Friday, November 19, 2004

War In the Darkness

Al Bawaba offers a glimpse into lowest level of urban warfare -- tunneling. "According to The AP, Israeli military sources said the tunnel collapsed while an unknown number of Palestinians were digging toward an Israeli outpost near Rafah in southern Gaza Strip. Palestinian officials conveyed the tunnel collapsed following the heavy rains in the area overnight. They said five people, all from the same family, were trapped in the rubble. Israel's Army Radio said three Palestinians were wounded."

Subterranean warfare is probably as old as man himself. Our ancestors were not called cave-men for nothing and mining was an essential part of ancient and medieval warfare. The Vietnam war illustrated that tunnel warfare could still be employed tactically. Yet probably nowhere have tunnels and cities merged more inextricably than in the city of Rafah in the Gaza strip, where a strange, troglodytic contest continues between the IDF and Palestinian terrorists, sometimes with tragicomic results.

Israeli army sappers called in by the Palestinian authorities rescued three wounded people from a collapsed arms-smuggling tunnel under the Egyptian border today and promptly arrested them, military sources said. ... Militant groups have dug a warren of tunnels under the Israeli-controlled border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip in order to smuggle in weapons and ammunition.

The immense extent of tunneling between Egypt and the Gaza strip is shown on this map. The Operation Rainbow site has an extensive description of the tunnels, together with some striking photographs. Some tunnels were discovered by US forces in Fallujah, possibly using techniques developed in Gaza. The mining techniques developed at Rafah were designed to evade close Israeli surveillance both from the surface and the air. Many ingenious methods have been devised for disposing of spoil, with the excavated materials transported in small lots by vehicle to points well away from the tunnel entrances. Once a tunnel is constructed, it is leased out, a fine fusion of free enterprise and terrorism.

On August 10, 2002, the Islamic web portal, "Islam Online," published an interview with an individual named "Honey." Honey identified himself as an active "expert" in the excavation of clandestine subterranean passages in the Rafah area, and described how he and his friends dug tunnels in which Palestinian terrorist organizations smuggled arms.

After determining the most suitable location to begin work, engineers survey the ground, which must be of a firm, and not overly sandy consistency. The further the point of origin is from the (Israeli) border, the less chance there is of being caught. A pit is dug one meter wide and between twelve to fourteen meters deep. Supports are placed on the sides of the pit. The pit is dug to a depth of at least twelve meters so that Israeli detection devices cannot detect tunnels at this depth. The tunnel is dug horizontally so that it has a width of forty centimeters by forty centimeters. Every three meters wooden planks are placed alongside the four sides of the tunnels so it doesn't collapse. Various mechanical devices are used to overcome natural obstacles like rock, including a machine that removes sand via suction. An electrical cable is hung in the tunnel to provide lighting.

The work is conducted clandestinely. The sand is not removed all at one time, but is placed in flour bags and transported to a remote location. A lookout is posted at the entrance to the tunnel to ensure that the work continues unimpeded. The completion of one tunnel takes three months or more. The last tunnel we built took three months. The workers who build a tunnel receive a percentage of the profit generated from smuggling weapons.

Between six to twelve meters are dug every day. The last tunnel we dug was two hundred and thirty meters long. At either end of the tunnel there is a "work manager;" the two work managers maintain contact by code, usually via phone. The workers on the Egyptian side direct where the tunnel exit will be. The exit from the Palestinian side is steep (a straight vertical shaft), while it is gradually inclined on the Egyptian side. Construction of a tunnel costs a minimum of $10,000. The minimal cost for smuggling weapons is $300 and the money is split between the five partners for building and maintaining the tunnels.

The Israelis have attempted to clear a strip on both sides of the Egypt-Gaza border to facilitate interdiction. These methods have been vigorously opposed by Human Rights Watch, which considers these precautions disproportionate. Their report reads in part:

The border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt is 12.5 kilometers long, of which four kilometers run alongside Rafah. The IDF refers to this border area as the “Philadelphi” corridor or zone, but it is better understood as two distinct areas: a shielded patrol corridor (between the border and IDF fortifications) and a buffer zone (the space between IDF fortifications and the houses of Rafah). The expansion of both of these areas is illustrated in the satellite imagery included in this report. Before the uprising, the IDF maintained a patrol corridor along the border some twenty to forty meters wide, separated from the camp in most places by a concrete wall, approximately three meters high, topped with barbed wire. In some areas, especially the densely populated Block O section of the camp, houses were situated within several meters of the patrol corridor.

... IDF positions fire with large caliber machine guns and tanks at civilian areas. Based on multiple visits to the area by Human Rights Watch since 2001 and interviews with local residents and foreign diplomats, aid workers, and journalists, this shooting appears to be largely indiscriminate and in some cases unprovoked. In July 2004, nearly every house on Rafah’s southern edge was pockmarked by heavy machine gun, tank, and rocket fire on the side facing the border. Bullet holes were not only clustered around windows or other possible sniper positions, but sprayed over entire sides of buildings. Human Rights Watch researchers also witnessed indiscriminate use of heavy machine gun fire against Palestinian civilian areas in nearby Khan Yunis, without apparent shooting by Palestinians from that area at the time.

On a regular basis, IDF positions and patrols on the border come under attack from Palestinian armed groups using small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. During three nights in July Human Rights Watch researchers spent in Rafah, Palestinian small arms fire was sporadic while IDF heavy machine guns fired long bursts into the camp. Representatives of Palestinian armed groups in Rafah told Human Rights Watch that the IDF-controlled border is well-fortified and attacking it is largely in vain, especially because a single 7.62 mm bullet in Rafah costs U.S. $7 (a figure also cited by the IDF as evidence of their success in blocking arms).

Both the IDF and Palestinian armed groups use tactics that place civilians at risk. Under customary international law, civilians must be kept outside hostilities as far as possible, and they enjoy general protection against danger arising from hostilities. Human Rights Watch documented multiple cases where the IDF converted civilian buildings into sniper positions during incursions and forced residents to remain with them inside. In some cases, the IDF coerced civilians to serve as “human shields” while searching Palestinian homes, a practice strictly prohibited by international humanitarian law.5 By attacking the IDF from within populated areas, Palestinian armed groups also place civilians at risk, but Human Rights Watch found no evidence that gunmen fire from inhabited homes or force residents to let armed groups use their homes.

The underground war briefly came under the media spotlight in connection with the death of American activist Rachel Corrie. Al Jazeera describes the circumstances of her death in Rafah.

A year has passed since Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American peace activist from Olympia, was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer while nonviolently trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian house in the city of Rafah in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government has refused to release its entire June 2003 military police investigation report to the United States but continues to claim that her death was simply an "unfortunate accident," despite the testimony of six eyewitnesses who claim that Corrie, with her bright orange jacket, was clearly visible to the bulldozer drivers, and that the bulldozer lifted her up and drove over her repeatedly with its plow down.

It is no wonder that the Corrie family is urging Congress to pass House Concurrent Resolution 111, which calls upon the "United States government to undertake a full, fair, and expeditious investigation into the death of Rachel Corrie." Yet, while questions remain about the details of her death, there should be no question about its ultimate cause. Corrie was killed by Israel's wall.

The Frontpage Magazine, however, took a different view of things.

But most of the press (but not failed to report the presence of extensive tunnels underneath the homes of Rafah, used to deliver arms across the Egyptian border to the terrorist Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Houses involved in such smuggling are demolished as a matter of course. And when Corrie was killed, according to a Israeli Consulate media officer in San Francisco, the bulldozer was not even attempting to raze a home - just remove shrubbery used to hide a tunnel.