An IDF spokesman has confirmed that Southern Command of the Israeli military destroyed an attack tunnel that was in the process of being dug from Gaza in order to penetrate Israel.
Subsequent reports have indicated that the operation was the first application of new “sensor technology” designed to detect underground construction. Details about this technology are sparse. What is known is that similar tools have been applied in the past by the IDF, but had all encountered a similar flaw: the systems produced too many false positives. With all the movement of heavy vehicles in the area, and current construction of Israel's security barrier along the Gaza border, underground vibrations abound, and it has been exceedingly difficult to pinpoint signals that indicate actual human activity. This problem now seems to have been solved by recent innovations.
The army did not elaborate on how the tunnel was destroyed but Palestinian sources claim it was bombed by the Israel Air Force.
Seven militants were reportedly killed in the strike. According to reports from Gaza, two of those killed were the commander of the Islamic Jihad central district brigade and his deputy.
The implications of this incident are potentially very big for the upcoming future of the conflict between Israel and Gaza.
There are two points worth emphasizing:
First off, is from the strategic angle. From what we know now about how the tunnel was identified and destroyed, Israel has demonstrated that it possesses what looks like an ace up its sleeve for dealing with terror tunnels. While we still don’t know how reliable Israel’s new sensor systems are, the fact that the IDF was able to pinpoint and destroy an underground target is a tremendous military and technological feat. Terror tunnel digging has always been a dangerous job for Palestinian militant groups. Added to that now is the risk that they can be targeted by the Israeli military accurately while in the process of construction. This will certainly have a huge deterrent power on the construction of future tunnels.
Second is the effect this incident will have on the complex, and in some respects delicate, political situation between Israel and the Palestinians, and amongst opposing Palestinian factions.
Recently, in what has been seen as the greatest advance in inter-Palestinian relations in a decade, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Fatah, reconciled with its long time rival Hamas, the group recognized by the international community as a terror organization that has ruled the Gaza strip since 2007. The Fatah leaders on their part have been ardently pushing Hamas to espouse some more moderate sentiments in the hopes of making the unity government palatable for the international partners that have a stake in the peace process. The US, for instance, has stated that a unity Palestinian government is only acceptable if Hamas fully disarms - not a very likely scenario. Palestinian leaders have been pushing for Hamas to at least recognize Israel and make other gestures indicating its willingness to reach a permanent peace, such as discontinuing all operations against Israel. The recent Israeli strike presents a serious threat that Hamas will abandon any understandings with the PA and retaliate.
This in turn has the potential to escalate the general security situation on the Gaza border. With the Israeli operations already transpiring in the area, including regular military patrols, the construction of the security barrier, and now the deployment of additional Iron Dome anti-missile batteries, many observers have assessed the current situation as the highest level of tension since the 2014 operation Protective Edge.
It is yet to be seen if third party mediators, such as Egypt, will be able to have a calming effect on these developments. There are many wild cards as well, such as Islamic Jihad, a group not committed to any reconciliation agreement with Israel or fellow Palestinians, who may decide to act unilaterally in retaliation.
The pieces are certainly in position for substantial movement in the Israel-Gaza conflict. The coming days will indicate what direction events will take.