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Israeli soldiers are seen in a tunnel that the military says Hamas militants used to attack the Erez crossing Ariel Schalit/AP/PA Images

Israel says it has found large tunnel at Gaza border, raising pre-war intelligence questions

The military said the tunnel stretches for more than 2.5 miles, links up with a sprawling tunnel network across Gaza and is wide enough for cars.

THE ISRAELI MILITARY said it has discovered a large tunnel shaft in Gaza close to what was once a busy crossing into Israel, raising new questions about how Israeli surveillance missed such conspicuous preparations by Hamas for the militants’ deadly 7 October assault.

The entryway to the tunnel is just a few hundred metres from the heavily fortified Erez crossing and a nearby Israeli military base.

The military said it stretches for more than 2.5 miles, links up with a sprawling tunnel network across Gaza and is wide enough for cars to pass through.

The army said on Sunday that the tunnel facilitated the transit of vehicles, militants, and supplies in preparation for the 7 October attack.

That day, militants used a rocket-propelled grenade to break past the portion of wall close to the Erez crossing and stormed the base, killing at least three soldiers and kidnapping some back to Gaza, the army said.

It was one of several places along the border wall where militants easily blew past Israel’s security defences, entered Israeli territory and killed some 1,200 people and took about 240 others hostage.

The unprecedented attack triggered a devastating war that has raged for over 10 weeks and claimed over 18,000 lives in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, according to Palestinian health officials.

Screenshot 2023-12-17 17.12.21 Israeli soldiers exit a tunnel that the military says Hamas militants used to attack the Erez crossing Ariel Schalit / AP/PA Images Ariel Schalit / AP/PA Images / AP/PA Images

Israel says destruction of Hamas’ tunnel network is a major objective and that much of the underground network runs beneath schools, hospitals and residential areas.

Israel’s military, intelligence and political officials have come under heavy criticism for failing to detect the attack ahead of time.

Located under a garage

Major Nir Dinar, a military spokesperson, said that Israeli security services did not know about the tunnel before 7 October because Israel’s border defences only detected tunnels meant to enter Israel.

“As far as I know, this tunnel doesn’t cross from Gaza into Israel and stops within 400 metres from the border, which means the indicators won’t indicate that a tunnel is being built,” Major Dinar said.

He added that the entrance, a circular cement opening leading to a cavernous passageway, was located under a garage, hiding it from Israeli drones and satellite images.

While the military was aware that Hamas had an extensive tunnel network, Major Dinar said they did not think the militants would be able to carry out their plans for a large-scale attack.

Screenshot 2023-12-17 17.09.37 PA Graphics PA Graphics

“It’s no surprise that this was the Hamas strategy all along,” he said. “The surprise is that they have succeeded and the size of this tunnel … was really shocking.”

The Erez crossing, a fortress-like facility that processed the movement of Palestinians into Israel for work, medical care and transit to neighbouring Jordan, held great symbolic value for Hamas.

The massive crossing was protected by security cameras and military patrols and the adjacent military base. The crossing suffered heavy damage on 7 October and has not reopened.

The army said its Yahalom unit, which specialises in tunnel warfare, has worked to excavate the tunnel since it was first detected. They say they have found weapons inside.

“At this point, this is the biggest tunnel in Gaza,” Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, the chief military spokesman, told reporters in a tour of the tunnel’s entrance on Friday.

It is unclear if the tunnel was used on 7 October.

Set ablaze

The army also showed reporters soldiers’ barracks at the nearby base that it said were set ablaze by the militants. They looked like the ashes of a furnace, with blackened walls and smelted bunks.

The military announced on Friday that it had recovered in Gaza the bodies of two soldiers who were working at the base on 7 October.

Major Dinar, who visited the tunnel on Friday, said it was twice the height and three times the width of other tunnels found in Gaza. He said it is equipped with ventilation and electricity and dives 50 metres underground in some points.

He said it was clear that millions of dollars as well as a great deal of fuel and workforce had been needed to build and sustain the tunnel.

Rear Admiral Hagari said the military planned to destroy the tunnel and continue to “hunt” militants hiding in others.

“We will hunt them even if we need to go down to the tunnels,” he said. “We also need to do it with attention to the rescue of our hostages and the understanding that maybe some of them are in the tunnels.”

Israel is coming under increasing pressure to scale back its combat operations in Gaza, amid growing anger about conduct by its army in the region.

Foreign ministers for Germany, France and the UK have urged a ceasefire, but Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu told a nationwide address he is as “committed as ever” to the war.

Press Association