The terrorist group is said to have dug hundreds of kilometers of tunnels under the coastal strip. Not just a strategic challenge for Israel’s army.
BERLIN taz | It is a nightmare for any military, even the most advanced armies: a sprawling tunnel system beneath an area that is in many places as densely populated as a city. By themselves, the Hamas tunnels in the Gaza Strip would be a challenge for Israel’s armybut in addition there is the fact that in the underground of Gaza the… more than 200 hostages are suspected to have been abducted during the Hamas massacre on October 7th.
“Imagine Gaza as one level for civilians and another for Hamas,” an Israeli army spokesman explained the situation. “We are trying to get to this second level.” 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz, one of the few hostages released , spoke after her return to Israel of a real “spider’s web” that she had to navigate in her captivity.
In addition to freeing the hostages, destroying this spider web is one of Israel’s main goals in the Gaza Strip, probably much more important than eliminating Hamas fighters. The latter can easily be replaced – even against the background of the unprecedented destruction and the high number of civilian casualties. Conversely, building the tunnel infrastructure from scratch would take years, if not decades.
An asymmetric war?
War experts often speak of an asymmetry when, as is currently the case, there is a conflict between an ultra-modern army including an air force and a terrorist group like Hamas, whose effectiveness is not comparable to the Israeli army. But this ignores the tunnel network: “Underground warfare reduces the imbalance and makes it attractive to terrorist groups everywhere,” argues Daphné Richemond-Barak from Reichman University in Tel Aviv, one of the leading experts on Hamas’ tunnel system, in one Article for Foreign policy.
Military expert Carlo Masala from the Bundeswehr University in Munich also sees the Hamas tunnels as an “enormous threat”. He speaks of a “third dimension”. As a rule, the risk to an army comes from the front and from above, i.e. from enemy ground troops or the air force. But as soon as tunnels are involved, the threat also comes from below. It also cannot be ruled out that enemy forces suddenly appear behind you.
“You always have to fear that the enemy will suddenly appear behind you via the tunnel systems.” It is not known exactly how extensive the tunnels under Gaza are. Hamas itself speaks of 500 kilometers, which may be an exaggeration. However, it could actually be several hundred kilometers. For comparison: the subway network in Munich has a total length of around 100 kilometers, that in Berlin around 150.
The Gaza Strip is criss-crossed by various types of tunnels: attack tunnels that lead into Israeli territory, but also smuggling tunnels that were particularly common on the border with Egypt before the government in Cairo flooded them with seawater and caused them to collapse. Finally – and this is currently the challenge for Israel’s ground troops – there are the tunnels within Gaza, which allow Hamas terrorists to move clandestinely. Into the tunnels and back to the surface you go via air shafts, inconspicuous doors or through the basements of private households.
20 years of work on the tunnel system
Weapons depots and command rooms are also said to be located underground. Some of the corridors are only passable on foot, others suspect that vehicles can move underground. According to Israeli information is located below the Al-Shifa Clinic in Gaza Citythe most important hospital in the Gaza Strip, even has a large command center that is shared by Hamas and the terrorist group Islamic Jihad.
The human rights organization Amnesty International has already reported independently that the hospital serves Hamas’ purposes report from 2015. It said that parts of the clinic were used by Hamas for detention, interrogation and torture. At that time, however, there was no talk of underground rooms under Al-Shifa.
Hamas has been working on its tunnel system for around 20 years. Even before Israel withdrew its army from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and cleared the settlements in the coastal strip, the first tunnels were said to have existed. However, things only really started after Hamas came to power in 2007 and the Gaza war in 2014.
In 2014, when ground troops last entered Gaza to initially stop rocket attacks on Israel, the army discovered the extent of the tunnel system at the time. “Ten days into the conflict, the main objective of the operation suddenly shifted to the discovery and neutralization of a series of newly discovered secret attack tunnels that had caught the army by surprise,” one said study the University of Birmingham. In addition to isolated ones journalistic reports It is, among other things, the information collected by the army at the time that allows conclusions to be drawn about today’s tunnel system.
Protected by booby traps
According to Israeli information, 32 tunnels were destroyed, around half of which led into Israeli territory. According to the army, another 100 kilometers of tunnels were destroyed in the short war in 2021, and that was probably only part of the network at this point.
Richemond-Barak of Reichman University points out an important distinction: that between neutralization and elimination. The tunnel expert assumes that Israel will currently not be satisfied with blocking the tunnel entrances or filling the entire tunnels with cement, a technique that was used in smuggling tunnels on the Mexican-American border. Elimination means allowing the tunnels to collapse along their entire length, including the walls and roof. Richemond-Barak speaks of a “hard kill”.
Masala explains how this would work: “Tunnels can be effectively destroyed by bunker-busting weapons or weapons that penetrate deep into the ground and only explode 30 or 40 meters underground.” In theory, he says, the tunnels could be flooded like the smuggling tunnels on the border with Egypt, but Hamas’ network is too extensive for that.
As long as the entire network is not destroyed, the tunnels will remain a challenge for Israel’s army. A few days ago, four soldiers were killed in an explosion in a booby-trapped tunnel. However, the soldiers did not go in, Israeli media emphasized. “The Israelis avoid this scenario because it cannot be ruled out that the tunnels are booby-trapped,” says Masala. “The Israeli army is therefore extremely reluctant to go into the tunnels. She doesn’t know what she’s going to encounter.”
Keep an eye on the number of victims
Above all, it is the Israeli army’s technical superiority that would be put into perspective by underground warfare. Modern drones and robots could provide some reconnaissance inside the tunnels where thermal imaging cameras failed, explains Masala. However, there is always a residual risk. Richemond-Barak therefore sees the Air Force as the primary concern:
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“Even though the attention is now on Israel’s ground offensive, eliminating the tunnel network is more of a job for Israel’s air force.” However, both she and Masala consider a complete elimination of the network to be unrealistic: “I assume that,” says Masala, ” that the Israelis do not have detailed plans of how many tunnels there are, where the tunnels are and, above all, how they are connected to each other.”
The balancing act for Israel in the next few weeks will be to inflict such extensive damage on the tunnel network, unlike in 2014 and 2021, that repairs would not be feasible within a few years, while at the same time protecting its own troops and keeping an eye on the number of victims on the Palestinian side .
“When you destroy tunnels under residential neighborhoods, you risk everything above them collapsing,” says Masala, “so you create a lot of civilian casualties.” In this war that the world is watching and that Israel can only wage with international support, Beyond all moral aspects, this is also a strategic factor.