IDF soldier searching an underground tunnel in Gaza
IDF soldier searching an underground tunnel in Gaza
Doron Peskin*

About two weeks before Israel started its Operation Protective Edge, the entire political leadership of Hamas in Gaza attended a funeral for five members of the movement's military wing — among the attendees were former premier Ismail Haniyeh, Speaker of the Gaza parliament Ahmad Bahar and other senior figures from Hamas' politburo.

On its face, this might seem like a rare occasion, but an explanation might be found in the identities of the deceased — all were members of the so-called tunnel digging unit of the Hamas' military wing.

Little is known about this unit but among Gazans, and especially Hamas supporters, it has taken on legendary status.

It was several years ago when Hamas began to realize they could not confront the Israeli army on the ground, so decided to develop a network of tunnels believing it could give them the advantage they needed.

Hamas did not invent this model — the inspiration and expertise were imported from Hezbollah, who developed a web of tunnels in southern Lebanon in the 1990s in a bid to deal with the Israeli army's airspace dominance. Since then, things have taken a different course and the relations between Hamas and Hezbollah have soured due to the war in Syria.

Hamas has kept information about the tunnel unit's activities strictly secret. But it is known the unit is comprised of several hundred members of the military wing who were carefully chosen and given lengthy training.

The work is high risk and dozens of them have lost their lives over the past few years. On multiple occasions Hamas has even reported it lost men in attempts to rescue bodies.

This Sisyphean work underground can last for weeks. The assault tunnels are today considerably more advanced than before, but while light machinery is used, part of the digging is still done manually.

These tunnels are lined with cement smuggled from Egypt's Sinai peninsula. They are also equipped with electricity and communications infrastructure and, perhaps most importantly, they are wide enough for people to walk through, not only crawling as in the past, thus enabling weapons to be carried through.

According to estimates in Gaza, in just one day a trained Hamas team can dig up to 20 meters. One meter of digging and building costs at least $200 and, unsurprisingly, Fatah figures have criticized Hamas for using the hundreds of millions of dollars of aid funds, intended for the welfare of Gazans, for financing the digging operations instead of repairing crumbling infrastructure.

Path to employment

According to Arab media reports, the tunnels have become the leading way to export goods for Hamas' military wing. Rebels on the Syria-Lebanon border have also started using the tunnel method, and a senior figure among the rebels in Aleppo even said in a recent interview they have gained knowledge of tunnel digging from Hamas members in Gaza. Ironically, the main force leading the efforts to uncover these tunnels is Hezbollah.

The Israeli army has been trying to uncover these tunnels since their ground offensive began. But not all tunnels in Gaza are intended for warfare. Others, under the border with Egypt, have been playing a key role in Gaza's economy, operating under Hamas regulation, with the illicit trade generating considerable income for senior Hamas officials and affiliates.

Economically, these subterranean conduits have not only enabled the supply of goods, but also made for an important employment source for Gaza's youth, as well as an investment opportunity for anyone seeking quick profits.

In the Rafah area, two kinds of tunnels are in operation — one for goods and one for human travel, offering a bypass of the Rafah border crossing that had been shut by Egypt.

With this expansion in activity, the tunnels have further professionalized — there were specific tunnels for petrol and gas, tunnels for light goods like foodstuff, and tunnels for heavy goods where even cars passed.

With close to 1,200 tunnels in 2013, this underground system has helped Hamas to increase its economic standing and establish the power of its military wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, that never really suffered a shortage of money, even when most of Gaza's population was struggling with the hardships of Israel's siege.

Nevertheless, most of the tunnels have been destroyed by the Egyptian army, which suspected they were used for smuggling arms and terrorists into Sinai.

Though, ultimately, with or without the tunnels, it appears that the economic situation of Hamas' military wing is largely immune to external factors, including the economic crisis hitting Gaza. Today Hamas receives most of its donations from Qatar, totaling nearly $100 million annually.

Earlier this year Hamas announced it was unable to pay any public sector salaries. However, Gazan political analyst Hani Habib argued that the crisis still would not paralyze the military wing.

"Hamas has economic logic, these are professional traders," he said in an interview last week. "Hamas doesn't suffer a permanent shortage. Sometimes its income drops and sometimes it takes more effort to get it, but this ability doesn't disappear."

Gaza-based Professor Adnan Abu Amer estimates that from Hamas' perspective, a success in assaults would enhance its popularity among various elements in the region, and might even lead to rapprochement with Iran, which used to channel about $250 million a year to Hamas' coffers. Iran-Hamas ties were severed in 2011 when the fighting in Syria stopped the regular flow of money.

*Doron Peskin is the director of the research department at Info-Prod Research (Middle East).

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Pro-life and Pro-abortion Rights Protests in Washington

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Håfa adai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where new Omicron findings arrive from South Africa, abortion rights are at risk at the U.S. Supreme Court and Tyrannosaurus rex has got some new competition. From Germany, we share the story of a landmark pharmacy turned sex toy museum.

[*Chamorro - Guam]

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🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• COVID update: South Africa reports a higher rate of reinfections from the Omicron variant than has been registered with the Beta and Delta variants, though researchers await further findings on the effects of the new strain. Meanwhile, the UK approves the use of a monoclonal therapy, known as sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.The approval comes as the British pharmaceutical company, GSK, separately announced the treatment has shown to “retain activity” against the Omicron variant. Down under, New Zealand’s reopening, slated for tomorrow is being criticized as posing risks to its under-vaccinated indigenous Maori.

• Supreme Court poised to gut abortion rights: The U.S. Supreme Court signaled a willingness to accept a Republican-backed Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access, 50 years after it was recognized as a constitutional right in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

• Macri charged in Argentine spying case: Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri has been charged with ordering the secret services to spy on the family members of 44 sailors who died in a navy submarine sinking in 2017. The charge carries a sentence of three to ten years in prison. Macri, now an opposition leader, says the charges are politically motivated.

• WTA suspends China tournaments over Peng Shuai: The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, and the safety of other players. Peng disappeared from public view after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

• Michigan school shooting suspect to be charged as an adult: The 15-year-old student accused of killing four of his classmates and wounding seven other people in a Michigan High School will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. Authorities say the suspect had described wanting to attack the school in cellphone videos and a journal.

• Turkey replaces finance minister amid economic turmoil: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed a strong supporter of his low-interest rate drive, Nureddin Nebati, as Turkey’s new finance minister.

• A battle axe for a tail: Chilean researchers announced the discovery of a newly identified dinosaur species with a completely unique feature from any other creatures that lived at that time: a flat, weaponized tail resembling a battle axe.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

South Korean daily Joong-ang Ilbo reports on the discovery of five Omicron cases in South Korea. The Asian nation has broken its daily record for overall coronavirus infections for a second day in a row with more than 5,200 new cases. The variant cases were linked to arrivals from Nigeria and prompted the government to tighten border controls.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

¥10,000

In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a reward of 10,000 yuan ($1,570) will be given to anyone who volunteers to take a COVID-19 test and get a positive result, local authorities announced on Thursday on the social network app WeChat.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Why an iconic pharmacy is turning into a sex toy museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg for its history and its long-serving owner. Now the owner’s daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop, reports Eva Eusterhus in German daily Die Welt.

💊 The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner. The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests.

🚨 Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'Apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys. Genger and Müllner want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities.

🏩 Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never.

— U.S. actor Alec Baldwin spoke to ABC News, his first interview since the accident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust last October. The actor said that although he was holding the gun he didn’t pull the trigger, adding that the bullet “wasn't even supposed to be on the property.”

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin

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