Israel appears to be preparing to push troops and vehicles deeper into the Gaza Strip, in a move that would uproot tens of thousands more Palestinians, intensify international criticism and increase the risks to its own soldiers’ lives.
The Israeli military is racing to destroy a network of Hamas tunnels more extensive than it previously thought, say analysts, even as condemnation of the war outside Israel grows and diplomatic efforts to end it gather pace, with Egypt expected to play a leading role.
Overnight on Tuesday, the Israel Defence Forces dropped leaflets and sent phone messages ordering residents of Jabalya and Beit Lahiya, in northern Gaza, and al-Sheja’iya, in the east, to move. Similar warnings earlier this month in areas bordering Israel were followed by massive bombardment that killed hundreds of Palestinians and laid waste to entire city blocks.
With the Palestinian death toll now above 1,100 – mostly civilians – bringing international censure of Mr Netanyahu’s government, it is facing questions in Israel as to why it did not act to eliminate the tunnels sooner.
In the buffer zone at the Israeli-Gaza border, armoured vehicles and earthmovers are throwing up thick clouds of dust as they search for concealed openings of the tunnels, which the IDF says average 3km in length, branch off into side passages and open in houses, mosques or other buildings on the Gaza side.
“We will not complete the mission, we will not complete the operation, without neutralising the tunnels, the sole purpose of which is the destruction of our civilians and the killing of our children,” Mr Netanyahu said on Monday, shortly before Israel began some of the heaviest bombardment of targets in Gaza since the beginning of the war.
Monday was the bloodiest day of the war yet for Israel, too, as 10 soldiers were killed, bringing the number of Israeli military deaths to 53.
A few hours before Mr Netanyahu spoke, a group of four to eight Palestinian militants emerged from a tunnel near an Israeli army building at Nahal Oz, at the Gaza border, and shot and killed four soldiers, the IDF said. The Palestinian fighters escaped back into the tunnel but Israel’s military said it shot one.
On Tuesday Operation Protective Edge entered its 22nd day, making it longer than Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s first war against Hamas in 2008-09.
Mr Netanyahu launched the operation on July 7 after weeks of growing cross-border friction with Hamas, with the aim of stopping it from firing rockets and weakening the group.
This threat now seems to be receding: a senior Israeli intelligence officer said on Sunday that Israeli bombing of launch sites and other targets in Gaza had reduced Hamas’ estimated prewar arsenal of more than 9,000 rockets by at least 50 per cent.
On July 17, Mr Netanyahu expanded the war to a ground operation as Israel’s military pushed into the buffer zone and border areas of Gaza, carving out a perimeter of about 2km, where it has bombed heavily, forcing about 10 per cent of Gaza’s 1.8m population to leave their homes.
The IDF says it has discovered more than 40 tunnels, which it says are assembled with thousands of pieces of prefabricated cement and the help of power lines and conveyor belts to shift earth. It says each one cost Hamas $1m-$2m to build, and there are another 20 to 30 it has not yet found.
Because there is no reliable technology to detect tunnels, Israel is relying on intelligence to find their entrances, which are concealed on the Israeli side. “When you dig down to find the tunnels, if you haven’t found an access point, it’s a needle in a haystack,” said Lt Col Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesman.
Analysts say that the tunnels have given Hamas a tactical edge against one of the world’s strongest armies. “They are trying to avoid a total confrontation by using the tunnel system,” Major General Israel Ziv, a former head of the IDF Gaza Division, said on Tuesday on a conference call organised by the Israel Project, an advocacy group.
Israeli forces will be pushing deeper into crowded urban neighbourhoods, he said; because of the tunnels, many of which are booby-trapped, Israeli soldiers are dealing with “a kind of 360 degrees front”.
As it moved into border areas over the last fortnight of Operation Protective Edge, the IDF levelled houses and entire city blocks in the border areas of Beit Hanoun and al-Sheja’iya, rendering swaths of the border area uninhabitable.
Military analysts said Israel’s enhanced bombing campaign across Gaza on Monday and Tuesday likely reflected Mr Netanyahu’s determination to expand the campaign and neutralise the tunnels before stuttering diplomatic manoeuvres bring an end to the war.
“I think that he is groping for time,” said Oded Eran, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “You have several targets – some you knew before; others you find through intelligence or operations – then you are in a race until the international community says firmly: ‘stop.’”
The US, Egypt, and Palestinian factions are discussing a ceasefire regime that would deprive Hamas’ ability to make or fire rockets, while addressing the economic pressures feeding it and other militant groups – most notably the blockade Israel and Egypt impose on its borders.
Israeli officials say that discussions now under way – which also include Qatar and Turkey – centre on a proposal that would see Egypt play a leading role in some kind of international force keeping the peace in Gaza.
“It’s not in the interest of Egypt to get involved in Gaza – it’s not their priority,” said Mr Ziv. “But if there is a serious coalition of support to help [Egyptian leader Abdel-Fattah al-] Sisi to rebuild the Egyptian economy . . . he would be willing to do more in Gaza.”