AMID Israel’s land invasion of Gaza, there are no easy answers on what may follow, faced as it is by a determined-to-die militia like Hamas that’s well armed and in no mood to compromise. Hamas, which attacked Israel on October 7, has been preparing for this confrontation with a maze of tunnels below the surface of Gaza that only suicidal soldiers will be willing to enter to root out Hamas.
Like the Vietcong guerrillas of Vietnam in the 1960s, Hamas has built a wide network of tunnels that are fully self-contained for long battles, with rations and ammunition. These tunnels run for hundreds of kilometres, even though the Gaza Strip is only 41-km long and 10-km wide. Hamas claims that the tunnels are spread over 500 km.
The tunnels are Hamas’s ultimate defence and also a base for offence when needed. They hide rockets, artillery, ammunition and other war supplies and themselves in these tunnels. A 1.6-km-long, 18-m-deep tunnel, which had a concrete roof and walls, was discovered by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in 2013.
The IDF, apart from bombarding the Gaza Strip, has been striking parts of secret tunnels that have been built by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The IDF claims to have launched air strikes on more than 100 km of tunnels and destroyed them.
The Israeli military is likely to have used US-made ‘bunker buster’ GBU-28 bombs. These munitions are designed to penetrate hardened targets deep underground, with the bombs leaving massive craters, and could inflict large civilian casualties. Such tunnels were a nightmare for the US troops in Vietnam. There, the Americans had created a regiment called the ‘tunnel rats’, which operated with limited success.
The Israelis are bombing the Gaza Strip from above. But bombing cannot substitute for street-to-street combing operations. Moreover, urban warfare comes with its complexities and risks, more so due to tunnel warfare. In Gaza, tunnel entrances are hidden under houses, mosques and schools, while the territory’s narrow streets and alleyways are expected to be infested with booby traps and command-detonated improvised explosive devices.
It will also be difficult and dangerous for the IDF to clear a path through collapsed buildings and areas blocked by rubble.
Hamas’ armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, just like many of its brethren who had trained before the October 7 attack, must have prepared themselves for an Israeli offensive.
The IDF has called up its entire armoured corps which consists of more than a thousand tanks. Around 3,60,000 reservists will also join the force’s full-time personnel of about 1,70,000 for what seems to be a ground offensive unlike anything it has carried out before.
The biggest challenge for the IDF is not what lies above the ground in Gaza, but what lies beneath. Much of what is there is now just rubble, destroyed by artillery and airstrikes.
Dubbed as the ‘Gaza Metro’, Hamas uses these tunnels for the secret movement of food, fighters and weapons.
Daphne Richemond-Barak of Israel’s Reichman University, an expert on the tunnel system, has said the tunnels beneath Gaza were deeper and more sophisticated than the cross-border tunnels used to access Israeli territory.
She further notes: “The tunnels inside Gaza are different because Hamas is using them on a regular basis. They are probably more comfortable to be in for longer periods of time. They are definitely equipped for a longer, sustained presence. The leaders are hiding there, they have command-and-control centres; they use them for transport and lines of communication. They are equipped with electricity, lighting and rail tracks.”
Jonathan Conricus, an IDF spokesperson, said in a briefing last month: “Think of the Gaza Strip as one layer for civilians and then another layer for Hamas. We are trying to get to that second layer that Hamas has built. These aren’t bunkers for Gazan civilians. It’s only for Hamas and other terrorists so that they can continue to fire rockets at Israel, to plan operations, to launch terrorists into Israel.”
“The tunnel network deterred Israel from extensive ground operations inside Gaza,” Shimon Arad, a retired IDF colonel, said in an interview. A recent review by Nadav Morag, a former Israeli security adviser, found that Israeli forces would have to face mines, ambush sites and mortar targets before they could even reach Hamas’ urban strongholds.
Israeli troops last invaded the Gaza Strip in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge, spending 19 days on the ground. The IDF had then avoided urban warfare by targeting the outskirts of main towns in Gaza and capturing territory neighbouring the border, reported The Economist.
As per an Al Jazeera report, the Israeli military personnel will be divided into three main roles — an offensive force, a defensive force and an internal security force. Israel is also erecting a military base near the Gaza Strip for its thousands of soldiers as columns of Israeli tanks are diverted towards the region. News agencies have captured images of Israeli soldiers in military vehicles taking positions near the border with the Gaza Strip.
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