Tunnel War: How Hamas Will Use Its Underground Maze To Combat Israel's Ground Assault
Hamas has dug an enormous network of tunnels under Gaza that may turn out to be the biggest challenge for the impending Israeli ground offensive.
TEL AVIV — They call it the "Gaza Métro."
The sprawling myriad of tunnels that Hamas has been building for years underneath the Palestinian enclave is an impressive labyrinth. There are no fewer than 1,300 tunnels, with an estimated total length of 500 kilometers (311 miles) underground, with some as long as 70 meters.
Built to withstand Israel's continuing aerial bombardment, Hamas views the tunnels as their decisive weapon in what is expected to be the intense urban guerrilla warfare once Israel launches its ground offensive. Generally constructed at two meters high and two meters wide, they can be used, for example, to launch attacks of unsuspecting enemy soldiers venturing into towns, or to store weapons, ammunition, fuel and motorcycles.
The tunnel system also serve as hideouts for the Islamist organization's political and military leaders, whom Israel has promised to eliminate, as well as places of detention for the estimated 220 Israeli and foreign hostages held by Hamas since its bloody infiltration of southern Israel on October 7, which left 1,400 dead.
One of the four hostages who has been released, 85-year-old Israeli Yocheved Lifshitz, described being held with other fellow captives in one of these tunnels "where it was very humid." She compared the network of tunnels to a "spider's web," while an Israeli military spokesman spoke of an underground "city of terror."
The tunnels are very well equipped with electricity, generators, water and food supplies. Some have rails for heavier loads.
"Some of the tunnels are built under schools, mosques and clinics, to use the civilian population as human shields and complicate bombing raids," adds the Israeli military official."
Hamas has acquired extensive experience underground since taking power in Gaza in 2007.
To avoid detection by spyware - an "Israeli speciality" - which enables eavesdropping and tracking of cell phones and hacking into computers, Hamas uses an autonomous telephone network specially designed for its tunnels.
Palestinians attend an exhibition of weapons, missiles, and tunnels belonging to the military wing of Hamas, in the Maghazi camp in central Gaza.
A hard-to-find solution
Facing this unique challenge, the Israeli army has yet to find the perfect response. It does, however, have radar systems, special sensors to measure the magnetic, thermal and acoustic imprints emitted in the tunnels, as well as robots that can be used as tunnel scouts, and aerial surveillance missions to spot possible mounds of earth.
But experts admit that these techniques, however sophisticated, may not be sufficiently effective if the Israeli army —which has been amassing troops near the Gaza border the past two weeks — decides to launch a vast ground operation into Gaza.
Hamas has acquired extensive experience underground since taking power in Gaza in 2007. Initially, the Islamist movement dug hundreds of tunnels under the border with Egypt, enabling a flourishing traffic in weapons and goods of all kinds.
The system also allowed the Islamists to fill their coffers with "customs" duties levied on the Palestinian contractors who had built the tunnels. These imports reached such a volume that the Egyptians put an end to everything by flooding the tunnels.
Infiltration, comings and goings
Hamas first used the tunnels to infiltrate commandos into Israel. In 2006, one of them was used to kidnap the French-Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, exchanged five years later for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
On this front, however, Israel has managed to plug the gap. A billion-dollar electronic fence has been installed underground at great expense all along the Gaza Strip. So far, this defense has proven its worth, preventing Islamist commandos from infiltrating.
The only problem is that the Israeli army has tended to rely too much on this technological success and let its guard down. The 2,000 or so Islamists who attacked on October 7 used much more "primitive" means, such as cars and tractors, to break through the fence and find themselves on Israeli soil in broad daylight.
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