Navigating depths: Israel’s ongoing struggle against Hamas’ underground tunnel network

Taha Sakr
6 Min Read

The Gaza Strip has witnessed a protracted and intricate struggle between Hamas and the Israeli occupation, with tunnels serving as a critical component of Palestinian resilience against siege and occupation. Referred to as the “Gaza Metro,” this extensive labyrinth of tunnels presents a unique challenge for Israel. Despite successive wars and concerted efforts to dismantle the tunnel network, Hamas has displayed remarkable resilience, utilizing these subterranean passages for various strategic purposes.

Evolution of Gaza’s tunnels

The roots of tunnel construction in Gaza can be traced back to the 1990s when families along the border began digging small tunnels for smuggling light weapons and goods. As the Al-Aqsa Intifada erupted in 2000, these tunnels evolved into a crucial means for smuggling weapons into Gaza, enhancing the military capabilities of Palestinian factions.

Tunnel weapon

The Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, initiated the use of tunnels for specific operations targeting military sites inside and outside Gaza. Notable instances include the bombing of the “Tarmid” site in Rafah in 2001, marking the advent of the “Tunnel Weapon,” and the high-profile kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006 during Operation “Shattered Illusion.”

Types of tunnels in Gaza

The Gaza Strip features three main types of tunnels:

1. Attack Tunnels: Penetrating borders to carry out attacks, these tunnels also serve as launchers for rocket launchers and mortars, providing protection from air strikes.

2. Defensive Tunnels: Used within Palestinian territories, these tunnels facilitate ambushes and the transportation of fighters away from aerial views.

3. Logistics Tunnels: Serving as command and control centres, these tunnels house field commanders, store ammunition and facilitate communication, remaining hidden from Israeli aerial surveillance.

Gaza Metro’s strategic significance

Hamas has dubbed the tunnel network a “strategic weapon,” and its significance became even more apparent during the 2014 Israeli aggression on Gaza. The Al-Qassam Brigades extensively utilized the tunnels for targeting military sites and deploying defence mechanisms against occupation convoys.

Recent developments: Hamas’ claim of 500 kilometres of tunnels

In 2021, Hamas asserted that it had constructed an extensive network of 500 kilometres of tunnels under Gaza. While the accuracy of this figure remains uncertain, if true, it would nearly match the length of New York City’s subway system. This claim underscores the scale and complexity of the subterranean challenge faced by Israel.

Tunnels have become the new battleground between Palestinian resistance and the Israeli occupation, echoing historical challenges faced by US forces in Vietnam’s tunnels. In 2016, during the funeral of several “Preparation Martyrs” involved in tunnel digging, Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh claimed that Gaza’s resistance tunnels exceeded the length of Vietnam’s.

Since the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, the Al-Qassam Brigades have relied on tunnels for specific operations targeting military sites inside and outside Gaza. Notable operations include the bombing of the “Hardoun” site in 2003 and the kidnapping of soldier Shalit in 2006.

During the 2014 Israeli aggression on Gaza, the Al-Qassam Brigades extensively used strategic weapons, targeting military sites and employing defence tunnels to confront occupation convoys.

Israel’s countermeasures: “Iron Wall” and beyond

To counter the tunnel threat, Israel initiated a massive project in 2016, investing $1.1bn to build a 65-kilometer-long wall both above and below ground. This comprehensive system includes a 6-meter high steel fence, an underground reinforced concrete wall, sensors, radars, surveillance devices, and guard towers equipped with remotely controlled heavy machine guns.

Despite the completion of this elaborate defensive infrastructure in 2019, Hamas’s Al-Qassam fighters managed to cross and dismantle the so-called “iron wall” in October 2019. In response, Israel launched airstrikes on civilian sites, resulting in casualties and extensive damage.

Strategic Considerations and Ongoing Challenges

The Gaza tunnels have become a new battleground, reminiscent of historical challenges faced by forces in Vietnam’s tunnels. The ongoing clash highlights the strategic considerations that Israel must navigate as it grapples with this subterranean threat. The division of the Gaza Strip into areas and the implementation of the “Tnufa” plan, aiming to intensively fire on specific regions to hinder tunnel reconstruction, underscore the complexities faced by Israel.

The Difficulty of Targeting an Extensive Subterranean Network

The Gaza Metro’s depth, complexity, and varied purposes make it a formidable challenge for Israel to target effectively. Tunnels serve not only as conduits for attacks but also as vital components of Hamas’ logistical and defensive capabilities. The difficulty in detecting and neutralizing these tunnels highlights the ongoing technological and strategic challenges faced by Israel in countering this unique threat.

The subterranean struggle between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip continues to unfold as a complex and dynamic conflict. The intricate network of tunnels, with their multifaceted purposes, poses a persistent challenge to Israel’s occupation. Recent developments, technological advancements, and strategic considerations underscore the evolving nature of this conflict, with the Gaza tunnels remaining a critical factor in shaping the dynamics of the ongoing struggle between Hamas and the Israeli occupation.

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