Hamas's tunnels will facilitate full-blown urban guerrilla warfare

Hamas has built tunnel networks much beyond Gaza

54-An-Israeli-solider-peers-into-a-Hamas-made-tunnel Tunnel vision: An Israeli solider peers into a Hamas-made tunnel. Operations to destroy the Hamas tunnel network have only served to expand it.

NOT JUST ‘SMOKE on the water’ and ‘a fire in the sky’―there will be an inferno in the netherworld, too, in the event of the war that Israel is gearing up for. On the face of it, there seems to be absolute asymmetry between the military might of Israel and Palestinian militias. But, it is not as overwhelming as it appears. Because this is to be an unconventional battle.

Hamas has built tunnels well into Israel. These crisscross underneath residential quarters, schools, public buildings and open areas.

The entire Gaza enclave is perched atop an intricate and complex network of concrete tunnels. The tunnel construction work, believed to have begun in 1999, had picked up pace after Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip in 2007.

On March 5, 2014, Israel’s navy intercepted a ship carrying weapons destined for Gaza. It had rockets, mortar shells and ammunition, and, another strategic commodity―cement, from Iran; about 100 containers (more than 2 million tonnes) of it. A report by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), a leading think-tank, says that by 2014, Israel had “discovered 100km of tunnels in Gaza, one-third of which stretched under Israeli territory”. In fact, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) undertook Operation Protective Edge in 2014 with the prime intent of destroying the tunnel network, but only about 30 tunnels that ran into Israel were discovered and destroyed.

The issue for Israel is that the tunnels will facilitate full-blown urban guerrilla warfare, street by street and lane by lane. Israeli battle tanks rumbling through streets can be targeted by guerrillas wielding shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons. An IDF post says: “Hamas’s tunnel network is in fact a vast underground city with dozens of access points located throughout Gaza. Hamas uses these tunnels as weapons caches, bunkers, command centers and a concealed transportation artery for terrorists and weapons, including rocket launchers.”

By lying deceptively low while Israel focused more on the much-larger Hezbollah, Hamas has built tunnel networks much beyond Gaza and well into Egypt’s Sinai and into Israel. Hidden from satellites and drones, these well-camouflaged tunnels crisscross underneath residential quarters, schools, public buildings, open areas and are well-lighted, ventilated, and big enough for free movement of men and material. Over the years, several operations by the IDF aimed at destroying the Hamas tunnel infrastructure have only served to expand it.

The new extensive and deeper tunnels also serve as operational bases, weapons manufacturing units, arsenals, jails and places to trap the enemy, apart from being entry and exit points for operations. It is a terrain whose layout only the Hamas knows.

Aware of the threat, the IDF set up its own tunnel warfare unit―the Yahalom. Its mandate is to “discover, clear, and destroy terror tunnels”. It is divided into the Yael or the unit engineering reconnaissance force; the Sayfan, for the handling of non-conventional weapons; and the Samur, specialist tunnel fighters.

Apart from tunnels, Hamas has also honed its weapons manufacturing ability. A JCPA report in August 2021 concluded that Hamas had developed enormous capability to produce its arsenal and was no longer fighting an asymmetrical war. It warned that Hamas was developing “drones and unmanned underwater vehicles, engaging in cyber warfare, and on the cusp of graduating from unguided rockets to precision, GPS-guided drones and missiles”.

There is also the spectre of the war spilling into multiple fronts. The omnipresent Hezbollah threat is already beginning to manifest into the opening of a new front. And, the US-led west will soon have to divide its weapons supply between Ukraine and Israel.

All these factors mean that Israel faces a serious tactical and strategic dilemma. No wonder Tel Aviv blamed a thick cloud cover for the delay in its ground offensive. It is still waiting.