By Altaf Moti
The conflict between Hamas and Israel has been raging for decades, but in recent years, it has taken a new and deadly turn: the tunnel war. Hamas has been using underground tunnels to wage a guerrilla warfare that is hard to detect, prevent and stop.
The tunnels have become a strategic asset for Hamas and a major challenge for Israel. These tunnels are also targeted by Israel, which considers them a grave security threat and employs various methods and technologies to locate and destroy them. Here, we will explore the background, objectives, features, and consequences of the tunnels, and the techniques and tools that both sides employ to combat underground.
The History and Purpose of the Tunnels
The tunnels of Gaza are mainly used by Hamas to fight against Israel. The tunnels were first dug in the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the first intifada or uprising against Israeli occupation. They were initially used for transporting goods across the border with Egypt as well as for hiding and escaping from Israeli raids. After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas expanded the tunnels and used them as a base for launching rockets and infiltrating Israeli territory. The tunnels also serve as shelters, command centers, hospitals and storage facilities for Hamas fighters and civilians. The tunnels are estimated to be around 300 kilometers long, and some of them are reinforced with concrete and equipped with electricity and ventilation.
The tunnels have been a lifeline for the people of Gaza who face a blockade by Israel and Egypt, a shortage of basic goods and services. The tunnels allow the transportation of food, medicine, fuel, construction material and even animals and vehicles. The tunnels are also a source of income and employment for many Gazans who work as diggers or traders or belong to any other profession. The tunnel business is estimated to generate millions of dollars per year, and to account for up to 40% of Gaza’s GDP.
The tunnels are also a symbol of resistance and resilience for the Palestinians who view them as a way of defying the Israeli occupation and siege. The tunnels are often decorated with flags, posters, and graffiti, and some of them have names such as “Freedom”, “Victory”, and “Martyrdom” . The tunnels have also inspired art, literature and music such as the documentary film “Gaza Underground”, the novel “The Book of Gaza”, and the rap song “Tunnel Trade” by MC Gaza.
The tunnels are also a target of destruction and controversy for the Israelis. Israel considers the tunnels as a major security threat and has repeatedly targeted them with airstrikes, ground operations and underground barriers. Israel has also accused Hamas of diverting humanitarian aid and resources from the people of Gaza to build the tunnels. Israel has also claimed to have destroyed or damaged hundreds of tunnels and to have killed or captured many Hamas fighters and commanders.
The Design and Structure of the Tunnels
The tunnels of Gaza are very complex and extensive, and Hamas has invested a lot of resources and efforts to build and maintain them. The tunnels are usually about 20 meters (65 feet) underground, but some of them can go as deep as 70 meters (230 feet) beneath the earth’s surface. The tunnels are also hidden under civilian buildings and infrastructure making them hard to detect and destroy without causing collateral damage .
The tunnels have different types and functions depending on their location and purpose. Some of the main types of tunnels are:
– Smuggling tunnels: These are the tunnels that connect Gaza with Egypt, and are used to smuggle goods and weapons across the border. These tunnels are often narrow and shallow, and are dug by hand or with simple tools. These tunnels are also vulnerable to floods, collapses and closures by the Egyptian authorities.
– Attack tunnels: These are the tunnels that cross the border with Israel, and are used to launch rockets and infiltrate Israeli territory. These tunnels are often wide and deep, and are dug with bulldozers and explosives. These tunnels are also reinforced with concrete and metal, and are equipped with electricity and ventilation. These tunnels are also booby-trapped with explosives and rigged with cameras and sensors .
– Defense tunnels: These are the tunnels that run under the Gaza Strip, and are used to hide and escape from Israeli raids, and to store and transport equipment and fighters. These tunnels are also wide and deep, and are dug with bulldozers and explosives. These tunnels are also reinforced with concrete and metal, and are equipped with electricity and ventilation. They also serve as shelters, command centers, hospitals and storage facilities for Hamas fighters and civilians .
The tunnels are very strategic and versatile, and Hamas uses them for various purposes. The tunnels allow Hamas to evade airstrikes, move fighters and weapons, launch surprise attacks and plant bombs. The tunnels also allow Hamas to maintain its presence and influence in the Gaza Strip, even after losing most of its territory to the Israeli forces and their allies. The tunnels give Hamas an advantage in asymmetric warfare as they can surprise and ambush Israeli forces and avoid direct confrontation.
The Methods and Technologies Used to Locate and Destroy the Tunnels
The tunnels pose a massive challenge for Israel in this conflict as they are very complex, extensive, and strategic. Israel has launched several operations to locate and demolish the tunnels, using various methods and technologies. Some of the main methods and technologies are:
-Sponge bombs: Sponge bombs are a specialized device designed to seal the end of a tunnel. Small enough that it can be set by a single person, it is a non-explosive, chemical bomb that releases a burst of expanding foam that quickly hardens.
Israel plans to use sponge bombs in its ground raids to fight through Hamas’ labyrinth of tunnels in the Gaza Strip. The sponge bombs would prevent Israeli soldiers from being ambushed as they move further into the network, sealing off gaps or tunnel entrances from which Hamas fighters may emerge. The sponge bombs would also trap any hidden fighters in the tunnels, cutting off their escape routes and supplies. The sponge bombs are contained in a plastic container with a metal partition that separates two liquids. Once the partition is removed, the liquids mix, and the device is either set at its target by an individual or thrown. However, the sponge bombs are also hazardous to work with, and some Israeli soldiers have lost their eye-sights through mishandling the mixture.
– Airstrikes: Israel has used its air force to bomb the tunnels using precision-guided munitions and bunker-buster bombs. Israel has also used drones and satellites to monitor and target the tunnels. However, airstrikes are not very effective, as they can only reach shallow tunnels, and can cause collateral damage to civilians and infrastructure .
– Ground forces: Israel has used its ground forces to enter the Gaza Strip and search for the tunnels using bulldozers, explosives, and dogs. Israel has also used soldiers trained to navigate and fight in the tunnels known as tunnel rats. However, ground operations are very risky as they expose the soldiers to ambushes, booby-traps, and snipers.
– Sensors: Israel has used various sensors to detect and identify underground tunnels such as seismic, acoustic, magnetic and thermal. Israel has also developed a new sensor system that can locate and identify underground tunnels. The system is codenamed “Mispar Hazak” or Power Number. The system involves placing geophones, devices that measure energy waves in the earth, 1.5 meters into the ground. The geophones are equipped with acoustic components taken from sensors used by the navy and devices used in searching for oil. The system has passed initial tests and will be operational by late 2023.
– Barrier: Israel has built a massive underground barrier along the border with Gaza to prevent the digging and crossing of tunnels. The barrier is made of concrete and steel and is embedded with sensors and cameras. The barrier is also electrified and monitored by drones and robots. The barrier will be completed by 2024, and to cost around $1.5 billion.
As a matter of fact, the tunnels have influenced the political and diplomatic dynamics of the region as well as the international community. They have strengthened the position and popularity of Hamas as it presents itself as the defender and representative of the Palestinian cause and resistance. The tunnels have also weakened the role and credibility of the Palestinian Authority (PA) as it appears as a powerless and irrelevant actor in the conflict. These tunnels have also challenged the relations and interests of Israel and its ally the United States as they seek to balance their security and stability concerns with their humanitarian and legal obligations. The tunnels have also attracted the attention and involvement of other actors such as Qatar and Turkey who offer support and mediation to Hamas and seek to gain influence and leverage in the region.