By Daniel Estrin, bigstory.ap.org
BEERSHEBA, Israel (AP) — A senior Israeli military official on Sunday said a massive underground barrier being built along the Gaza border to defend against Hamas tunnels should be finished in a matter of months, dealing what he said would be a serious blow to the Islamic militant group.
The Southern Command official said the structure was at the forefront of a new effort meant to rob Hamas of one of its most potent weapons.
During a 2014 war, Hamas militants on several occasions made their way into Israel through a tunnel network, though they did not manage to reach civilian areas. Israel destroyed 32 tunnels during that conflict, and since then has made neutralizing the tunnel threat a top priority.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity under military briefing guidelines, said Hamas is now trying to restore its military capabilities, with its primary focus on building a subterranean warren of tunnels to hide from Israeli strikes and sneak into Israel to carry out attacks in a future round of fighting.
In recent weeks, Israel is believed to have begun work on a 60-kilometer (40 mile) underground barrier expected to stretch dozens of meters (yards) deep. Work crews have been spotted digging trenches and installing infrastructure in the ground.
In a briefing with reporters Sunday, the Israeli official showed video footage of heavy machinery raking the sandy border area, a series of holes drilled deep into the ground, a stretch of land the army has flooded, and some controlled explosions. The army also showed a photo of simulated tunnels where soldiers train for subterranean combat.
He declined to discuss specific features of the barrier being built, calling it a key strategic project. But he said the new wall will defend Israel’s border with Gaza both above and below the ground. The army’s goal, he said, is to turn the underground battlefield into a “death trap” for Hamas.
“It will take time to build it. It’s a big project. But it is a main goal,” he said.
Since the war, Israel has announced the discovery of several more tunnels. Israel has already surrounded Gaza with a sophisticated above-ground fence fortified with sensors, cameras, barbed wire and watch towers.
Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, seized power of Gaza in 2007. Since then, the sides have fought three wars.
During the 2014 fighting, the group fired several thousand rockets and missiles into Israel. More than 2,200 Palestinians, over half of them civilians, were killed in the fighting, along with 73 people on the Israeli side.
The official said Hamas has been steadily rebuilding its capabilities since the fighting, though Israeli officials do not believe the group is looking for another round of hostilities for the time being.
Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas official in Gaza, said the Israeli efforts would fail.
“They must realize that they will not enjoy security as long as the Palestinian people don’t enjoy it,” he said. “The language of threats no longer terrifies our people.”
Associated Press writer Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.