The large-scale Israeli offensive in Gaza has sent Hamas leaders and operatives physically under the ground. They are nowhere to be seen. None of them have appeared in public or in the media apart from a recorded speech by Hamas government chief Ismael Haniya. Prominent Hamas leader Nizar Rayan, who chose to remain on ground level, was killed Thursday by an Israeli missile attack on his house.
For Israelis and Palestinians the whereabouts of Hamas leaders is no secret at all. For almost three years, Hamas was busy digging and building an extensive network of tunnels under the cities of Gaza and Rafah for military purposes, leaving smuggling tunnels across the border with Egypt for private entrepreneurs who pay lucrative taxes to Hamas.
Hamas has even taken the tunnels far away from Gaza to Hebron in the West Bank where Israeli authorities destroyed a one hundred-metre-long tunnel last November.
Ayemen Taha, a junior Hamas activist told the AFP news agency this week that
“communication between our people and the leadership has never been interrupted anywhere in Gaza, we are ready for any land attack on Gaza.”He was apparently referring to the fact that the Hamas leaders are in the safe tunnels under Gaza City. According to the Israeli press these tunnels are well supplied, protected and equipped with efficient control and command centers.
Inspiration from Lebanon
Hamas was inspired by the effective use of tunnels by the Lebanese Hezbollah against the Israeli attack in the summer of 2006. Tunnels were used by Hamas earlier against its Palestinian rival Fatah in the power struggle in Gaza in 2007. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority who currently resides in Ramallah on the West Bank, earlier complained that Hamas was targeting his own house in Gaza through the tunnels.
The Israeli authorities decided last October to curb the quantity of cement going to Gaza to impede the building of the network of tunnels there, writes the Israeli Maariv daily.
While it was relatively easy for the Israeli airforce to target smuggling tunnels located outside densely populated areas, it will be impossible to take out the Hamas leadership tunnels under Gaza and Rafah without levelling the entire city at unbearable humanitarian and political cost.
Not everyone survived
The Hamas leaders try to lead the resistance and preserve law and order while avoiding any unnecessary movements. They don’t use mobile phones and cars to avoid any possible Israeli attack, according to Hamas activist Ayman Taha.
However, the careful precautions of the 13,000 Hamas security officials could not save the entire leadership. An Israeli air raid on Thursday killed Nizar Rayan, one of the popular political and military leaders of Hamas, closely connected to the armed wing Al-Qassam. As a hardliner, Nizar Rayan supported suicide attacks and sent his own 17-year-old son on a suicide mission. That made him a symbol of personal sacrifice among the Palestinians.
Rayan also initiated the ‘human shield’ tactic in 2005 when Israel started targeting the homes of Hamas activists after warning the residents and neighbours in advance. Rayan used to take women and children to the roofs of the threatened buildings to prevent Israeli bombardments, and managed to save dozens of them.
Ironically, he ended up a victim of a similar attack on his own apartment. A one-ton bomb buried Nizar Rayan, his four wives and nine of his 12 children in the rubble of a four-story apartment building in the Gabalia refugee camp in Gaza.
Other prominent Hamas officials killed in Israeli air raids are police director Tawif Jaber and Ismail Ja’bari, commander of one of Hamas’ security forces. They died last Saturday, at the very start of the Israeli offensive.
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