Hamas Tunnels: The Challenge for the Israeli Army

2023-10-25 08:43:57, Blog CNA
Hamas Tunnels: The Challenge for the Israeli Army
Hamas tunnel between Israel and the Gaza Strip

The biggest challenges expected for the Israeli army's expected ground offensive in the Gaza Strip lie underground: the militant Hamas tunnel system. The organization, which is categorized by the US, the EU, Germany and other countries as a terrorist organization, has probably the largest network of tunnels in the world - systems of such comparable proportions are found only in North Korea. Due to the hundreds of kilometers of tunnels, the difficulties for the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip increase, John Spencer from the US Military Academy, West Point wrote in an article a few days ago. "The extended underground complex is a problem with many unknowns, for which there is no perfect solution." As a whole, this network, according to reports and calculations, consists of 1300 tunnels with a length of 500 km. Some tunnels are even 70 meters deep, most are two meters deep and two meters high.

Experts are of the opinion that the 200 hostages taken by Hamas after the terrorist attack on October 7 were put into the tunnels. According to the data, these also serve for the storage of weapons, food items, water, generators, fuel and other equipment. Experts are also of the opinion that Hamas leaders are also hiding in these tunnels. They will make the fighting even more difficult in the densely populated Gaza Strip. "Tunnels allow fighters to move safely and freely between several fighting positions," opines Spencer. "By doing so, they neutralize Israel's advantages in terms of tactics, weapons, technology and organization.

Hamas Tunnels: The Challenge for the Israeli Army
Hamas tunnel

The Israeli army is facing difficulties not only because of Hamas's abuse of civilians and hostages by using them as "human shields", making it difficult to distinguish between military and civilian targets. But according to international law this is foreseen, Mike Martin, an expert on the psychology of warfare at Kings College in London, tells DW. Israel called a few days ago for the population in Gaza to leave for its safety in the south of the country.

But such a war has the typical problems of urban areas. According to Martin, the fighting in these areas takes place in three dimensions. "You shoot from above, so from tall buildings, of course also from underground. And if you destroy a building it turns into rubble, in which someone can quickly hide and strike back." According to him, the urban terrain is the most difficult for an army.

Difficult search

Initially the underground tunnels were built to bring goods from Egypt to the Gaza Strip due to the blockade and later to smuggle goods through Gaza and Israel as well. After Israel stepped up surveillance efforts with drones and spy cameras, Hamas increasingly invested in expanding the tunnel network. But it was only after the military operation in 2014 that the Israeli army discovered the true extent of the Hamas tunnels. Israel responded by creating an underground blockade along the border with the Gaza Strip to prevent Hamas tunnels from reaching Israel.

It is not easy to locate the tunnels, but it is possible to detect them with the help of radars and other thermal methods or acoustic signals. But often also from human factors, the organization "Rand Corporation" reported in 2017. For example, when the phone signal of a Hamas fighter can no longer be followed, due to entering a tunnel.

Hamas Tunnels: The Challenge for the Israeli Army

Underground war

Tear gas and chemical weapons have been used in tunnels in the past, according to Daphne Richemond-Barak, one of the world's leading experts in the field, author of the book "Underground Warfare". But these methods are probably illegal today. It is likely that the tunnels will be bombed. Israel has so-called anti-bunker bombs, which can be inserted deep into the ground. But the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, 40 km long and 6 to 14 km wide with a population of 2.2 million people. Even if Israel knows where the tunnels are, the specifics of the Gaza Strip make bombing very difficult, perhaps impossible. Israel also possesses the so-called precision bombs, to shoot the tunnels or make them unusable, reports "Rand Corporation". But their use has not brought the desired result.

Another challenge for the Israeli army: The war in the tunnels is the most difficult. It is dark and cold underground. Noises like gunfire are louder than above ground, the use of weapons stirs up the ground creating dust. The tunnels may also have been mined. In the past, Israeli soldiers entered the tunnel after special forces had given the green light for security. Since 2014, the Israeli army has engaged special army units for tunnel warfare. They have trained in a physical or virtual environment for this type of warfare. These units are also supported by robots and trained dogs.

Hamas Tunnels: The Challenge for the Israeli Army
Preparing for a ground offensive? Israeli troops and tanks on the border with the Gaza Strip

Uncertain success

I have never seen so many preparations for a war of tunnels, as those of the Israeli army, said John Spencer of the US Military Academy, one of the founders of the international group for the development of underground warfare. Another expert, Daphne Richemond-Barak, also part of the founding group, has doubts. "Israel must conduct a long, extended air and ground operation to destroy this underground infrastructure," she wrote for Britain's Financial Times newspaper. According to her, the army can destroy the tunnel, flood it or close it. But this would be difficult especially in an urban environment. This operation could take months. "Even in such a scenario, which would cause unimaginable human costs, it is unlikely that the entire network of tunnels in the Gaza Strip will be destroyed," emphasizes Richemond-Barak.

Even Mike Martin, an expert at Kings College, sees the tunnel as a tremendous challenge. "With the radar technique and seismic scanning, the tunnels are really revealed," he says in a conversation with DW, but the Israeli intelligence service apparatus has its weaknesses. Martin recalls the beginning of the escalation of the situation in the Middle East. An attack of this magnitude they did not foresee, says Martin, referring to the terrorist attack by Hamas on October 7 with more than 1,200 victims. "This shows that there are some weak points. It seems to me that Israel with these weaknesses does not know how Hamas will defend the Gaza Strip and what are the future plans. You can put some question marks on the Israeli information."

With additional reporting by Kevin Lynch/ DW

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