Israeli officials are making much of the “terror tunnels” coming out of the Gaza Strip into neighboring Israel and Egypt, and presenting the countless number as proof of Hamas’ aggressive intentions toward the two nations.
Yet a casual look at the history of the Gaza tunnel system reveals they were built not for use in war, but for use in peacetime, as a reaction to Israel’s economic blockade, which at times got so intense that simple products like chocolate and noodles were banned as “processed” foods.
The tunnels overwhelmingly go to Egypt, not Israel, and the strip’s entire economy for almost a decade has been built around bringing everything from iPods to entire automobiles into the strip underground, and away from prying eyes.
The Gaza economy is hugely dependent on the tunnels, and domestic investment in the production of new and better tunnels to import new and better products was materially the only growing sector in the Gaza Strip’s economy, to the extent that at some points, investment bubbles were formed by the desperation to get into the tunnel digging business.
During wartime, the tunnels are inevitably also used for the conflict, both as a staging ground for Hamas fighters and as a route through which to resupply. There are no alternative supply routes for anything else, either, so it is only natural the tunnels would get repurposed during an invasion.
Yet as Israel envisions the war destroying all the tunnels, the reality is that Gazans will quickly rebuild the system in their wake, as even if a period of peace is expected the Gaza economy will need equipment to rebuild.
The only realistic way to end Gaza’s tunnel craze is to eliminate its base cause, the blockade, though Israel has made clear they oppose any such deal, primarily for fear it would allow Hamas to spin the war as a “victory.” Victory or no, nearly 2 million Palestinians aren’t going to just sit in the rubble and wonder what’s going on in the outside world. If they’re not allowed out any other way, they’re going to dig.