Israel’s military has announced the acceleration of a new subterranean wall around Gaza, aimed at cutting off tunnels dug by Hamas militants running beneath the enclave’s border with Israel. The 3 billion shekel ($850 million) wall will span the 51-kilometer (32 miles) border.
CNN has learned that the wall will rise roughly 6 meters (20 feet) above the ground and penetrate to an undisclosed depth. It’s being described as a “smart wall” capable of detecting underground activity, and will sit behind the existing fence around the territory, creating a buffer zone between the two barriers.
“We are progressing according to plan, and in the upcoming months we will be accelerating and expanding the building of the barrier,” an Israeli military official told CNN. “The work is expected to be complete within two years. We hope that our work will not be disrupted or challenged, and that quiet will be preserved in the region.”
Construction has been taking place for months. The accelerated plans will see 1,000 people working on the project in shifts, 24 hours a day.
Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, according to local media reports, explained that the construction could escalate tensions between Israel and militants but said it wouldn’t deter their work even if militants attacked.
“I think the other side will have to reevaluate the situation in view of the barrier’s construction,” he is reported saying. “If Hamas chooses to go to war over the barrier, it will be worthy reason to go to war over – but the barrier will be built.”
Hamas confirmed to CNN that it is monitoring the construction of the “concrete wall on the border.”
“The occupation will not succeed in bringing security to its residents through the construction of a wall on the borders of Gaza; and nowhere on our land. The occupation must end.” a Hamas leader, Ismail Radwan, told CNN.
Although Israel withdrew military installations and settlements from Gaza in 2005, it maintains what the United Nations regards as a blockade of the enclave, controlling much of its land, air and sea borders.
The Palestinian Authority did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
Gaza’s tunnels are used for a range of purposes. On the Gaza-Egypt border, they’re used to smuggle in food, medicine, supplies and weapons. On the Gaza-Israel border, militants use the tunnels to conduct reconnaissance and raids into Israel.
Thousands of Israelis live within kilometers of the border.
The impact of Gaza’s tunnels was illustrated dramatically in July 2014 when Hamas militants from the territory sprung from a tunnel, which crossed into Israel, and surprised a military outpost. The daring, daylight raid killed five Israeli soldiers and left one Hamas militant dead. After the quick attack, the militants retreated back into the tunnel before Israeli reinforcements arrived.
That raid took place at the height of the war waged between Gaza militants and the Israeli military in Gaza. Israel’s stated objective was to destroy the militants’ war-making capabilities, with a heavy emphasis on the destruction of the network of tunnels.
The war eventually ended in a ceasefire. Dozens of tunnels were destroyed, but the concern was they could simply be replaced. Recently, Israel’s military released information on alleged new tunnel construction, accusing Hamas of using civilian infrastructure like schools as cover for the network. Israel hopes the new subterranean wall will accomplish what the 2014 war could not, and permanently end the tunnel threat.
CNN’s Amir Tal and Abeer Salman contributed to this report.