Israeli Ground Troops Face Formidable Challenge in Gaza
The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas has brought attention to the extensive tunnel network that Hamas has built in Gaza. Security sources reveal that these tunnels, which are hundreds of kilometers long and up to 80 meters deep, pose a significant challenge for Israeli ground troops. Described as a “spider’s web” and compared to the Viet Cong’s tunnels during the Vietnam War, these underground passages serve various purposes for Hamas, including attack, smuggling, storage, and operational activities.
Despite Israel’s investments in tunnel detection technology, Hamas is believed to still have functioning tunnels that connect Gaza to the outside world. After the previous round of hostilities in 2021, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yehya Al-Sinwar, claimed that the tunnels in the region exceeded 500 km, even though the coastal strip itself is only 40 km long. While there is no corroboration of this statement, security analysts widely accept the estimate of hundreds of kilometers of tunnels.
The tunnels provide Hamas with a means to bring in weapons, equipment, and people since Israel controls Gaza’s air, sea, and land access. These underground passages are crucial for Hamas to maintain its military capabilities and counter Israel’s overwhelming aerial and armored superiority. By forcing Israeli soldiers to navigate cramped spaces underground, Hamas aims to neutralize some of Israel’s advantages.
Israeli security sources acknowledge that their heavy aerial bombardments have caused minimal damage to the tunnel infrastructure. Hamas naval commandos have even been able to launch seaborne attacks on coastal communities near Gaza. The extensive tunnel network includes bunkers, headquarters, storage facilities, and over a thousand rocket launching positions. These tunnels are well-constructed using concrete and have been developed over years with substantial financial resources.
While some narrower smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza were still operational until recently, they have largely ceased operations since the current conflict began. However, Hamas’s tunnels from Egypt remain active, facilitated by a network that involves Egyptian military officers. The Egyptian army’s knowledge of this network remains unclear.
The tunnel network has been a key factor in Hamas’s strength in Gaza compared to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Israel’s settlements, military bases, and monitoring devices make it challenging for Hamas to smuggle goods into the West Bank from Jordan. Tunneling became easier for Hamas after Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, and when Hamas won power in a 2006 election.
Mapping the tunnel network accurately is a difficult task. Highly classified information and advanced technology are required for 3D mapping and imagery visualization. Yahalom, specialist commandos from Israel’s Combat Engineering Corps known as the “weasels,” are among the elite units tasked with finding, clearing, and destroying the tunnels.
Israeli sources warn that the upcoming ground offensive will be challenging for their troops. Hamas has regrouped and learned from previous Israeli operations, making them a formidable enemy. Booby traps, thermobaric weapons, anti-tank weapon systems, and potential soldier kidnappings are among the threats that Israeli troops may encounter in the tunnels.
The conflicts in Syria and Iraq have also influenced the tactics and knowledge of groups like Hamas. The Israeli military is likely to face the experience and expertise gained by groups like Daesh (Islamic State) inside the tunnels. This adds another layer of complexity to the already challenging task of neutralizing Hamas’s tunnel network.
As the conflict continues, it remains to be seen how Israeli ground troops will navigate this intricate underground maze and overcome the obstacles posed by Hamas’s extensive tunnel network.