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A spiderweb of Hamas tunnels in Gaza Strip raises dangers for an Israeli floor offensive

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JERUSALEM — As an Israeli floor offensive within the Gaza Strip looms in its most devastating warfare but with Hamas, one of many best threats to each its troops and the two.3 million Palestinians trapped contained in the seaside enclave is buried deep underground.

An intensive labyrinth of tunnels constructed by the Hamas militant group stretches throughout the densely populated strip, hiding fighters, their rocket arsenal and over 200 hostages they now maintain after an unprecedented Oct. 7 assault on Israel.

Clearing and collapsing these tunnels can be essential if Israel seeks to dismantle Hamas. However preventing in densely populated city areas and shifting underground may strip the Israeli navy of a few of its technological benefits whereas giving an edge to Hamas each above and beneath floor.

“I normally say it’s like strolling down the road ready to get punched within the face,” mentioned John Spencer, a retired U.S. Military main and the chair of City Warfare Research on the Fashionable Warfare Institute at West Level.

City defenders, he added, “had time to consider the place they’re going to be and there’s tens of millions of hidden places they are often in. They get to decide on the time of the engagement — you’ll be able to’t see them however they will see you.”

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In a single day on Saturday, the Israeli navy mentioned its warplanes struck 150 underground Hamas targets in northern Gaza, describing them as tunnels, fight areas and different underground infrastructure. The strikes — what seemed to be Israel’s most important bombardment of tunnels but — got here because it ramped up its floor operations in Gaza.

Tunnel warfare has been a characteristic of historical past, from the Roman siege of the traditional Greek metropolis of Ambracia to Ukrainian fighters holding off Russian forces in 24 kilometers (15 miles) of Soviet-era tunnels beneath Mariupol’s Azovstal Iron and Metal Works for some 80 days in 2022.

The reason being easy: tunnel battles are thought of a number of the most tough for armies to combat. A decided enemy in a tunnel or cave system can choose the place the combat will begin — and sometimes decide the way it will finish — given the considerable alternatives for ambush.

That is very true within the Gaza Strip, house to Hamas’ tunnel system that Israel has named the “Metro.”

When Israel and Egypt imposed a punishing blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized management of the territory in 2007, the militant group expanded development of its tunnel community to smuggle in weapons and different contraband from Egypt. Whereas Egypt later shut down most of these cross-border tunnels, Hamas is now believed to have a large underground community stretching all through Gaza, permitting it to move weapons, provides and fighters out of the sight of Israeli drones.

Yehiyeh Sinwar, Hamas’ political chief, claimed in 2021 that the militant group had 500 kilometers (310 miles) of tunnels. The Gaza Strip itself is just some 360 sq. kilometers (140 sq. miles), roughly twice the scale of Washington, D.C.

“They began saying that they destroyed 100 kilometers (62 miles) of Hamas tunnels. I’m telling you that the tunnels we now have within the Gaza Strip exceed 500 kilometers,” Sinwar mentioned following a bloody 11-day warfare with Israel. “Even when their narrative is true, they solely destroyed 20% of the tunnels.”

The Israeli navy has recognized of the risk since at the very least 2001, when Hamas used a tunnel to detonate explosives below an Israeli border publish. Since 2004, the Israeli navy’s Samur, or “Weasels,” detachment has targeted on finding and destroying tunnels, generally with remote-controlled robots. These going inside carry oxygen, masks and different gear.

Israel has bombed from the air and used explosives on the bottom to destroy tunnels prior to now. However absolutely dislodging Hamas would require clearing these tunnels, the place militants can pop up behind advancing Israeli troops.

Throughout a 2014 warfare, Hamas militants killed at the very least 11 Israeli troopers after infiltrating into Israel by way of tunnels. In one other incident, an Israeli officer, Lt. Hadar Goldin, was dragged right into a tunnel inside Gaza and killed. Hamas has been holding Goldin’s stays since then.

Ariel Bernstein, a former Israeli soldier who fought in that warfare, described city fight in northern Gaza as a mixture of “ambushes, traps, hideouts, snipers.”

He recalled the tunnels as having a disorienting, surreal impact, creating blind spots as Hamas fighters popped up out of nowhere to assault.

“It was like I used to be preventing ghosts,” he mentioned. “You do not see them.”

Israeli Protection Minister Yoav Gallant on Friday mentioned he anticipated a tough floor offensive, warning it “will take a very long time” to dismantle Hamas’ huge community of tunnels. As a part of the technique, Israel has blocked all gasoline shipments into Gaza for the reason that warfare erupted. Gallant mentioned that Hamas would confiscate gasoline for mills that pump air into the tunnel community. “For air, they want oil. For oil, they want us,” he mentioned.

The Israeli navy additionally mentioned Friday it had carried out “very significant” airstrikes on underground targets.

Sometimes, fashionable militaries have relied on punishing airstrikes to break down tunnels. Israeli strikes in Gaza up to now on this warfare have killed over 7,300 folks, in accordance Gaza’s Well being Ministry. However these strikes can inflict solely restricted harm on the subterranean community.

U.S. forces preventing the Vietnam Warfare struggled to clear the 120-kilometer (75-mile) community often known as the Củ Chi tunnels, during which American troopers confronted tight corners, booby traps and generally pitch-dark situations within the outskirts of what was then Saigon, South Vietnam. Even relentless B-52 bombing by no means destroyed the tunnels. Nor did Russian strikes on the Ukrainian metal mill in 2022.

Underlining how robust tunnels might be to destroy, America used a large explosive towards an Islamic State group tunnel system in Afghanistan in 2017 known as “the mom of all bombs,” the biggest non-nuclear weapon ever utilized in fight by the U.S. navy.

But in all these {cases}, advancing militaries didn’t face the problem that Israel does now with Hamas’ tunnel system. The militant group holds some 200 hostages that it captured within the Oct. 7 assault, which additionally killed greater than 1,400 folks.

Hamas’ launch on Monday of 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz confirmed suspicions that the militants had put hostages within the tunnels. Lifshitz described Hamas militants spiriting her right into a tunnel system that she mentioned “seemed like a spider internet.”

Clearing the tunnels with hostages trapped inside probably can be a “gradual, methodical course of,” with the Israelis counting on robots and different intelligence to map tunnels and their potential traps, in keeping with the Soufan Middle, a New York safety suppose tank.

“Given the methodical planning concerned within the assault, it appears probably that Hamas could have devoted vital time planning for the following part, conducting in depth preparation of the battlefield in Gaza,” the Soufan Middle wrote in a briefing. “The usage of hostages as human shields will add an extra layer of complexity to the combat.”

The potential preventing going through Israeli troopers additionally can be claustrophobic and terrifying. Lots of the Israeli navy’s technological benefits will collapse, giving militants the sting, warned Daphné Richemond-Barak, a professor at Israel’s Reichman College who wrote a ebook on underground warfare.

“If you enter a tunnel, it’s very slim, and it’s darkish and it’s moist, and also you in a short time lose a way of area and time,” Richemond-Barak instructed The Related Press. “You’ve this concern of the unknown, who’s coming across the nook? … Is that this going to be an ambush? No person can come and rescue you. You possibly can barely talk with the surface world, together with your unit.”

The battlefield may drive the Israeli navy into firefights during which hostages could also be unintentionally killed. Explosive traps additionally may detonate, burying alive each troopers and the hostages, Richemond-Barak mentioned.

Even with these dangers, she mentioned the tunnels should be destroyed for Israel to realize its navy goals.

“There’s a job that should get finished and will probably be finished now,″ she mentioned.

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