Beneath the Blue Line

How was Operation Al-Aqsa Flood feasible, and why are so few discussing the implications of the second front of the intelligence breach beneath the U.N.’s Blue Line border via nearly 500 kilometers of tunnels beneath Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian territories?

Authors: Evin Demir and Julia Jakus

In early October 2023, the world witnessed one of the largest intelligence breaches in modern history, eclipsed by an even larger backlash. Despite the historic intricacy of the region, the global outcry for immediate de-escalation is not only unprecedentedly unified – it is falling on the deaf ears of those most endowed to bring it to fruition. Cresting 100+ days into Operation Iron Sword, Israeli tanks deepen their presence in the Gaza Strip.

Yet, while operations in the Gaza Strip continue and the West Bank flares, the U.N. chief forces security council decries catastrophe while doing tangibly little else. Even if Israel were to “wipe Hamas off the face of the earth,” as several far right-wing Israeli politicians have stated openly, Israel and its Western allies have yet to address several crucial details. For starters, the several hundred persons who crossed from Lebanon to Israel on the 7th of October plausibly did so with outside assistance. From whom? It’s yet unclear. Despite the violent shock delivered via Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, resulting in the death of 1,200 people, evidence suggests that Israel is indeed facing a wider security threat, but not explicitly from Gaza.

The Blue Line – a U.N.-secured border between Israel, Lebanon, and the Golan Heights– yields invaluable security insights, yet this dimension has been analytically neglected in social and security dialogues alike. 

An Overlooked Third Party?

Although Hamas swept headlines through brute force in early October, the script flipped so suddenly as attention turned towards the IDF’s Operation Iron Sword that few paused long enough to question: How was Al-Aqsa Flood feasible?

“Many of my worst fears are coming true… I fought in the 2014 Gaza War. That war was also preceded by a horrific terrorist attack just like we saw on October 7th,” former IDF soldier Benzi Sanders told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in early November 2023.  “Three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered, which led to the firing of rockets and a massive crackdown on Hamas… and then a ground invasion.”

In the past, Hamas had demonstrated capability for intimidation but, generally, an incapability for organization. “In the West Bank, controlled by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, there were those who mocked Hamas for going quiet. In one Fatah statement published in June 2022, the group accused Hamas leaders of fleeing to Arab capitals to live in ‘luxurious hotels and villas’ leaving their people to poverty in Gaza.” Over the years, Hamas gained a reputation among some as being, in the words of one German volunteer working there throughout the 2010s, “Hamas was ‘fat-and-happy,’ overly content with the status quo in which they siphon aid intended for Gazan civilians and pay lip service to a cause.” Nonetheless, opinions are mixed. An anonymous expatriated interviewee from Gaza states, “They’re all we have,” he says. “They’re literally all we have right now. We are alone.” 

“We can’t just manage the conflict and maintain a very, very brutal military regime of control over Palestinians,” adds Sanders. “That actually plays into the hands of Hamas and plays into the hands of these murderous terrorist groups…. Hamas only got stronger after we bombed them and killed thousands [in 2014].” Despite some claims that Hamas had been strategically laying low prior to October 2023, it’s not entirely out of character. They previously had a reputation for inaction more than action, as well as excess over equality. To the extent that, in 2013, Hamas went so far as to expend time, energy, and money building a single tunnel from Egypt to Gaza exclusively for KFC smuggling. A former diplomat in the region mentions, “I’ve seen Hamas and the things that they are capable of doing – or rather, not doing. Hamas does not have the financial capability to buy those weapons.”

The unprecedented empowerment of the al-Qassam Brigades suggests that collaboration is afoot. “The operation penetrated various regions of Israel outside the Gaza Strip, reaching a total of 22 locations as far as 15 miles away from Gaza,” states Mohamed Basyouny Abd Elhaleem, an analyst and writer for the UAE-based consulting firm, InterRegional Strategic Analysis. Alongside infiltrating areas by tactics including (but not limited to) paragliders and boats, leveraging 35 Zouari kamikaze drones, seizing Israeli military equipment, and hostage-taking, Elhaleem points out that Hamas “even gained temporary control of some Israeli military bases, including Re’im military base, the headquarters of the Gaza Division of the IDF.” Although Israeli forces reclaimed the base by nightfall, the operation was not only costly in terms of human life but also in terms of finances, resources, and underground infrastructure. 

With respect to the tunnels, the 482+ kilometers (or 300+ mile) network of passages beneath Gaza is among the largest in the world, putting the Parisian catacombs to shame (320+ kilometers or 200 miles). While these tunnels have served myriad purposes, from fried chicken to Al-Aqsa Flood and everything in between, it’s worth wondering not simply what they’re used for but who these tunnels connect them to.

And if that ‘who’ represents an overlooked third party, this further dislocates what has been labeled a cause in fact, versus the proximate cause of the security breach itself. And as with the debate surrounding “independence versus Nakba,” what constitutes a symptom or cause has also become the subject of heated debate.   

Further muddying the waters, a $6 billion financial aid package for Iran endorsed by the U.S. has come under scrutiny due to suspicions that a chunk of the funds may have been used by Hamas. U.S. President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have rejected all claims as of early October onward. This exists other claims that (U.S.-funded) Ukrainian weapons were sold to Hamas as well. Why the Israeli army delayed six hours before responding to its own citizens remains another mystery. Gaza proper is one of the most heavily surveilled places on the planet. However, the surrounding land is agricultural and rural. Along with bad roads, there is relatively less surveillance beyond the border, creating an opportunistic window for militants with tractors to break through on this front. Adding to the unprecedented nature of the breach is that one of the leading intelligence states in the world simply… did not know. Gaza is under even greater surveillance than the West Bank. “You cannot do anything in Palestine without Israelis knowing. You can’t order a book about chemistry without the Israeli army interrogating you,” the former diplomat relays in an interview on the 11th of October 2023.  “The fact that they claim they didn’t know means that it had to come from somewhere else. Which leaves Hezbollah. But that’s my personal opinion.” Moreover, soldiers of the IDF unit surveilling the Gaza Strip (as well as warnings from the CIA and Egyptian Intelligence) issued notices to the presidential office reporting that Palestinian men were exercising and that they appeared to be training for something. Yet, these warnings were dismissed.

Adding gasoline to the flames, Hamas launched the Al-Aqsa Flood on a religious holiday, Simchat-Torah. Thus, in Israeli media, it has since been dubbed the “Simchat-Torah War” and added to the list of attacks on Israel during high religious days in the history of the state. However, for Palestinians, the ricochet has amounted to their Nakba 2023.  “This is our 9/11,” said Major Nir Dinar, spokesperson for the Israeli Defence Forces. “They got us.” The events of Saturday, 7 October 2023, embodied Israel’s worst fears. Yet, in the words of one anonymous civilian East Jerusalemite, “What Israel fears of Palestine is now happening to Palestinians in Gaza.”  Could it be that this fundamental fear itself is embedded with a self-fulfilling prophecy, in much the same way that the U.S. should not be surprised if another attack falls at their doorstep within the next 15 years as today’s survivors – many of them children whose families have been killed by U.S. weapons – come of age amid turmoil?

Thickening the fog further, before the October 7th attack, Netanyahu defunded aspects of Gaza surveillance assigned to Shin Bet (Shabak[1] ), Israel’s internal intelligence service, signaling a turn of focus toward Hezbollah.[1] As far back as one year prior, the radio channel surveillance unit for Hamas was completely shut down. On top of this, Egyptian intelligence and US intelligence again issued warnings to Israel regarding the attack. In particular, “Egypt’s Intelligence Minister General Abbas Kamel personally called Netanyahu only 10 days before the massive attack that Gazans were likely to do ‘something unusual, a terrible operation’” reports the Times of Israel.

The importance of this political miscalculation cannot be understated, particularly when dismissing these warnings directly contributes to the ever-widening scope of impact and generational consequences of unrestrained escalation.

Border Security– an International Affair

The conundrum collapses when one considers that Israel is quite aware of what Hamas is up to. As one former diplomat in the region puts it, “Hamas is basically 50% Israeli spies. They talk trash but can’t do much. Their rockets are made from plastic bottles and car pieces. The iron dome only needs a couple of shots, and it’s game over for Hamas. But those things we’ve seen? I highly doubt it is all them.” For reference, each time the iron dome shoots down a rocket, one shot costs anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 USD (although IDF forces do not reveal the actual cost). To date, the most damage Israel has sustained occurred with the malfunctioning of the Iron Dome on the 6th of November, when one of its missiles misfired and U-turned, damaging a house in Tel Aviv.  

This is but one of several gaping analytical holes in social dialogue, alongside other complicating regional dimensions such as the Axis of Resistance (an informal Iranian-backed anti-Western coalition) and Hamas’ increasing presence in Lebanon after the dispute in Syria. “What I now assume is that Hamas and Hezbollah have had a fight and have parted ways,” the former diplomat surmises. In either case, the plausibility of another actor in the space further discredits the scorched earth tactics, even in the name of defense. “The fact that something like this could happen without Israeli knowing means that something is going on that is not in Hamas’ structure. It has to be Hezbollah,” says the former diplomat. However, according to some sources, Hezbollah and Hamas had a fallout in the months leading up to the attack. An extension of this logic implies that another actor is at work–potentially within Israel’s own borders. Would Israel carpet bomb Tel Aviv or another of its own cities to find out? Unlikely.

Initial reports on October 7th indicate Hamas came from land, air, and sea. According to the IDF, approximately 3,000 infiltrators entered from Gaza to Israel after pushing down the barrier (which has since been landmined) with tractors. Still, another group that has been all but ignored by the media entered the country beneath the Blue Line– an internationally secured border between Israel and Lebanon – via tunnels.

The “Blue Line” is a border unlike any other. For starters, Israel and Lebanon do not have a common border because there is no peace agreement.  In between, the U.N. manages roughly 10-20 meters of no man’s land that serves as a “line” or, rather, buffer zone. To pass it outwardly, one must be escorted by the Israeli army to the “Blue Line” (so named for the U.N.’s blue helmets), which would send the individuals across a stretch of no man’s land. After this, that person would then encounter either the Lebanese army or Hezbollah, depending on where one intends to cross. Because the Blue Helmets and U.N. staff are responsible for the blue line, the country shouldering that responsibility shifts every two years.[2]  The U.N. itself has a history of introducing security and human rights problems in the region. These issues range from language barriers to cultural conflicts and crimes committed by bored soldiers— some of whom have impregnated and raped local women, leaving them unable to marry and ostracized from their societies.

Nonetheless, border security is not only international, it is closed by default. Crossing is prohibited, with the exception of a once-per-year export of apples from the Golan Heights to Syria. In that, the Blue Line is a political phenomenon unlike any other. It guards a country with immediate neighbors yet shares a direct border with none. The presence of the U.N. implicates an international dimension to issues normally relegated to the domestic sphere, such as border security.

Has Hezbollah arrived in Israel?

That the Blue Line was trespassed is no small feat, nor minor in implication. It only adds to the surreality of the intelligence failure. According to one correspondent from the Economist with over a decade and a half of experience covering the region, “The intelligence failure resembles 1973, but you almost have to go back to 1948 to find an analog for the violence that played out in cities and towns.” 

The Israeli military reported that 200-300 hundred insurgents entered via a warren of U.N.-confirmed tunnels. What’s more? As the carpet bombing of Gaza is deep into its third month, several hundred individuals are yet unaccounted for. One key question the media has been hesitant to discuss: Has Hezbollah come from Lebanon to Israel? This is not simply a physical question but an ideological one as well, particularly given the ebb and flow of Hezbollah-Hamas relations. Further, one could also flip the question: has Hamas arrived in Lebanon?

Although Hamas’ main offices are located in the Gaza Strip, they have a presence in the West Bank and abroad as well–however, the latter fluctuates. For example, despite Hamas’ former presence in Damascus, they withdrew at the beginning of the Arab Spring because they morally and ideologically opposed Assad. That Hezbollah supported Assad drove a major wedge between them. However, Hamas members in Syria dispersed elsewhere. Now, three main Hamas leaders are located in Lebanon, which is extremely significant for several reasons. First, one must acknowledge that no one can do anything within Lebanon without consulting the Hezbollah authorities — not the Lebanese authorities. However, the Lebanese authorities are actively trying to prevent Hamas from entering its borders. “They don’t want another terrorist organization on their land, but in practice, the government can’t say or do much to stop it. Hezbollah is in charge.”

The day-to-day consequences of this authority are acute: “If you’re traveling through Lebanon, you’ll encounter checkpoint where they announce, ‘you’re leaving the Lebanese Authority and you are now entering Hezbollah land. The Lebanese army doesn’t go there, especially in the South, which is a predominantly Shia region.” (Note that southern Lebanon borders northern Israel). Ultimately, the presence of three key Hamas leaders in Lebanon signals that Hamas and Hezbollah have put aside differences sparked by Assad’s regime in Syria. Why?

Although Hezbollah (Shia) and Hamas (Sunni) typically mix like oil and vinegar, the Palestinian plight is not denied in Lebanon– at least not by the numbers. As of March 2023, the number of Palestinian Refugees registered with UNRWA in Lebanon stands at 489,292 individuals, although the true count is likely much higher. (This is accentuated by the reality that not everyone receives a birth certificate). Worldwide, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reported the total Palestinian population stands at 14.3 million, with 6 million in other Arab countries primarily as refugees and 800,000 dispersed throughout other countries. Further, UNRWA’s records as of May 2023 indicate that 31,400 Palestine refugees from Syria have established their residence in Lebanon. In other words, despite the religious differences between Hezbollah and Hamas, one plausibly wouldn’t have to look far to find individuals in favor of the Palestinian resistance. “Hezbollah’s financial resources dwarf those of Hamas. They have great organization and are highly technical,” the former diplomat states. That being said, there are plenty of reasons why Hezbollah’s mere existence would deter any collaboration between the two. Further, for all those who became refugees due to the Arab Spring who acquired citizenship through asylum, what about stateless Palestinian refugees without either Lebanese or Syrian citizenship? They face far more obstacles. In either case, with Hezbollah claiming that Al-Aqsa was conducted in full by the Palestinians, it begs one to question: if not Hezbollah, then who?

Despite the sheer level of surveillance, eight unimaginably dense refugee camps exist, essentially as unpoliced cities within themselves. “The German government sent me with full diplomatic access to Israel as well as to the Palestinian territories, including Gaza. They told me, go anywhere you like,” a German volunteer formerly working abroad the region relays, “but if you enter any of these eight camps, we won’t get you out.”  This volunteer also relayed that these camps mark the birthplace of the “Islamic Jihad.”

It’s worth noting the distinction between the three types of jihad. The first is considered the jihad of the soul– the moment-by-moment commitment to resisting temptations and being the best version of oneself they can be. This is the most sacred and fundamental amongst Muslim people the world over. The second is the jihad over earthly missions; although this can take many forms, one of them is waging religious jihad. This third type of jihad is hyper-concentrated into a formal organization called “The Islamic Jihad,” which believes that no possibility of peaceful coexistence ( تعايش سلمي) is attainable. The only solution is the annihilation of the enemy.  It is highly political, compatible with extremism, and often the only version of jihad the average Western individual is aware of.

Although the spiritual element of jihad has been constant for thousands of years, it’s worth noting that the organized ‘political’ landscape of ‘jihad’ is far different from twenty years ago. From the emergence of Al-Nusra Front, Front for the Conquest of the Levant, Salafi Jihadist, and al-Qaeda, a swath of new non-state actors are ‘coming of age,’ so to speak. Moreover, unlike in the early 2000s, these are not a single front anymore.

Porous Territories & Smuggling Networks

Among the many factors driving escalation rather than de-escalation are intensifying yet incompatible forces. For example, increasing Jewish presence on the Temple Mount— otherwise known as al-Haram al-Sharif, al-Aqsa Mosque compound, or simply al-Aqsa — is not simply venerated by the Jewish people but by the people of Islam and Christianity as well and has been collectively sacred for thousands of years. If the preponderance over it tips in any direction, pre-existing domestic tensions grow ever more taught.

Chronic drug trafficking in the region, particularly of heroin, cannabis, and Khat throughout the Levant and Captagon in Saudi Arabia, also plays a significant role in perennial border insecurity– even without extenuating circumstances. Because organized crime and regional instabilities are symbiotic, trafficking throughout fragile terrain is prolific. Not only are prevention programs little to nonexistent, but traffickers are often connected to government authorities and religious groups alike. This not only creates physical networks for the transport of illicit goods but also bonds international non-state collaborators outside public purview.

Ingredients are typically sourced from the Balkans, produced in the Middle East, and transited back through Turkey, often en route to European consumers. Deep veins of collaboration for black-market profits are already in place. It is plausible that relationships built atop trafficking enterprises have spilled into mutually beneficial political objectives. More so when one considers that instability benefits trafficking far more than stability does. 

This is just one of several key points that have fallen through the crack of social dialogue. Now more than two months deep into Operation Iron Sword, it appears almost obsolete to backtrack to the roots of the intelligence breach because so much has transpired since. Nonetheless, as with the piece that preceded this, “Bureaucracy, Hypocrisy, and the Israel-Palestine Quandary,” everything is intertwined. However, backtracking to the root of the intelligence breach presented by Al-Aqsa Flood is as relevant as it has been ignored.

Although trafficking is just one facet of unconventional networking, the surge in capacity is undeniable. If one compares the 2014 Gaza War, catalyzed by the kidnapping of three teenagers, to the taking of roughly 200 hostages and temporarily seizing an Israeli base, it would be analytically naive to assume that the al-Qassam Brigades are not collaborating with another entity. In the cement shadow of a 16-year blockade, Al-Aqsa Flood and Operation Iron Sword thereafter surpassed the intensity of every incident in the history of either party.

Moreover, that the secondary front of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood took place beneath not simply beneath Israel’s nose, but that of the U.N. signals that this was never simply a bilateral conflict– nor even a regional one– but rather a global security breakdown. Bearing this in mind, the next analysis of this suite addresses other key escalation factors contributing to spiraling security politics on multiple levels.

[1] “Shabak” is the abbreviation for SHirut Bitakhon Clalli (General security service/agency). “Shin Bet” just stands for the letter pairings, SH,B and IN Hebrew.

[2] There are documented instances where the U.N. abused its authority, or where peacekeepers committed human rights violations against the local Zahidi community.

Evin Demir
Evin Demir
Through an analytical and consulting lens, Evin Demir specializes in security studies, extremism, and religious politics, particularly in the Middle East. Originally from Berlin, Germany, Evin received her Bachelor’s degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2019) prior to obtaining her MA in International Relations: Europe, Turkey, Europe, and the Middle East from Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey (2020). After completing her Master’s Thesis on the effects of religiosity on the political sphere in multi-ethnic countries, she enrolled as a Ph.D. student at Yeditepe University with a focus on Israeli foreign policy. Evin also leverages nine languages: German, English, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Latin, and Ancient Greek. E-Mail: evin.demir[at]