The Network of Tunnels in Gaza Complicates Prospects for an Israeli Ground Operation

by Ethan Kim
Hamas Tunnels in Gaza

As the specter of an intensified Israeli ground operation in the Gaza Strip looms amid an escalating conflict with Hamas, one of the most significant challenges confronting both Israeli forces and the 2.3 million Palestinian inhabitants of the enclave is an intricate underground tunnel system.

Built by the militant organization Hamas, this complex web of tunnels runs throughout the densely populated Gaza Strip. It serves as a hidden depot for militants, their missile stockpiles, and now over 200 hostages taken following an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7.

Neutralizing this subterranean network is essential if Israel aims to incapacitate Hamas. However, carrying out operations in densely populated zones and subterranean spaces could neutralize some of the Israeli military’s technological upper hand, thereby providing Hamas with tactical advantages on multiple fronts.

John Spencer, a retired U.S. Army major and the Chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point, likened the situation to “walking through a gauntlet of invisible threats.” Urban defenders, he noted, have the luxury of choosing the time and location of engagement, remaining hidden while retaining the ability to observe enemy movements.

During a recent night, the Israeli Air Force reported hitting 150 subterranean Hamas installations in the northern part of Gaza. These targeted airstrikes, which represent Israel’s most aggressive assault on the tunnels to date, were conducted in parallel with heightened ground activities.

Historical Context

Subterranean warfare is far from a modern development. Throughout history—from the Roman siege of ancient Greek city Ambracia to Ukrainian resistance in tunnels below Mariupol’s Azovstal Iron and Steel Works—tunnels have provided defensive advantages, making them challenging obstacles for invading armies.

In the Gaza Strip, this historical truism holds. After Israel and Egypt enforced a stringent blockade on Gaza in 2007 following Hamas’ takeover, the militant group ramped up tunnel construction to facilitate smuggling activities from Egypt. Despite later Egyptian efforts to neutralize these pathways, Hamas is now thought to maintain an expansive underground network throughout the territory.

Hamas’ political leader, Yehiyeh Sinwar, asserted in 2021 that the organization possesses a staggering 500 kilometers of tunnels. The Israeli military, aware of the tunneling activities since as early as 2001, has deployed specialized units, like the Samur or “Weasels,” to locate and destroy these underground structures.

Risks and Challenges

Fully eradicating Hamas necessitates clearing these tunnels, which can serve as launch pads for surprise attacks against advancing Israeli troops. Ariel Bernstein, a veteran of the 2014 conflict, described the disorienting and unpredictable nature of urban warfare in Gaza, particularly with regards to these tunnels.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant expressed reservations about the forthcoming ground campaign, stating it would be a prolonged endeavor to dismantle the expansive tunnel network. Israel has already taken strategic measures such as halting all fuel supplies to Gaza, thereby potentially affecting the functioning of the tunnels.

Further Complexities

Notwithstanding these challenges, the situation is further complicated by the fact that Hamas is holding approximately 200 hostages, reportedly within these tunnels. This significantly complicates any Israeli military action, as the likelihood of collateral damage increases manifold.

Clearing tunnels with hostages confined inside will necessitate a meticulous and calibrated approach, relying heavily on technology and intelligence, states the Soufan Center, a New York-based security think tank.

Daphné Richemond-Barak, a professor at Israel’s Reichman University who has written extensively on underground warfare, warns of the multitude of risks involved. She emphasizes that despite the inherent dangers, these tunnels must be neutralized for Israel to accomplish its military objectives.

Thus, the labyrinthine tunnels of Gaza represent not just a military challenge for Israel, but also add layers of complexity to an already volatile and fraught conflict situation.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Hamas Tunnels in Gaza

What is the primary focus of the article?

The article primarily focuses on the complex network of tunnels built by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and how they pose significant challenges and risks for any potential Israeli ground operation.

What challenges do these tunnels present for the Israeli military?

The tunnels neutralize some of the Israeli military’s technological advantages and provide Hamas with tactical benefits both above and below ground. They serve as hidden depots for militants, their weapons, and hostages, making them difficult to neutralize without collateral damage.

Why are the tunnels particularly problematic in the context of a densely populated area like the Gaza Strip?

The tunnels are built beneath densely populated areas, complicating efforts to destroy them without causing civilian casualties. Moreover, their existence in such zones provides Hamas with numerous strategic locations from which to launch attacks.

What historical context does the article provide regarding tunnel warfare?

The article traces the historical use of tunnels in warfare, from the Roman siege of the ancient Greek city of Ambracia to the use of Soviet-era tunnels by Ukrainian fighters. It emphasizes that tunnels have long provided defensive advantages, making them challenging obstacles for invading armies.

How does the presence of hostages in the tunnels complicate the situation?

The presence of hostages within the tunnels adds an additional layer of complexity, as any operation to clear the tunnels would have to be executed with extreme caution to avoid collateral damage. It requires a methodical and calibrated approach, potentially slowing down military advances.

What strategies has Israel employed to counter the tunnels?

Israel has deployed specialized units, like the Samur or “Weasels,” focused on locating and destroying these tunnels. It has also utilized airstrikes and halted fuel supplies to Gaza to potentially affect the functioning of the tunnels.

Who are the experts quoted in the article, and what do they contribute?

John Spencer, a retired U.S. Army major and Chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point, provides insights into the tactical challenges posed by urban warfare. Daphné Richemond-Barak, a professor at Israel’s Reichman University, discusses the risks and necessities involved in tackling underground warfare.

What are the implications for civilians in Gaza?

The article suggests that the 2.3 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip are also at risk due to the tunnel network, as any military operation aimed at destroying the tunnels could result in collateral damage, including civilian casualties.

More about Hamas Tunnels in Gaza

  • History of Tunnel Warfare
  • Israeli Military Strategy: Challenges and Responses
  • The Role of Hamas in the Israel-Gaza Conflict
  • Tactical Advantages and Disadvantages of Tunnel Systems in Warfare
  • The Use of Hostages in Conflict Zones
  • The 2014 Israel-Gaza War: An Overview
  • Underground Warfare: An Academic Perspective
  • The Soufan Center: Security Briefings and Reports
  • Israel’s Samur Unit: Specialists in Tunnel Operations

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GlobalCitizen October 28, 2023 - 5:07 pm

it’s so tragic how civilians get caught up in all this. Really hope a peaceful resolution is found soon.

JohnDoe42 October 28, 2023 - 11:25 pm

Wow, never knew how complex tunnel warfare is. makes you think how many layers there are to any conflict.

Realist101 October 28, 2023 - 11:46 pm

Great article, but it feels like we’ve seen this story before. Can’t see how this ends well for anyone involved.

Sarah_in_Finance October 29, 2023 - 1:12 am

Insightful read! I’d be interested to know the economic implications of all this. Warfare isn’t just about the battleground, its about resources too.

Political_Analyst October 29, 2023 - 1:37 am

Excellent breakdown of the situation. This is much more nuanced than what we usually get from mainstream media.

VeteranView October 29, 2023 - 2:34 am

Been in underground operations before, and let me tell you, it’s as difficult as the article says. Claustrophobic, disorienting, and downright scary.

GreenActivist October 29, 2023 - 2:44 am

What about the environmental impact? all those explosions and combat can’t be good for the earth.

TechNerd91 October 29, 2023 - 11:42 am

Impressive article. But what about the tech Israel is using? You’d think with all their advancements they could easily tackle this problem.

HistoryBuff October 29, 2023 - 12:04 pm

Liked the historical context provided. Puts the current situation into perspective. This ain’t new, it’s as old as warfare itself.


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