During the first two weeks of the Gaza conflict, Hamas landed at least two significant punches. In firing missiles at Ben Gurion Airport, Hamas convinced the Federal Aviation Authority and European air carriers to temporarily suspend flights to Israel. The fact that relatively primitive rockets falling far short of their targets are nonetheless capable of at least briefly severing an advanced Western democracy with a leading tech economy from the rest of the world is a psychological blow. But perhaps the even greater concern for Israeli officials is the revelation of Hamas’s extensive tunnel network.
Until Operation Protective Edge, it was generally assumed that Gaza’s tunnel system was simply a feeding tube for a community of 1.8 million people. With both the Egyptian and Israeli borders closed, as well as Israel’s naval blockade, goods entered Gaza mainly through the tunnels from Egypt. So did weapons, including missiles made or designed by Iran, which, as the last two weeks have shown, are capable of reaching any site in Israel. The tunnel economy flourished under former Egyptian president and Hamas sponsor Mohamed Morsi but has suffered under his successor, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has won praise from Jerusalem for shutting down as many tunnels as he can find.
However, there is another system in Gaza as well, a network of attack tunnels that end not in Egypt but in Israel, where over the last two weeks Hamas commandos have attempted several terrorist operations.
“Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said that we are not under siege, we are imposing a siege,” says retired IDF officer Jonathan Halevi, now a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “What he meant was that [Hamas] can use tunnels as a strategic weapon. If you multiply tunnels, you can use them to send hundreds of fighters into Israel and create havoc, totally under cover. According to Hamas, the tunnels have changed the balance of power.”
Israeli officials have expressed amazement at the extent of the tunnel network. “Food, accommodations, storage, resupply,” one astonished official told reporters last week. “Beneath Gaza,” he explained, there’s “another terror city.” That is, Hamas’s tunnel network is evidence of a military doctrine, both a countermeasure to Israel’s clear air superiority and an offensive capability that threatens to take ground combat inside Israel itself, targeting villages, cities, and civilians as well as soldiers. Israel perhaps should not have been surprised to discover the size and seriousness of Hamas’s tunnel network because they’ve seen something similar before, in the aftermath of the 2006 war with Hezbollah. And indeed it was Iran’s long arm in Lebanon that helped build Hamas’s tunnels.
“The spiritual father of Hamas’s tunnel system is Imad Mughniyeh,” says Shimon Shapira, a Hezbollah expert and senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Mughniyeh, assassinated in 2008 in an operation believed to have been conducted by the Israelis, is credited with directing Hezbollah’s 2006 war. He was the head of the organization’s external operations unit and responsible for countless terrorist attacks. He also served as liaison to the top Iranian leadership as well as other Iranian allies and assets, including Hamas. “Mughniyeh sent instructors to Gaza and took Hamas members to Iran,” Shapira explains.
While Hamas and Hezbollah’s tunnel technology, equipment, and funding are mostly Iranian, the knowledge and the doctrine date back to the earliest days of the Cold War.
“The North Koreans are the leading tunnel experts in the world,” says North Korea expert Bruce Bechtol. They learned as a matter of necessity. “The U.S. Air Force basically exhausted its target list after the first eight months of the Korean War,” Bechtol explains. “All the North Korean cities were turned to rubble, so they got good at building large tunnels and bunkers, some of them 10 or 11 square miles. In effect, the North Koreans moved their cities underground for three years, with hundreds of thousands of people living down there.”
“There is no better protection than the earth,” says David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. But Pyongyang also has an offensive doctrine. “Defectors tell us that the North Koreans built 21 tunnels under the demilitarized zone, but only 4 have been discovered,” says Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army colonel who served in South Korea. “Our concern is that the North Koreans would infiltrate, sending thousands of men through the tunnels in an hour, maybe dressed in South Korean uniforms. You can’t imagine the kind of havoc that would wreak.”
Last month the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition went to the White House. Ahmad Jarba and the Syrian rebels want American weapons, in particular the shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles that might neutralize Bashar al-Assad’s air force and stop it from dropping barrel bombs loaded with chlorine gas canisters. What Jarba got instead was a handshake and platitudes.
Six years ago Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated when the headrest in his car was detonated in Damascus. While Israeli intelligence neither denies nor confirms its involvement, the Mossad is generally believed to have been responsible for his death. And yet there is no shortage of Western as well as Arab intelligence services that wanted Mughniyeh dead—including the CIA, whose station chief William Buckley Hezbollah abducted, tortured and killed in 1985. Moreover, Mughniyeh was responsible for the April 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut that killed 17 Americans, and the Marines barracks bombing in October of that year that killed 244 American marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen. As founder and director of Hezbollah’s terrorism apparatus, Mughniyeh left a long wake of blood across the world. And even six years after his death, Mughniyeh’s legacy of terror lives on, as Hezbollah has recently plotted operations on several continents, including Europe, Asia and Africa.
Remember a few years ago when Iranian officials had to intervene to prevent Hezbollah gunmen from turning on their Syrian patrons? Few people do. Today, the "axis of resistance" is as strong as ever, with Iran and Hezbollah fully committed to fighting for the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, despite battlefield losses and the political costs of siding with a brutal dictator who gasses and bombs his own people.
A car bomb detonated today in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold. So far, four are reported dead and over 50 have been injured. With rumors spreading that the bombing may have been the work of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Sunni jihadist group with ties to al Qaeda, it seems that this was the latest in a series of moves indicating that the regional conflict with Syria as its red-hot center is growing ever wider, now encompassing all the Levant, from Baghdad to Beirut. In the Lebanese capital alone, within a one-week span a former Sunni minister was assassinated, Saudi Arabia bought a $3 billion share of a national army heavily infiltrated by Hezbollah, and then today the Party of God was targeted on its home turf.
In the wake of the interim deal that the White House signed with Iran Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry said on the Sunday talk shows that nothing has changed, not with the American position in the Middle East, or with the U.S. alliance system in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is screaming his head off, but Israel has nothing to worry about says Kerry.
The cartoon above is from the Great Game era in Central Asia, when the British and Russians were in a contest for places like Afghanistan and Iran. It's strongly (perhaps perversely) suggestive given current events.
Thirty years ago last month, Hezbollah blew up the barracks of the U.S Marines and French paratroopers stationed at the Beirut airport, killing 241 U.S. servicemen and 58 Frenchmen. It wasn’t Hezbollah’s first terrorist operation, but this attack, the most memorable in Lebanon’s vicious and chaotic 15-year-long civil war, marked the Party of God’s entry onto the world stage.
Lebanese authorities have arrested two suspects affiliated with a pro-Syrian regime group in the bombing of two Sunni mosques in Tripoli on Friday. Forty-seven people were killed in the attack in the northern Lebanese city, likely retaliation for a bombing the previous week in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, that killed another 27.
The Obama administration is heralding a conference later this month in Geneva where representatives of Bashar al-Assad’s regime will ostensibly sit down with the Syrian rebel forces opposing them. The effect will be to prop up Assad. Sen. John McCain, on the other hand, is committed to the Syrian people. We commend him for the courage he showed last week when he became the most senior American official to visit Syria since the shooting started, entering from the Turkish border.
For over a week now, the Syrian town of Qusayr in Homs Province has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the two-year conflict. The struggle for Qusayr, says besieged President Bashar al-Assad, “is the main battle” in all of Syria.
Are we watching Hezbollah closely enough these days? Probably not. Given events in Syria and the Balkans, it appears that we’re in for a whole new set of problems to be presented by Iran’s favorite proxy.