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Civilians Paid A Steep Price For Destroyed Tunnels In Israeli-Hamas Conflict

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

During the recent conflict in Gaza, the Israeli military focused on a key target - hundreds of miles of tunnels, tunnels used by Hamas and other Islamist militants. Israel says the tunnels signify a new type of warfare it has to counter, but efforts to destroy the underground networks are having serious unintended consequences, as NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Jerusalem.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Israel has long known Hamas had a tunnel system in Gaza. For years, it was seen as rudimentary and mostly used to smuggle supplies in from Egypt. But the tunnels turned into an urgent threat seven years ago during a war between the two sides when Hamas used them to burrow into Israel, launching surprise attacks and ambushing soldiers?

DAPHNE RICHEMOND-BARAK: Cross-border tunnels to be discovered, I think it epitomizes the meaning of terror and terrorizing the civilian population.

NORTHAM: Daphné Richemond-Barak is a law professor at IDC Herzliya, a private research college near Tel Aviv, and wrote a book on tunnels called "Underground Warfare." She said Israel sealed off the cross-border tunnels and then turned its attention to an underground network inside Gaza. At the same time, Hamas and other militant groups were rapidly expanding that network.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MILITANT: (Non-English language spoken).

NORTHAM: This documentary by Al Jazeera shows armed militants moving through tall, reinforced concrete tunnels. The Israeli military estimates Hamas has roughly 300 miles of tunnels running under Gaza. It calls it the Metro. Spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters the Metro is critical to Hamas's military activities.

JONATHAN CONRICUS: That is how they move from one location to the other. That is how they control and manage the operations. That is how they provide the rockets to the rocket launchers which fire towards Israel. In short, it's really the backbone of Hamas's system and, hence, its importance.

NORTHAM: Richemond-Barak, who is also associated with West Point's Modern War Institute, says Hamas cannot possibly outgun Israel's military power in a conventional war, so uses the tunnels in an effort to even up the playing field.

RICHEMOND-BARAK: It's the great equalizer, so it enables Hamas operatives to operate undetected. And this way it's impossible to gather intelligence as to what their future operations might look like. So it's the best way to re-establish a level of symmetry between the two sides.

NORTHAM: The Israeli military launched more than a thousand airstrikes during the conflict last month, repeatedly saying a priority was to destroy the tunnel network. But it acknowledges it took out only about 20%. Civilians paid a steep price for that. Such was the case on Wahda Street in Gaza City. The military says it was targeting tunnels, and when they collapsed, it caused the foundations of homes above them to collapse. Gazan officials say 42 people, including women and children, died in the attack.

LAMYAA KAWLAK: (Non-English language spoken).

NORTHAM: Lamyaa Kawlak says she was sleeping when the airstrikes started. Shells started falling around them. They weren't given any warning. She and her children ran from the building. All the buildings around them began falling.

KAWLAK: (Non-English language spoken).

NORTHAM: Saleh Hijazi is with Amnesty International in the West Bank city of Ramallah. He says the Israeli military should have taken precautions - choosing weaponry that could have spared civilian lives.

SALEH HIJAZI: We need to examine that instance, you know, on its own and to see whether that target was, first, a legitimate military target and whether the attack was proportionate. So the focus needs to be on Israel and its actions.

NORTHAM: Atai Shelach is a former commander of an elite unit which deals with the tunnels. He says the military tries to limit civilian casualties, but says this is war, and the tunnels are a new front in the battle with Hamas.

ATAI SHELACH: The tunnel is here to stay. OK. It's here to stay. And they will improve their abilities and capabilities. And of course, our technologies and our capabilities hopefully will be much better.

NORTHAM: But it's likely Israel and Hamas will face off again. Tunnels will be the target, and civilians who live above them will be at risk. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.