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By Dr. Daphné Richemond-Barak, Senior Researcher, ICT
Hamas tunnels have not been seen as a key strategic threat in decades – until they formed the Israeli government’s main justification for Operation Protective Edge this July. Gaza’s tunnels are different from traditional military objectives like army bases or weapons depots. In their design, the tunnels burrow under an internationally recognized border, they traverse civilian areas, and their primary objective and effect – contrary to international law – is to harm and endanger civilians, both Israeli and Palestinian.
On the Palestinian side of the border, while being constructed, Gaza’s tunnels pose a substantial risk to those building them – often children – and to the civilian structures under which they are dug. The last few weeks have shown us that most tunnels begin within homes, hospitals, mosques and other “protected objects”. Filled with explosives and weapons, tunnels can be detonated at any time, risking not only the lives of the diggers and operatives who use them, but also the civilians living above them.
Equally challenging are the conditions in which these tunnels may be eliminated. In crowded Gaza, the destruction of a tunnel inevitably results in the destruction of civilian structures above the subterranean passage, and in many cases the loss of civilian lives. An explosion on one part of a tunnel will inflict unforeseen damage on different and potentially unknown segments of the tunnel, or even to the land surrounding it – potentially damaging schools, civilian homes, and businesses. In legal terms, this means that the tunnel’s interconnected infrastructure impedes the assessment of proportionality prior to its destruction, i.e. the determination of whether collateral damage resulting from the destruction of the tunnel might be excessive in the relation to the military advantage anticipated from that destruction. Even careful mapping of the tunnel ahead of a strike may not suffice to ascertain collateral damage, since tunnels can be expanded rapidly and beyond the detection of intelligence services.
For these reasons, the construction of combat tunnels under civilian populated areas and protected sites like hospitals, across borders, and/or with the intention of maiming civilians must be regarded as a violation of international law.
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