Urban Underground Tunnel Warfare: Gaza Hamas Tunnels – OpEd


Warfare is generally discussed in three domains, namely land, sea, and air. However, a fourth domain is often overlooked in discussions of warfare that has been there for thousands of years as part of covert operations to create asymmetric effect. This forgotten domain is the use of tunnels which have often been used to good decisive effect throughout the recorded history of warfare and act as Force-Multipliers. Chinese military theorists dating back to Sun Tzu discussed tunnel warfare as a means of surprising and overwhelming an enemy who felt secure behind strong defenses. The Japanese military forces also practiced the art of military tunneling for the besieged Russian-held Port Arthur in 1904. 

Tunnel warfare challenges was much talked about during the Vietnam War in the 60s. Over decades of fighting first the French and later the US backed South Vietnamese government, Viet Cong guerrillas constructed an enormous tunnel network. This network offered shelter against overwhelming American airpower, and facilitated a hit-and-run style of warfare.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) apart from bombarding the Gaza Strip, they have been striking parts of secret tunnels that have been built by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and IDF claimed to have launched air strikes on more than 100km of tunnels and destroyed them.The Gaza Strip is only 41km long and up to 10km wide. Hamas in its counterclaims stated that the tunnels stretched for over 500km. The Israeli military is likely to have used US made “Bunker Buster” GBU-28 bombs. These munitions are designed to penetrate hardened targets deep underground with the bombs leaving massive craters and could inflict large civilian casualties. 

These mystery tunnels under Gaza have repeatedly been used to smuggle weapons, fighters or other contraband.
Think of the Gaza Strip as one layer of civilians along with Hamas and then another layer beneath in ‘Gaza Metro Tunnels’. Hamas is less overground and is more underground. These tunnels are for Hamas and other terrorists so that they can continue to fire rockets at Israel, to plan operations, to launch terrorists into Israel.” The tunnels are Hamas’s defense in depth, literally. They hide rockets, artillery, ammunition and other war supplies and themselves in these tunnels. A 1.6km-long, 18m-deep tunnel, which had a concrete roof and walls, was discovered by the IDF in 2013. 

Terror Attacks Through “Terror Tunnels”

The border of Israel with Gaza remains fenced and has sensors installed which can detect movement. However, no early warning was generated by the attack which was launched by Hamas on 7th October which took IDF by surprise. It is believed that tunnels may have played an important role in the undetected crossing of Hamas operatives into Israel. The fence built by Israel on the Gaza border is 30 feet high and has an underground concrete barrier. So, the only way Hamas operatives were able to enter Israel undetected would have been by digging tunnels deep under the concrete barrier. 

Israeli response to Hamas Oct 07 Terror Attacks 

Hamas Aim; “Humiliate your enemy and show he is incapable of defending the civilians and the civilian infrastructure. Make him angry and vengeful. Let him use his weapon and military power in anger which will lead to civilian casualties. This way you practically bring him into the field of your choosing. It is the age of information so use the images of the civilian casualties in your favor and generate sympathy. Break the myth of his “State status”.  If he keeps killing and causing civilian casualties, you win. If he stops the fight you win.”

Hospital Attack. The mass casualties that have occurred in the rocket attack on a hospital in the evacuation zone have given rise to further animosity. Neither Israel nor Hamas will accept the responsibility for the mass casualties. As the operations prolong and casualties increase, public opinion will turn against Israel. Public opinion because of around 500 casualties in the hospital attack has already turned against Israel the world over with physical protests. The initial overwhelming sympathy was with Israel after the Oct 07 terrorist attacks by Hamas into Israel. This is what Hamas had wanted to achieve.

Urban Underground Tunnel Warfare 

Urban warfare in Ukraine has taught us a number of lessons. One is the sky above cities, increasingly proliferated with drones of various kinds armed and unarmed. Next are the buildings that extend upwards, offering vantage points and hiding places. A third is the collateral damage, to avoid it has to be a house-to-house battle in the streets if the attacking forces want to avoid their causalities, then collateral damage and civilian casualties increase. The tunnels lying beneath that will present the greatest challenge to the IDF if they begin their ground offensive of the Gaza Strip.  

In the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2014, one of the key objectives was the destruction of the tunnels under Gaza but the tunnels proved far larger, deeper, and longer than expected, and their stable construction made them all but impervious to airstrikes. Thus, any effort to collapse the tunnels required Israeli ground troops to enter them and place detonation charges inside. 

“Terror Tunnels” : Battlefield of Nightmares 

Israel won’t be able to “Crush” Hamas, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed. As many as 200 Israeli and American hostages might be hidden. Rescuing the hostages without killing their captives will be a supreme test of skills of the IDF. Technology has provided limited ability to detect tunnels that are as deep as 60 feet underground. Tunnels are a nightmare for attackers, and negate many of the advantages held by a technologically superior conventional force. The process of clearing and destroying a tunnel network is expensive, time-consuming, and likely to inflict many more casualties than an engagement above ground. 

This is going to be very complex operation as Gaza is world’s densest city with over two million people living there. Density of population is 14425 per square mile as against international average of 94 per sq mile. Fighting in built up area like this is not going to be easy.  Hamas terrorists will use the Palestinians as human shields and fight the IDF as they control them. They have the most sophisticated underground defence systems with excellent communication network. This Billion-dollar project of around 5oo km of network of “Terror Tunnels” was funded by oil rich Qatar.

Protests have spread across the world over the hospital attack having around 500 civilian casualties the public opinion has already turned against Israel. President Biden though solidly behind Israel has cautioned against such mass civilian casualties. Possibly Armoured ground assault due to urban concrete dense jungle of buildings may be delayed. IDF may instead gas the “Terror Tunnels” to flush out Hamas fighters from their safe hide outs which will take quite some time.

Netanyahu seems to be preparing the people for that ultimate sacrifice for lasting peace and long term good of Israel and west Asia. With many powerful nations in their support and some of the more progressive Islamic states taking a stand against terrorism, the time was ripe for Israel to move on the offensive but now with the world opinion having shifted against Israel, IDF may have to change its strategy. The Israeli PM has made it very clear that “This war will be a long one. The Hamas started and we will finish”. 

A welcome step is that the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak has landed in Israel as part of a two-day mission to try to prevent the Israel -Hamas conflict from escalating. Rishi Sunak will hold talks with his counterpart Israeli PM Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog and will urge Middle East leaders to “avoid further dangerous escalation”, saying that “too many lives have been lost”. His visit comes a day after US President Biden visited Israel.

The only sensible way is for the UN is to find a solution to prevent the escalation of this war. To appease the more belligerent Islamic world and population spread across the world the UN needs to take a peace initiative further escalation of the war. Hamas Trump Card right at the moment is the Israeli hostages and prisoners. Later Hamas needs to be disarmed if totally defeated, establish a Palestinian State with defined borders and elected govt under the aegis of the UN for establishing durable peace.

Patial RC

Patial RC is a retired Infantry officer of the Indian Army and possesses unique experience of serving in active CI Ops across the country and in Sri Lanka. Patial RC is a regular writer on military and travel matters in military professional journals. The veteran is a keen mountaineer and a trekker.

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