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Jack Guez, Associated Press
An Israeli army officer gives journalists a tour, Friday, July 25, 2014, of a tunnel allegedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks, at the Israel-Gaza Border. A network of tunnels Palestinian militants have dug from Gaza to Israel, dubbed "lower Gaza" by the Israeli military, is taking center stage in the latest war between Hamas and Israel.

A good test of an organization’s priorities is what it spends its money on, particularly when money is scarce. That applies to what is currently unfolding in Gaza, where hard financial times are the norm.

I was in Gaza some years ago, just before the Israelis pulled out. They did so because Israel had almost as many troops deployed to protect Israel’s Gaza settlements as there were Israeli civilians living in them. It was clear that it made no sense for Israel to continue to keep doing that. I was told that the only people for whom Israel’s presence did make sense were the Gaza Palestinians. “Once we’re gone,” the Israeli officer in charge told me, “they will be responsible for providing their own security, and they are not capable of doing it.”

He was right. Gaza subsequently came under the control of Hamas, a group which, in its early years, posed as a humanitarian organization working for the well-being of all Palestinians. That helped Hamas build a base of support among the general population for a time, but it soon became clear that it was conducting such activities primarily to provide cover for its real goal, which was to kill as many Israelis as possible, in as many places as possible, for as long as possible, until Israel was finally destroyed. No one considers it a humanitarian group any more; it’s on the State Department’s terrorist organization watch list. It’s therefore no surprise that, when Hamas took over Gaza, it turned it into a launching pad for random rocket attacks against civilian in Israel.

Israel’s military action will remove this threat, but that’s not the primary reason for the attack. What’s going on in Gaza is more about the tunnels, large and sophisticated underground structures which Hamas desperately wants to keep and Israel fervently wants to destroy. As I write this, Israeli officials say they have already uncovered nearly 30 of them, half of which extend into Israel. The reasons for their construction are threefold.

First, those that reach into Israel make it possible for Hamas agents to emerge in major civilian population centers with bombs and other terrorist devices without risking a border crossing. Second, the tunnels are hiding places where kidnappers can transport or hold hostages; Israeli troops have found stores of handcuffs and tranquilizers in some of them. Third, they provide advance unknown locations for storing munitions and launching additional missiles.

When Hamas realized that the Israelis had found out about the tunnels and would be coming into Gaza in force to destroy them, it put as many innocent civilians in Israel’s path as it could. The Washington Post describes the situation this way: “While children die in strikes against the military infrastructure that Hamas’s leaders deliberately placed in and among homes, those leaders remain safe in their own tunnels.” The Post has denounced the “depravity” of this strategy, calling it the “use of women and children as cannon fodder in unwinnable wars with Israel.”

8 comments on this story

It is estimated that each tunnel has cost Hamas years of effort, a very significant amount of concrete (in a nation where that commodity is desperately needed for houses) and nearly a million dollars in cash. With close to 30 of them uncovered, and more likely to be found, the relevant question is, “How many schools and homes could have been built with that expenditure of time, money and effort, particularly in a place where some people live on a few dollars a day?”

The tunnels tell us all we need to know about Hamas and its priorities.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.