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Gaza’s tunnels: The future battlefield

February 1, 2016 at 4:10 pm

The recent death of seven Al-Qassam Brigades members after the collapse of a tunnel highlighted the new combat style created by Hamas in the Palestinian territories a decade ago, when the Israeli army was in the heart of Gaza before it withdrew.

Early digging

The tunnel war is considered one of the most important and dangerous military methods used by the resistance to confront the Israeli army. In addition to it being a new method that has made its way to the heart of the combat equation and dug itself an important position in the resistance’s military approach, the qualitative and strategic aspect that it represents and the human and moral effects it achieves have posed a great challenge and threat to the Israeli military machine, which is equipped with all of the fatal war tactics and security theories that are considered examples of gathering all means and measures of protection, pre-emption and predicting the opponent’s moves. This is proof of the magnitude of the crisis witnessed by the Israeli military institution after experiencing the Palestinian resistance’s development.

The danger of the tunnel method lies in the fact that it is far from the traditional combat measures and conditions and instead relies on surprising the opponent with a violent blow. This does not allow the opponent to flee or rescue itself, nor does it allow the opponent to fight back or retaliate.

This method relies on quiet work that involves digging a tunnel or several tunnels underground with primitive tools and means, and being determined to work without making any noise in accordance with pre-planned geographical plans. There is no appearance or indication of this above ground and this prevents the Israeli army from dealing with this matter and thwarting the Palestinian plans or attacks. This is because the Palestinians depend on the surprise factor which confuses the opponent with one or a series of immediate explosions that achieve their purpose and spread death and destruction in the targeted areas. It is during such attacks that the greatest losses are inflicted.

According to the Israeli intelligence agency’s information, the “diggers”, i.e. the Palestinians specialised in digging the tunnels, usually go underground after spending a long time before abstaining from water in order not to sweat, as sweat may cause the collapse of the tunnel while they work. They generally use a mechanical, not electrical, tool to dig the tunnels in order not to make noise.

The tool used for digging consists of a chain, similar to that of a bicycle that moves metal plates that dig into the soil. While using this tool, the men lie on their backs and use the levers on the tool to pedal the metal plates that do the digging. They dig using their legs, as leg muscles are the strongest muscles in the body, and therefore they are able to dig for long periods of time.

In order to ensure that tunnels do not collapse during and after digging, they usually use rectangle pieces of wood to prevent the dirt from shifting or sliding. This caused the army to describe these tunnels as “an oxygen tube for opposing activities” and left them confused about what to do.

The tunnel phenomenon seems to be the top problem for the Israeli army in Gaza. Although the army is aware of the tunnels being dug, they have only managed to find a few. This means that Hamas has been successful in digging these tunnels and that Israel’s inability to find them is not a coincidence, rather a result of long and accurate planning. These attacks consist of many stages and are carried out by dozens. This operation reflects a problem with the Israeli intelligence, because the tunnels were put high on the intelligence agency’s priority ladder when it was too late and therefore the intelligence is having difficulties in providing the army with good information.

A war in the dark

The development in the resistance’s surprise attack techniques which manifested in the tunnel war drove Roni Daniel, military correspondent for Israeli TV’s Channel 2, to say: “It seems that we have lost the war of wits with Hamas.” He even accused the Israeli army’s military analysts of being too slow and too late in searching for technological and field solutions suitable for the tunnel problem, despite the fact that the army leadership has been talking about the tunnels for a while, considering them a weapon that “violates the balance”. Although the Israeli army may lose control and its balance in Gaza, it still has not led to finding the right fit to confront the threat posed by the tunnels.

Military correspondent, Amos Harel, commented on the tunnel war by saying: “If there is something that is very clear in the long war that Israel is fighting against the Palestinians, it is the need to be cautious and disciplined when talking about the executed military successes, as there are no major or even decisive victories in this battle.”

In addition to this, the Israeli newspapers and media addressed the tunnel situation and Israel’s failure in the tunnel war in many of its headlines.

The Israeli army leadership deployed its troops to look for a military solution for the tunnels. This led Colonel Tzvika Fux, from the ground forces, to state that the real solution is technological. The ideal solution would be a drone that could fly over an area and take x-rays in order to discover the tunnels, but they may not be available in the near future.

Many military experts gave the army leadership advice, the most important of which is sending Israeli military experts to Vietnam to receive training on how to thwart tunnel attacks after they have been repeated. This is because the Vietnamese had a lot of experience in digging tunnels during their war against the US.

After extensive research and after hundreds of specialists gave their thoughts on ways to reach a form of technology able to locate and destroy tunnels, they reached a conclusion: We must admit that the army does not possess a magic solution for the tunnels. However they used another method to destroy the tunnels, which was the use of water hoses. The army believes that these hoses will locate tunnels and the water will flood the tunnels, thus causing them to collapse.

The magnitude and severity of the tunnel problem faced by the Israeli army increased during its most recent war on Gaza. The tunnels will definitely be part of the next war, but in addition to this, there have been very serious warnings issued to the security agencies that the resistance forces are planning new types of operations, including the construction of tunnels used for explosive operations, and other tunnels to smuggle those wanting to carry out operations under the Separation Wall on the Gazan border.

In order to combat these warnings, Israel made special preparations which included new intelligence technological devices, large tractors highly capable of locating tunnels and new means of underground digging.

The tunnels played the most critical role in exhausting the Israeli army and inflicting major human and military equipment losses by means of attacks that surprised the elite forces and caused them defeat and despair in the following neighbourhoods: Al-Tufah, Al-Shujaiyeh, the eastern part of Khan Yunis, Rafah and Beit Hanoun. The Israeli forces also suffered from behind enemy lines in operations expertly executed by the resistance forces via medium-sized tunnels that were directed at military targets in settlements and areas close to the Gaza Strip. These operations resulted in the death and injury of many Israeli soldiers.

Failed solutions

The Hamas fighters travel through Gaza’s tunnels wearing black uniforms and armed with machine guns, moving smoothly and agilely, as if they were in their homes. They are actually in a network of tunnels and passageways under the Gaza Strip. These tunnels were dug by them and built by them, and the fighters live in these tunnels relaxed and reassured, as if they were in their own homes. The ceilings in parts of the tunnels are high enough that the soldiers are able to move about without having to duck or lower their heads. Meanwhile, some of the floors are dry while others are muddy or made of cement. It seems difficult to specify how long each tunnel is, but they do separate into many different directions and once you enter the tunnels, you cannot hear the traffic or the planes that are flying over the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army leadership does not hide its concern that Al-Qassam Brigades will use the tunnels extending across Gaza and across the border with Israel for a number of potential scenarios:

  1. To smuggle fighters behind the army’s lines and attack the back of the raiding forces.
  2. Use tunnels to facilitate the abduction of soldiers.
  3. Allow Al-Qassam fighters to use the tunnels to carry out operations in the heart of settlement clusters while military operations take place in Gaza.

It is true that the Israeli army destroyed many tunnels, however the strategic tunnels remain unaffected and are being used to their full logistic potential, in terms of water, food and weapon supplies. The tunnels are also equipped with a ventilation system and electrical lines, and therefore the tunnels are a strong point for the Hamas fighters which will become apparent if the army enters the heart of Gaza. This is because the tunnels extend along all the streets and alleyways, which gives Al-Qassam Brigades even more power and deepens Israel’s crisis, creating countless security problems for the army.

Prominent Israeli political commentator, Nahum Barnea, reported the testimonies of soldiers regarding the tunnel war, as Gaza’s soft soil taken over by the tanks’ tracks, excavators,and bulldozers is no longer dust, it has become a powder. The military bulldozers worked to reveal the trenches and tunnels that branched from the wells network. Paratroopers found dozens of combat sites linked to a number of tunnels.

Perhaps the expression “spider with many legs” is an expression that the Israeli army has used to describe the tunnels in Gaza after being surprised by their size and numbers. The army was forced to work dozens of continuous hours until they reached the large openings of the tunnels. The tunnels were similar to a tree with many branches, extending for many kilometres. Some were internal and others were attack tunnels extending towards Israel.

Ultimately, the most suitable closing phrase for this article perhaps lies in what former military historian and former head of the National Security Council, Shaul Shay, said: “Sooner or later, the tunnels will become the central problem faced by the Israeli army based on historical experience.” He cited the failure of the American forces in Vietnam to confront the challenge of the tunnels used by the Viet Cong soldiers in southern Vietnam.

Translated from Al Jazeera, 31 January 2016.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.