Under the Gaza Strip, which is over 40 kilometers long, there is a 500-kilometer network of tunnels – writes the British website BBC. Israel, which is fighting the Palestinian terrorist Hamas, is trying to attack the so-called “Gaza metro”, an infrastructure that has been developed for 20 years. According to Dr. Daphne Richemond-Barak, the tunnel network destroys the technological and intelligence advantage of Israeli forces.
According to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), there are two layers of the Gaza Strip. The above-ground layer is used by Palestinian civilians, while the second, underground layer is intended for Hamas. – These are not bunkers for Gaza civilians. Only for Hamas and other terrorist organizations that want to continue firing rockets at Israel, planning operations, and enabling the movement of terrorists, said one IDF spokesman on Thursday.
Tunnel construction in the Gaza Strip began before the withdrawal of Israeli troops and Jewish settlers in 2005, but was intensified when Hamas took control of the territory two years later. Both Israel and Egypt then restricted the flow of goods and people across the border for security reasons. At its peak, the website claims, nearly 2,500 tunnels running under the Egyptian border were used to smuggle commercial goods, fuel and weapons by Hamas and other militant groups.
After 2010, when Israel began allowing more goods through its crossings, smuggling became less important to Gaza. Egypt put an end to this practice by flooding or destroying the tunnels.
But then Hamas and other armed groups took over the construction of tunnels to attack Israeli forces. In 2006, terrorists used one of them to kill two Israeli soldiers and kidnap a third. In 2013, residents of a kibbutz located near the border began to hear strange sounds. The alerted IDF discovered a 1.6 km long tunnel lying at a depth of 18 m, with a concrete ceiling and walls.
– Cross-border tunnels are usually primitive, meaning they lack fortifications. They were dug for a one-time purpose – to invade Israeli territory, says Dr. Daphne Richemond-Barak, an expert in underground warfare who teaches at Reichman University in Israel.
“Hamas uses them regularly. They are designed for a longer, sustained presence.”
– The tunnels inside the Gaza Strip are different because Hamas uses them regularly. They are designed for a longer, lasting presence. They hide leaders, they house command and control centers, and they are also used for transportation. They are equipped with electricity, lighting and railway tracks, she added.
Tunnels in the Gaza Strip are believed to lie as much as 30 meters below the surface and have entrances placed on the lowest floors of homes, mosques, schools and other public buildings to allow militants to avoid detection. Building the network also involved costs for the local population. The IDF accused Hamas of diverting millions of dollars given to Gaza in humanitarian aid to finance tunnels, as well as using tens of thousands of tons of cement intended to rebuild homes destroyed in previous wars.
It is possible that the cross-border tunnel was used by Hamas militants in attacks in Israel over the weekend that killed at least 1,300 people, most of them civilians, and took more than 150 others hostage. There were reports that the mouth of the tunnel was discovered near Kibbutz Kfar Aza, where dozens of civilians were massacred.
If confirmed, construction would take place beneath an underground concrete barrier armed with advanced tunnel detection sensors, which Israel completed installing in late 2021. Richemond-Barak estimates that building a tunnel despite these safeguards would be shocking, but no tunnel detection system is foolproof. “This is why tunnels have been used in wars since time immemorial, because there is no way to prevent them,” he emphasizes.
He also warns that it is unrealistic to hope for the complete destruction of terrorist networks.
– Hamas is very good at using human shields. When an attack is imminent and they know it, they place innocent civilians on top of buildings. This repeatedly forced Israel to call off attacks, says Richemond-Barak. He adds that Hamas could easily use this tactic in the context of tunnels and simply place Israeli, American and other hostages inside them.
During the 2021 conflict, a series of airstrikes caused the collapse of three apartment buildings, killing 42 people. The IDF claimed that the raid targeted underground tunnels, but when they collapsed, the building’s foundations also collapsed.
Expert: The tunnel network destroys Israel’s technological and intelligence advantage
According to Richemond-Barak, the tunnel network nullifies the IDF’s technological and intelligence advantages.
“First of all, Hamas had plenty of time to set traps throughout the network,” says Richemond-Barak. – They can just let the soldiers enter the tunnel network and then blow it up. They could trap the soldiers in an ambush. In addition, there are other threats – lack of oxygen, fighting the enemy one on one, and rescuing wounded soldiers becomes practically impossible – he adds.
However, Israeli forces will have some ways to mitigate the risk.
These could include sending drones and unmanned vehicles into tunnels to map them and identify traps before soldiers clear them, according to Colin Clarke, director of research at security consultancy Soufan Group. Warplanes could also drop bunker busting bombs, which penetrate deep into the ground before detonating. However, due to the densely populated urban area, this would involve the risk of significant collateral damage, the BBC concludes.
Main photo source: MOHAMMED SABER/EPA/PAP