In A Complex Web Of Tunnels, Israel Draws Its Red Line

Both the government and the people of Israel have been determined to continue the country's ground invasion in Gaza, despite a growing wave of international criticism. Israelis have been shaken by claims that Hamas has a heavily fortified network of tunnels leading from the Gaza Strip into Israel.

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And as Emily mentioned, a critical issue for Israel, is the network of tunnels Hamas militants use. In going after those tunnels, Israel has caused civilian casualties that rights groups say are excessive, and some say they could be war crimes. Israel rejects that, and Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu says the only ceasefire it will accept is one that allows its soldiers to stay in the Gaza Strip and demolish the tunnels. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson and Daniel Estrin teamed up to report on why the tunnels are a red line for Israel.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Most of the world's TV networks show footage of the death and destruction in the Gaza Strip. But viewers who tune into Israeli television see clips like this one that aired a couple of days ago on Channel Two.

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UNIDENTIFIED ISRAELI SOLDER: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: In the video, an unnamed Israeli soldier describes how two Hamas tunnels he's found are about to be blown up with 10 mines. He adds, the explosion will be frightening enjoy.

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NELSON: To his government, the two dozen tunnels the Gaza Division has found so far are serious matter. Dore Gold is a senior advisor to Netanyahu.

DORE GOLD: When it became fully revealed that Hamas had built, what we call attack tunnels or terror tunnels, then you know, many Israelis understood that this was a real threat to their security in southern Israel and something that could not be tolerated. The people of Israel are expecting the tunnels to be destroyed and the arsenal of Hamas to be liberated.

NELSON: Recent polls here back that assertion. And it's certainly what retired teacher Micah Ben Hillel. He lives at Kibbutz Nir Am, which five Hamas militants tried to infiltrate earlier this week. My colleague Daniel Estrin went there.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: This lush, gated communities it's a few hundred yards away from the northern tip of the Gaza Strip. Ben Hillel shows me around.

BEN HILLEL: The first settlers came from Eastern Europe. And the oldest of them is my father-in-law, who was 99 years old. And he is one of the founders of this kibbutz. They were very idealistic - wanted everything to share.

ESTRIN: But their existence is not so idyllic these days. They kibbutz has been repeatedly hit by rockets. But what really rattled Ben Hillel happened last Monday, when heavily armed Hamas militants with RPG's from Gaza, burst out of a tunnel they'd built to the Israeli side and got within 600 yards of the kibbutz. They killed four soldiers before being shot down by an army helicopter.

HILLEL: Sometimes I do my Saturday walks - I go there, and never imagined that maybe on some path that I was walking - an opening,from which terrorists could come and attack me.

ESTRIN: Israeli military official say the tunnels Hamas created to infiltrate Israel are far more complex than the ones used to smuggle from Egypt into Gaza. Today, they showed foreign respondents another tunnel soldiers uncovered outside Ben Hillel's kibbutz, lined with concrete plates and a rack for communication wires.

NELSON: In Gaza, Mkhaimer Abu Sada, who teaches political science at Al Azhar University, says people living in the Strip were also unaware of just how complex the Hamas-built tunnel network is.

MKHAIMER ABU SADA: Was it worth it losing 800 Palestinians and 5,000 invasion and this - this destruction? Was worth it to go into a war with Israel? I guess resistance - resistance groups do not count it this way - do not calculate things this way.

NELSON: Abu Sada adds that if Israel would end the blockade of the Gaza Strip, Hamas would have no need to build tunnels.

ESTRIN: Back at the kibbutz, Ben Hillel says he opposed the last Israeli ground invasion into Gaza and criticizes his government for not doing more toward peace talks with Palestinians. But he says this time, he's glad soldiers enter Gaza to destroy the tunnels.

HILLEL: I didn't know much - how many tunnels and how the whole structure of the tunnels we have to face it here. That's why I felt that the situation was really different this time.

ESTRIN: Ben Hillel adds, he believes the tunnels are a terrible threat, not only to his kibbutz, but to Israel as a whole. I'm Daniel Estrin, for NPR News.

NELSON: And from Jerusalem, I'm NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

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