels that they dug and built with their own hands. They live there in safety and security, and some of the tunnels are [even] tall enough to let them walk upright... The tunnels branch out in several directions." [5]

Hamas Officials: We Are Continuing To Excavate Tunnels And To Prepare For Next Conflict With Israel

Soon after the 2014 Gaza conflict, Hamas officials announced numerous times that the movement was excavating attack tunnels in the Gaza Strip. In September 2014, Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahhar announced that Hamas had begun rebuilding and developing the tunnels.[6] A month later, in October, the Hamas mouthpiece Al-Risalah wrote about the restarting of work on attack tunnels in Gaza, noting that 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades members were digging around the clock, dozens of meters below the surface.[7]

Photo of tunnel, Al-Risalah, Gaza, October 19, 2014.

An August 2015 Al-Qassam Brigades video, translated and published by MEMRI TV, shows members of Hamas's tunnel unit training in the tunnels for activity against Israel.[8]

In late December 2015, Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) member from Hamas Mushir Al-Masri declared that "tens of thousands of Al-Qassam fighters are working day and night, aboveground and underground, preparing for the next battle." He added, "This is the [kind of] tahdiya Hamas understands - preparing with all [our] might."[9]

Several weeks later, Hamas members again began mentioning the tunnels frequently, particularly following a number of tunnel collapses in which many Al-Qassam Brigades operatives were killed. The most serious of these collapses, on January 27, 2016, killed seven Al-Qassam Brigades operatives. Hamas officials explained that they had sacrificed their lives while preparing for the next conflict. Since then, several more tunnels have collapsed, claiming the lives of more Hamas members.[10]

The seven Al-Qassam Brigades members killed in the January 2016 tunnel collapse (, January 28, 2016)

Al-Qassam brigades presents families with bottles of sand from the tunnels in which their relatives were killed (, February 5, 2016)

In his January 29, 2016 Friday sermon at a Gaza mosque, Isma'il Haniya, deputy director of Hamas's political bureau, said: "Gaza bids farewell to the martyrs of the preparations for any conflict with the Israeli occupation that may come. Gaza has constructed twice as many tunnels as there were in Vietnam.[11] The Al-Qassam Brigades have dug tunnels around Gaza in order to defend the people and liberate Al-Aqsa and the holy places." He added: "This weapon, the weapon of tunnels, played a prominent role in achieving our victory. From these tunnels emerged the jihad fighters who carried out the Nahal Oz operation.[12] From these tunnels, the jihad fighters captured [Israeli soldier] Oron Shaul. From these tunnels, they fought the [Israeli] soldiers at close range, and emerged behind enemy lines. Because of these tunnels, our military spokesman could say: 'The jihad fighters carried out their mission and returned to their bases safe and sound'... East of Gaza, there are heroes underground, digging through rock and constructing tunnels. West of Gaza, there are heroes who test-fire rockets every day - All these [activities] are preparations - underground in the tunnels, in the air by means of missiles, at sea, and everywhere. This constant preparation is for the sake of Palestine, for Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa, and for the Al-Quds Intifada."[13]

Haniya's statements about the tunnels prompted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to express alarm at Hamas's intention "to continue building tunnels and firing rockets at Israel. Such statements and actions," he added, "put at risk reconstruction, humanitarian and development efforts by the international community and Palestinian and Israeli authorities."[14] Hamas, however, rejected Ban's words, accusing him of pro-Israel bias; on January 31, it said: "We reject these statements about the tunnels of the resistance, which are defensive and aimed at protecting the Gaza Strip."[15] The same day, Al-Qassam Brigades spokesman Abu 'Ubaida said: "We do not seek war, but we will continue to prepare for conflict."[16]  

Contradictory messages regarding the tunnels were also evident in statements by top Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahhar. On February 3, Al-Zahhar boasted that the tunnels had reached Israel, but two hours later backtracked, claiming that his statements had been wrongly reported and stressing, "The tunnels are defensive and are aimed at meeting an Israeli attack."[17] A few weeks later, on February 24, Al-Zahhar reiterated that the tunnels were defensive, adding that they had at one point reached Israel (implying that now they do not): "The [Hamas] movement does not seek a new war with Israel, and the network of tunnels that it is digging, some of which once reached Israel, are defensive. We do not want a clash with Israel, but if it attacks us will be obliged to defend ourselves..."[18]

On April 15, Haniya once again mentioned the tunnels, in his Friday sermon in front of the Red Cross offices in Gaza during a Hamas rally in honor of Palestinian Prisoners Day, which falls two days later. He clarified that the resistance would not rest until all the Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli prisons, and added that this message from Hamas to the Palestinian prisoners was "sealed in blood, triggers, guns, tunnels, and trenches."[19]

Furthermore, in response to Israel's exposure of a tunnel near its border in April 2016, the Al-Qassam Brigades said in an official communique: "The campaign of preparation and deployment continues in all areas. What the enemy has announced [i.e. the exposure of the tunnel] is but a mere drop in the ocean of what the resistance has prepared to defend its people and liberate its holy sites, its land, and its prisoners.'[20]

The Al-Qassam Brigades communique (, April 18, 2016)amas has not yet rebuilt the Gaza strip,

Tunnel Diggers Revered As Jihad Fighters And As Martyrs

An ethos of courage, sacrifice and martyrdom has developed around Al-Qassam members killed in the tunnels. Tunnel construction is described as jihad waged proudly by these fighters, with the aim of reaching Paradise. The men's parents express their pride in them and praise their longing for martyrdom, and the men who are killed receive heroes' funerals that are attended by large crowds and by Hamas leaders.

Referring to the seven militants killed in the late January 2016 tunnel collapse, Hamas political bureau head Khaled Mash'al eulogized them: "Hamas's preparations for the next conflict will continue. The death of these heroes was part of the popular struggle and the unceasing preparations to resist the occupation. [They are] the pride of people and the nation."[21] Al-Qassam spokesman Abu 'Ubaida said: "The heroism of the tunnel [activists] is like the heroism of those carrying out attacks in the West Bank. We will act to free the prisoners, and we have the means to compel Israel to release them."[22]

The funeral of the Al-Qassam Brigades members killed in the late January 2016 tunnel collapse (Image:, January 30) 2016)

This ethos of heroism and martyrdom was also evident in reports and articles published by the Hamas mouthpiece Al-Risalah on February 1, 2016. Al-Risalah reporter Maha Shahwan wrote about one of the seven: "The [wedding] ululations still echo in the home of the martyr, Al-Qassam Brigades [fighter] Ja'far Hamadah. [Only] two months ago he wed his wife Du'a, but the black-eyed [virgins of Paradise] soon snatched him up to become a martyr."

Another Al-Risalah reporter, Muhammad Al-'Arabid, wrote about another of the dead men: "The martyr Thabet Al-Rifi told his father on numerous occasions, 'I hope to give my life for Allah.' His father expressed pride in his son's death, saying: 'We will teach our children to love the homeland and give their lives for Allah. We will not give up a single grain of Palestinian soil."

Al-Risalah editor Wisam 'Afifa wrote: "We shall tell the coming generations about this phenomenon, unique in the history of Palestinian resistance. We shall explain to them that every inch of Gazan land is sacred because it bears traces of the tunnel[-diggers], who sent up their prayers and uttered the names of Allah deep beneath the earth. At the end of the tunnel, their eyes spied a ray of sunlight - a sign that a mission of jihad in Palestine was carried out, from which a martyr would emerge."[23]

Al-Risalah columnist Shayma Marzouq wrote: "It is as if we dug a tunnel to heaven, in order to emerge from it as martyrs." Journalist Ghasan Al-Shami was even more effusive: "The men of preparation and jihad missions, the Palestinian resistance [fighters], the keepers of the gate, get little sleep at night, [for] arduous and glorious missions await them. They spend long hours [in the tunnels], digging tirelessly into the solid rock with their bare hands and teeth, for days and months. They know the correct path, [with] its hardships and brambles - it is the path of jihad and martyrdom." [24]



[1], January 30, 2016.

[2] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), April 11, 2016.

[3] See, for example, Mahmoud Al-Zahhar in Al-Sharq (Qatar), March 29, 2016; and Sami Abu Zuhri in, March 22, 2016.

[4], January 28, 2016.

[5], February 1, 2016.

[6] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), September 20, 2014.

[7] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5863, Hamas' Construction Of Gaza Tunnels Continues, October 23, 2015.

[8] See MEMRI TV Clip No. 5058, Video Clip Presents Footage of Hamas's Tunnel Digging Unit, August 26, 2015; On tunnels dug by the Islamic Jihad group, see .

[9], December 30, 2015.

[10] Thus, for example, on February 28, 2016, a tunnel collapsed injuring five members of the 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam brigades. See, February 28, 2016. Another Al-Qassam member, 'Abd Al-Salam Al-Batniji was killed in tunnel operations on March14, 2016. See, March 16, 2016. A tunnel also collapsed on the Gaza-Egypt border on April 10, killing several people. See, April 10, 2016.

[11] A reference to the tens of thousands of miles of Cu Chi Tunnels dug by the Viet Cong during the war.

[12] On July 28, 2015,  several Al-Qassam gunmen  used a tunnel to breach the Israeli border and infiltrate an army base near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, killing five soldiers.

[13], January 29, 2016. See MEMRI TV Clip No. 5293,  Hamas PM Haniya in Friday Sermon: We Are Digging Tunnels East of Gaza, January 29, 2016.

[14], January 30, 2016.

[15], January 31, 2016.

[16], January 31, 2016.

[17], February 3, 2016.

[18] Al-Ayyam (PA), February 26, 2016.

[19], April 15, 2016.

[20], April 18, 2016.

[21], January 30, 2016.

[22], January 31, 2016.

[23] Al-Risalah (Gaza), February 1, 2016.

[24] Al-Risalah (Gaza), February 1, 2016.

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