Today: 19-04-2024

Beneath Gaza's Surface: Unveiling the Hidden Frontline - The Hamas Tunnel City

Beneath Gaza's Surface: Unraveling the Labyrinthine Hamas Tunnels

JERUSALEM/LONDON, Oct 26 (Reuters) — As Israeli ground troops prepare to navigate the complex terrain beneath Gaza, security sources unveil a sprawling Hamas tunnel network, stretching hundreds of kilometers and plunging depths of up to 80 meters. Described as a "spider's web" by a freed hostage and likened to the "Viet Cong times 10" by an expert, these subterranean passages serve various purposes, including attack, smuggling, storage, and operational burrows.

Within the 360-square-kilometer coastal strip and along its borders, diverse tunnel types comprise an intricate underground infrastructure, as disclosed by Western and Middle East sources familiar with the matter. The United States anticipates an unprecedented challenge for Israel's special forces, tasked with combating Hamas militants while minimizing harm to hostages held below ground. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin draws parallels with Iraq's battle for Mosul, suggesting that the Israeli operation may involve grappling with numerous improvised explosive devices (IEDs), booby traps, and enduring a relentless struggle.

Despite Israel's substantial investments in tunnel detection, featuring a sensor-equipped underground barrier dubbed an "iron wall," Hamas is believed to maintain operational tunnels to the outside world. Even after the 2021 hostilities, Hamas's leader in Gaza, Yehya Al-Sinwar, contested Israeli claims of tunnel destruction, asserting that the actual network surpassed 500 kilometers. While Sinwar's statement lacks corroboration, security analysts widely accept the estimate, considering Gaza's blockaded nature and limited access points controlled by Israel.

With Israel dominating Gaza's air and sea access and the majority of its land borders, tunnels emerge as crucial conduits for Hamas to import weapons, equipment, and personnel. The clandestine nature of these networks adds an element of mystery, with recently released hostage Yocheved Lifshitz comparing the intricate system to a "spider's web," recounting journeys covering kilometers beneath the ground.

As tensions escalate, the hidden frontline beneath Gaza's surface unveils a complex battleground, where strategic maneuvering and technological prowess clash with the subterranean resilience of Hamas's extensive tunnel network.

Unveiling the Depths: The Strategic Significance of Hamas Tunnels

In the asymmetrical conflict between Hamas and Israel, tunnels emerge as a critical element of Hamas's strategy. Faced with Israel's overwhelming aerial and armored military dominance, Hamas employs tunnels to neutralize some of these advantages, compelling Israeli forces into underground, familiar, and confined spaces.

An Israeli military spokesperson, without specifying the exact extent, acknowledged the extensive tunnel network, emphasizing their presence beneath schools and residential areas. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, seeking international intervention, urges the UN Security Council to halt the "aggression" on Gaza, advocating for a shift from military solutions to political resolutions.

Israeli security sources reveal that despite intensive aerial bombardments, the tunnel infrastructure remains largely intact, allowing Hamas naval commandos to threaten coastal communities near Gaza. The subterranean complexity includes bunkers, headquarters, storage, and over a thousand rocket launching positions, forming a concealed city beneath Gaza with depths reaching 40-80 meters.

Amir Avivi, a former Israeli brigadier general, underscores the resilience of Hamas leadership and its ability to command, control, and counterattack. Describing the extensive tunnel system as reminiscent of the Viet Cong, sources emphasize its construction quality, funded by years of investment and ample resources.

Reports suggest that Hamas's tunnels extending from Egypt are still operational, facilitated by a supply chain involving Egyptian military officers. The extent of the Egyptian army's awareness remains unclear. While a few narrow smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza persisted until recently, they have significantly slowed since the onset of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Egypt's Silence Amid Tensions: Unanswered Queries

In the midst of escalating tensions, Egyptian officials have yet to respond to inquiries seeking their perspective on the situation. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, during a recent inspection of military units in Suez, reiterated the army's role in securing Egyptian borders but provided no direct commentary on the unfolding events.

Hamas, originating in Gaza in 1987, strategically employed tunnel construction in the mid-1990s, capitalizing on the partial self-rule granted to Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization by Israel. The tunnel network has played a pivotal role, contributing to Hamas's stronghold in Gaza compared to the more challenging environment in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005 facilitated tunneling, a method further exploited when Hamas assumed power in the 2006 election. Notably, in 2006, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's military wing, executed a daring raid on the Kerem Shalom base, utilizing a tunnel that extended 600 meters.

During this period, commercial tunnels under the Rafah border were discreetly showcased by Gaza smugglers. These three-feet-wide passages, equipped with winch motors, served as conduits for various goods. Profits, especially from bullets and Kalashnikov rifles, were substantial, with a half-mile tunnel potentially yielding up to $100,000 a day.

The difficulty of mapping the extensive tunnel network is highlighted by Professor Joel Roskin, a geomorphologist and geologist at Israel's Bar-Ilan University. Accurate mapping, he asserts, requires highly classified information for 3D visualization.

The elite Yahalom units, colloquially known as the "weasels," form part of Israel's Combat Engineering Corps and are tasked with the intricate mission of locating, clearing, and destroying these subterranean passages, underscoring the complex nature of the ongoing conflict.

Facing New Challenges: Israel Gears Up for Complex Underground Warfare

During a recent visit to Yahalom fighters, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed reliance on them, emphasizing the nation's dependence on their capabilities. However, Israeli sources acknowledge the formidable challenges awaiting them in Gaza. The enemy, having regrouped and learned from past operations, poses a renewed threat.

Amnon Sofrin, a former brigadier general and Combat Intelligence Corps commander, warns of increased hazards, including booby traps and more lethal thermobaric weapons not present in previous encounters. Additionally, there is concern about Hamas acquiring advanced anti-tank weapon systems, aiming to target armored personnel carriers and tanks. Sofrin highlights the potential for Hamas to employ kidnapping tactics against Israeli soldiers.

Professor Daphne Richemond-Barak from Israel's Reichman University, an expert in underground warfare, notes the influence of conflicts in Syria and Iraq on Hamas's strategies. The knowledge and experience gained by groups like ISIS have likely been transferred to Hamas, further complicating the challenges that the Israeli military may face inside the intricate tunnel networks.

As tensions escalate, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are gearing up for a multifaceted conflict that goes beyond traditional warfare, drawing on the lessons learned from recent regional conflicts. The situation underscores the evolving nature of warfare and the need for adaptive strategies to navigate the complex landscape of modern conflict zones.

Reporting by Jonathan Saul in Jerusalem and Stephen Farrell in London, with additional contributions by Phil Stewart in Washington, Nafisa Eltahir, and Ahmed Mohamed Hassan in Cairo. Editing by Janet Lawrence.

Navigating the Depths of Conflict

In the face of an evolving and intricate conflict, Israel prepares for a challenging underground warfare scenario in Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Yahalom fighters underscores the nation's reliance on these forces. However, the formidable challenges ahead, including booby traps, advanced weaponry, and the risk of soldier abductions, present a complex battleground.

Amidst these concerns, former brigadier general Amnon Sofrin warns of the changing landscape, citing the acquisition of thermobaric weapons and advanced anti-tank systems by Hamas. The expertise derived from conflicts in Syria and Iraq, now potentially transferred to Hamas, adds an additional layer of complexity to the situation.

As Israel adapts to this multifaceted threat, the conflict showcases the dynamic nature of modern warfare. The experiences of groups like ISIS influence tactics, requiring the Israeli Defense Forces to navigate an environment where underground networks become key strategic assets.

The collaboration of reporting from Jonathan Saul in Jerusalem, Stephen Farrell in London, Phil Stewart in Washington, Nafisa Eltahir, and Ahmed Mohamed Hassan in Cairo provides a comprehensive insight into the challenges at hand. In this evolving landscape, the conclusion is clear: the intricacies of underground warfare demand adaptive strategies and a vigilant approach as the conflict unfolds.