The extensive network of tunnels established by the Hamas militant group poses a formidable challenge, significantly complicating the landscape of urban warfare, particularly in the event of an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.
These tunnels, engineered by the Hamas organization, are poised to become one of the most substantial hurdles for the Israeli military should they choose to embark on a ground operation within the Gaza Strip.
While North Korea is known for its extensive underground facilities, Hamas, designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and various other entities, operates what is arguably the world’s most extensive tunnel network.
According to John Spencer, the chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute, which is part of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the magnitude of the challenge in Gaza, where an intricate web of tunnels crisscrosses beneath the enclave, is unparalleled. In a recent article, he described this vast underground complex as a “wicked problem” without a perfect solution awaiting Israeli ground forces.
This labyrinthine network comprises approximately 1,300 tunnels, spanning a total length of around 500 kilometers (310 miles), with certain tunnels reaching depths of up to 70 meters (230 feet). Most tunnels are reported to be merely two meters high and two meters wide.
Within these tunnels, experts believe that approximately 200 hostages taken by Hamas following their October 7 terrorist attacks on Israel may be held. The tunnels are also thought to store weapons, food, water, generators, fuel, and other equipment reserves. Moreover, Hamas leaders are likely located underground as well.
The existence of these tunnels exacerbates an already complex and challenging combat scenario. As John Spencer points out, these tunnels provide Hamas fighters with a safe and unrestricted means to move between various fighting positions, effectively leveling the playing field and negating Israel’s weaponry, tactics, technology, and organization advantages.
Additionally, the urban terrain presents its own set of challenges. Mike Martin, an expert in the psychology of war at Kings College London, emphasized the difficulties of distinguishing between military and civilian targets, a requirement under international law. He also underscored the three-dimensional nature of combat in urban settings, where adversaries can attack from above, below, and within buildings, including underground tunnels.
Discovering these Hamas tunnels is a complex task. Originally, the underground passages were utilized for smuggling goods between Gaza and Egypt and later between Gaza and Israel. In response to increased Israeli aerial surveillance, Hamas began investing resources to expand the tunnel network. The true extent of these tunnels was only revealed during a military operation in Gaza in 2014, prompting the Israeli government to construct an underground barrier along the Gaza border to prevent tunnel incursions into Israel.
Locating these tunnels involves various techniques, including radar and detection methods that measure thermal patterns and magnetic and acoustic signatures. However, human intelligence often plays a critical role, as soldiers patrolling the area may spot tunnel entrances or track Hamas agents who suddenly disappear underground, such as when their phone signal is lost.
Engaging in combat within the tunnels is also a formidable challenge. Darkness, cold temperatures, amplified sounds, and the potential presence of booby traps characterize the underground environment. Israeli soldiers typically enter tunnels only after specialist teams have secured them.
Since 2014, the Israeli military has deployed specialized units trained for tunnel warfare. These units undergo physical and virtual reality training and employ sensors, robots, and trained dogs to access the tunnels.
While the Israeli army has invested significantly in preparing for tunnel warfare, experts hold varying opinions on the likelihood of success. Daphne Richemond-Barak, an expert in underground warfare, believes that Israel would need to undertake a prolonged and extensive operation to degrade the underground infrastructure effectively. Mike Martin raises concerns about potential blind spots in Israeli intelligence, emphasizing the need for accurate human intelligence to counter such threats effectively.
In summary, the Hamas tunnels in Gaza represent a substantial and unique challenge in urban warfare, potentially leveling the playing field and complicating military operations. The question of how Israel will address this challenge remains a topic of debate among experts.