Israel’s Getting a New Wall, This One With a Twist

Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, the commander of the military’s Southern Command, told reporters this week that it would be completed within about two years.

In the meantime, the Israeli military is working to ensure that the project does not prompt the next war.

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An aerial image distributed by the Israeli military showed two residential buildings in Gaza that they said concealed entrances to Hamas tunnel networks. Credit Israel Defense Forces

Military commanders are insisting that the wall is meant only to defend Israelis, and emphasizing that it will be built in Israeli territory, in the hope of removing any justification for Hamas to attack the construction teams and set off another round of fighting.

On Thursday, nearly three years after the end of the last devastating war, military officials distributed aerial photographs and GPS coordinates of two residential buildings in Gaza that they said concealed entrances to Hamas tunnel networks.

General Zamir said those buildings would become legitimate military targets in wartime, endangering the occupants. One of the buildings is six stories high and went up in the last two years, according to the military, while the other is home to a Hamas member with five children, and connects to a nearby mosque. They were, he said, just two examples of “a whole bank of targets.”

“We see that Hamas is deterred and restrained, and is reining in others,” General Zamir told reporters in a telephone briefing. But, he added, “Our intelligence shows without any doubt that Hamas is building its infrastructure for the next round of fighting in the civilian arena.”

Relative calm has prevailed along the border since the 2014 war, which was the third between Israel and Hamas in six years. But General Zamir said the situation was “potentially explosive,” and could deteriorate at any moment.

Israel’s technologically advanced army invested heavily to combat Hamas’s lower-tech weapons. Israel developed the Iron Dome air defense system to knock out the crude rockets Hamas and other militant groups fired at its cities. Faced with the precision of Iron Dome, Hamas went underground and focused on building tunnels.

Hamas officials insisted they would not be fazed by Israel’s subterranean wall. “The threats of the occupation do not frighten the resistance,” Hazim Kassim, a Hamas spokesman, said in an interview on Thursday, referring to Israel.

He added, “Judging by previous experience, the resistance will find ways to overcome these obstacles.”

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An image from a video showing soldiers in a combat engineering unit training with a virtual-reality tunnel simulation system. Credit Israel Defense Forces

The army’s publicity campaign follows a three-month pilot project on an initial part of the new barrier. About 1,000 civilian contract workers will be involved in the construction.

In 2014, after 50 days of fighting, Israel said it had put dozens of Hamas tunnels out of commission, including several extending into Israeli territory, threatening nearby civilian communities. Some had been used to attack soldiers.

Israel says Hamas has since worked feverishly to rehabilitate and expand its tunnels and stock of rockets, even as Gazans suffer a continual humanitarian crisis, including a dire lack of electricity in a scorching summer.

To contend with the challenges of underground warfare, Israeli soldiers now use virtual-reality systems to simulate fighting in tunnels and train in mazelike, concrete tunnel networks constructed to mimic those in Gaza.

On a recent weekday at the Sirkin Army base in central Israel, about a dozen soldiers from a special combat engineering unit donned virtual-reality headsets in a classroom as trainers walked them through a simulation. They virtually filed through a narrow tunnel, one behind the other. With the flip of a switch they could fill the tunnel with misty fumes or bathe it in the green light of night vision. At one turn, they came across a virtual Hamas militant digging in fatigues and a red-checked kaffiyeh.

The military’s showcasing of such training to reporters is all part of the psychological warfare Israel and Hamas have been engaged in for years.

In an interview at the Sirkin base, Brig. Gen. Oshri Lugassy, the departing chief engineering officer, said that there were now “hundreds of kilometers” of tunnels running under the Gaza Strip. Since 2014, when the extent of the underground challenge was exposed, the engineering corps has acquired dozens more heavy mechanical tools, drills and bulldozers, he said.

Israeli residents of areas bordering the Gaza Strip have long complained of hearing the Hamas tunnel diggers at night. By now, General Lugassy said, his engineers have earned “a doctorate in noises.” He said most of the “digging” people heard turned out to be a storeroom door slamming in the wind or even a small creature that munches on grass roots.

Still, “if you hear it at night,” he acknowledged, “you are convinced they are digging under your house.”

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