Digging to resist
The Gaza metro of underground tunnels presents a formidable challenge for the Israeli killing machine. In this case, writes Eddie Ford, the weak might just overcome the strong
Right from the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, there has been a lot of talk about the tunnels underneath Gaza - not least in Gaza City itself. We had an insight recently into the scale of the tunnel system from Yocheved Lifshitz, an 85-year-old woman taken hostage by Hamas during its deadly, but militarily stunning, October 7 raid into Israel.
When she was released after 16 days in captivity, she told journalists that - in an obviously deliberate attempt to disorientate her - she had been bundled onto a motorbike, held in a couple of different locations, marched around for a bit, until “eventually we went underground and walked for kilometres in wet tunnels, for two or three hours, in a spider’s web of tunnels”. She went on to say that “we went through the tunnels until we reached a large hall” and “they separated us according to which kibbutz we were from”. Interestingly, she noted that guards fed the prisoners the same type of food they ate and a doctor visited daily to provide medication and treatment, as “they were very concerned with hygiene and were worried about an outbreak of something”.
Lifshitz’s description gives us a small glimpse of the formidable and possibly deadly challenge facing the Israeli military - a vast warren of tunnels, dubbed the “Gaza metro” by military commentators, that might run for at least 300 miles under the Strip - a territory that is only 25 miles long and six miles wide. As an indication of the potential scale of the network, just over a decade ago Israel uncovered a tunnel from Gaza into Israel that was 1.5 miles long and 66 feet underground, which required 800 tonnes of concrete to secure. Then, following an outburst of hostilities, the Israeli Defence Forces said it had destroyed more than 62 miles of tunnels in air strikes. In response, Hamas put out a statement saying its tunnels stretched for 311 miles and that only 5% were hit. Putting those figures into some sort of perspective, the London Underground is 250 miles long and mostly above ground.
What needs to be immediately understood is that we are not dealing with the sort of tunnels that were originally built in order to subvert the blockade of the Strip and bypass the Rafah Border Crossing - and smuggle in goods from Egypt (fuel, medicines, concrete, etc). After the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979, a 100-metre-wide buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt known as the Philadelphi Route was established. The town of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, was split by this buffer zone. One part is located in the southern part of Gaza, and the smaller part of the town is in Egypt. After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the Philadelphi Route was placed under the control of the Palestine Authority until 2007, when Hamas seized control and Egypt and Israel closed borders with the Gaza Strip - with Egypt in 2009 beginning the construction of an underground barrier to block existing tunnels and supposedly make new ones harder to dig. Anyway, the tunnels used to start from the basements of houses in Rafah on the one side of the border and end in houses in the same town on the other side. But these tunnels were of a very basic construction and had a tendency to collapse due to their shallowness.
Since then, Hamas has been digging and digging, reinforcing and reinforcing. A lot of the concrete that has gone into Gaza (to rebuild it after repeated Israeli airstrikes and incursions) has actually gone into the reinforcing of various types of underground defences. After the discovery of numerous tunnels during the 2014 Gaza war, a complex monitoring process was set up post-conflict aimed at preventing Hamas from diverting building materials to tunnel construction. But, despite the huge numbers of cameras on building sites and warehouses, and a labyrinthine approval and verification process, a thriving hidden economy for building materials sprung up - with some being brazenly sold on the street outside the controlled warehouses. Recycled, war-damaged concrete and metal were also used. Indeed, in 2021 the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz complained that inadequate supervision of the system meant Israel was in effect supplying Hamas with concrete for its tunnel construction!
Showing the sheer scale of the operation, a 2015 report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development noted that the size of the tunnel trade was even greater than the volume of trade through official channels. In fact, the tunnels had been absolutely essential to recover from the wholescale destructions during the 2008-09 Gaza War. If the Gazans had only used the materials allowed in by Israel, it would have taken a minimum of 80 years to rebuild the 6,000 housing units destroyed during the military operation. Thanks to the illegal system, it only took five years. Gaza’s sole power plant ran on diesel from Egypt brought through the tunnels in the range of one million litres per day before June 2013.
Now it is thought that these 300 miles of tunnels have been reinforced with concrete side and top. Presumably there are many entrances - which will have internal barriers, obstructions, different layers, and so on. It also appears that some of these tunnels go down something like 150 feet - though in 2020 Israel found a Hamas tunnel that descended 230 feet below the surface, the deepest found up to that point. The nature of Hamas’s main communication tunnels allows the leadership to shelter, while remaining connected by a phone system isolated from normal networks. And the combat-tunnel part of the system, sensibly enough, has been designed to allow fighters to emerge from hidden entrances in buildings and farmland - something that any conventional army must dread.
Perhaps we are getting a bit more speculative now, but Hamas must be doing everything it can to protect its fighting units - not only from artillery shells, missiles and bombs. But surely, if possible, it must be planning to do more in its ambitions for its war against Israel: that is, digging sufficiently deep so that even bunker busters would not penetrate. Nowadays, though as a special type of munition they have a history going back to World War II, bunker busters are essentially designed to put out of action facilities like Iran’s nuclear sites - which are basically dug down and then covered with layer after layer of steel and concrete. But if you dig deep enough, then theoretically you can protect yourself from such weapons - though whether Hamas will ever be able to do this is obviously impossible to say. But one thing you can guarantee is that Hamas will have been busily researching the capabilities of what America has developed and doing their level best to ensure that enough of their people survive to keep fighting and give the IDF a bloody nose.
When it comes to the challenges and problems of ‘underground warfare’, it is worthwhile reading a recent article posted on the Modern War Institute website at West Point. Written by John Spencer, its chair of urban warfare studies, it is called ‘Underground nightmare: Hamas tunnels and the wicked problem facing the IDF’.1
He points out that entering tunnels “presents unique tactical challenges”, many of which cannot be addressed without specialised equipment - like oxygen tanks. Sometimes it can also be near impossible simply to see, Spencer writes, as most military night-vision goggles - unlike what we often see in the movies or video games - rely on some ambient light and cannot function when that is entirely absent. Hamas no doubt has the ability to escape down tunnels into total darkness as and when it suits them. Then there is the fact that any military navigation and communication equipment that relies on satellite or line-of-sight signals will not work underground. Furthermore, any weapon fired in the compact spaces of tunnels, even a rifle, can produce a concussive effect that can physically harm the firer - not to mention the fact that “a single defender can hold a narrow tunnel against a much superior force”.
Of course, as Spencer reminds us, tunnel warfare is not new. In his Histories, the Greek historian, Polybius, gives a graphic account of mining and counter-mining at the Roman siege of Ambracia - including the first known use of poison gas against the Romans’ siege tunnels. Or, in the Middle Ages, the siege of Carcassonne as part of the Albigensian Crusade, where defenders worked to prevent sapping by dumping anything they had down on attackers who tried to dig under the wall. Then there is the US military’s experience with tunnels during the Civil War sieges of Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1863 and Petersburg, Virginia in 1864 - and the subterranean component of the World War I battles of the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and Messine.
The most famous modern use of tunnels, it almost goes without saying, is in Vietnam - where Ho Chi Minh’s commanders used miles of tunnels to protect their men, supplies and strongholds in places like Củ Chi. This became a huge problem for US generals. When repeated poundings by B52 bombers failed they were compelled to develop new tactics, such as sending ‘tunnel rats’ underground armed with only a pistol and flashlight - most of whom never came back.
Some military commentators suggest that the depth and scale of Hamas tunnels could exceed Israel’s capabilities to deal with them. Just as IDF forces above ground will have to fight inch by inch, so will those underground - a grim prospect, which explains why, in this case, the weak might just overcome the strong.