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Israel’s ground operation has roots outside of kibbutz

Israeli soldiers stood on top of their tanks and armored personnel carriers across from the northern Gaza Strip on Friday.

REUTERS

Israeli soldiers stood on top of their tanks and armored personnel carriers across from the northern Gaza Strip on Friday.

SUFA, Israel — Israel’s decision to invade Gaza has its roots just outside of this small kibbutz in southern Israel where open fields and citrus orchards offer a pastoral scene that residents say has long been deceptive.

At dawn on Thursday, 13 Hamas gunmen from Gaza emerged from the mouth of an underground tunnel about a mile away, inside Israel territory. The air force thwarted the attack, but the government said that the attempted incursion was the final straw and that the ground invasion would commence.

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By Friday, the Israeli military said it had already uncovered 10 tunnels with 22 exit points and that there were “dozens” more “terror tunnels” spread around Gaza. In a statement, it described tunnels crossing the border from Gaza to Israel as “complex and advanced,” and said they were “intended to carry out attacks such as abductions of Israeli civilians and soldiers alike; infiltrations into Israeli communities, mass murders and hostage-taking scenarios.”

Gadi Shamni, a former commander of the Israeli army’s Gaza division and of its central command, said that destroying the tunnels posed a technological and operational challenge and that each had offshoots going in different directions, making it difficult to track and disable the whole route.

The residents of the kibbutz, called Sufa, are accustomed to living under threat. Mortar shells fired from Gaza strike without warning here, and if there is a warning, residents have 15 seconds to run for cover. But the attempted incursion through a tunnel was what shook them, even though they have known for years about the tunnels.

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“They planned to carry out a massacre here,” Eyal Brandeis, 50, a lecturer in political science and one of the few residents remaining, said of the Hamas militants who came out of the tunnel with machine guns and grenades.

Not far from here, Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was captured in a cross-border raid in 2006, was spirited into Gaza through a tunnel and held there by Hamas for five years. Two other soldiers were killed in the attack.

Hamas’ military wing has repeatedly boasted that it has “surprises” in store for Israel, presumably a reference to its tunnel network.

The air force stopped the militants from Gaza Thursday with bombs, and they hurried back underground.

Hamas’ military wing claimed they all returned safely. The Israeli military estimates that at least three were killed and says that its action thwarted a major terrorist attack presumably planned against Sufa, the closest concentration of Israelis.

A propaganda video posted by Hamas’ military wing on its website Thursday showed its special forces training for an operation against a background of dramatic music. In a mock village similar to ones that can be found in Israeli military bases, they went from house to house, blasting open doors and throwing smoke grenades inside before entering and shooting wildly.

“They train like we train,” Brandeis said, “but regrettably for other purposes.”

Several other “offensive tunnels,” as the military calls them, have been discovered in the last few years, some packed with explosives.

In 2012 one tunnel blew up, injuring a soldier and destroying an army vehicle. In 2013 the army discovered a mile-long tunnel leading from a house in Gaza to Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha. It had electricity and a phone line. In March, the army found another one it said looked like a subway passage.

The air force struck another one leading from Gaza toward Kerem Shalom, just south of Sufa, about two weeks ago. When Hamas militants entered the damaged tunnel a day or so later they apparently set off explosives there. Five were killed and Hamas blamed Israel, escalating the hostilities that grew into the current confrontation.

Others tunnels lead from homes in Gaza to concealed rocket launchers or are used to store weapons, according to Israeli military officials. “Actually there are two Gazas,” one senior military official said. “One above ground and another under the ground.”

By Friday morning, most of the 300 residents of this kibbutz fled to safer areas of the country and the soldiers guarding the place moved into the empty kindergartens. The windows and the walls shook here, a reminder of just how close the fighting in Gaza was.

Brandeis moved to Sufa in 1986 “out of ideology,” he said. “Socialism and Zionism — living in the Negev, settling the country.” He said there was “no way” he would leave, even for the weekend.

Hadas Grinspan, 55, who leads the community’s emergency team, also stayed behind. In a small office she was composing a short newsletter to send by email to all the residents now scattered around the country. “We have been through a challenging experience,” she wrote of the tunnel episode. “The details are in the news media.”

The windows of her small office shook as Grinspan identified the different booms coming from Gaza, distinguishing between a missile fired from an attack helicopter and tank and artillery fire.

Dror Efrati, 52, who came here in 1983 from Jerusalem, said the tunnels were hard to find because the militants open up the last couple of yards only in the final hours before emerging from them.

Efrati remembered the days when Sufa residents had good working and trade relations with their Palestinian neighbors, but that all came to an end with the outbreak of the first intifada in the late 1980s. He said he hoped those days would come back. Outside, a black plume of smoke was rising up from Gaza.

Related:

Opinion: Israel’s reality

Israel pushes deeper into Gaza

Obama encourages Israel to minimize civilian death

Rallies held locally for Israel, Palestinians

Key events preceding Israeli ground operation into Gaza

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