The ‘tunnel war’ between Hamas and Israel

Henry Srebrnik
Published on August 10, 2014

The latest Gaza War has made it clear that Israel can’t win its conflict with Hamas without the massive destruction of Gaza, something the world won’t tolerate.

Israel’s “Iron Dome” defensive system has proved remarkably efficient in destroying missiles and rockets launched by Hamas from Gaza — though one rocket that landed near Ben Gurion International Airport did manage to stop much airplane travel to the country for a few days.

But Israelis can’t sit by as rockets rain down on their country — bigger and better ones with each war (and maybe someday a nuclear-tipped one, compliments of Iran). So there will probably be more such “Groundhog Day” confrontations to come.

Hamas has proved remarkably adept and creative in confronting the overwhelming conventional military superiority of Israel, especially in its use of its massive network of underground tunnels, which are like an underground city, some reaching deep inside Israel.

According to an article in the Aug. 2 New York Times, of the 32 fortified tunnels that the Israeli military has exposed so far, at least 11 run deep beneath the border into Israeli territory. Others are part of an underground labyrinth inside Gaza connecting buildings, weapons stores and concealed rocket launchers.

Alon Ben David, an Israeli television journalist with experience in security affairs, filed a 25-minute report from within Gaza on Israeli television while accompanying Israeli soldiers as they went from post to post. They could clearly see that in almost every house there was a tunnel opening, hidden explosives, mines, rocket launchers outside, and so on.

An Israeli commander pointed out a command center abandoned by Hamas with plasma screens that were fed by cameras focused on the border fence tracking every Israeli patrol.

Ben David reported that there are also some 5,000 administrative, command or logistical, communication tunnels crisscrossing Gaza, allowing Hamas free movement underground almost all across the territory.

Israeli troops in Gaza have described Hamas gunmen who vanished from one house and suddenly popped up to fire at them from another. Hamas fighters are able to use the tunnels to surprise the forces from behind and to attack those in the rear.

The shafts leading to Hamas’s labyrinth are “inside houses, so we won’t see them from the air,” Eado Hecht, a military analyst who teaches at the Israeli military’s Command and General Staff College and at Bar-Ilan and Haifa Universities, told the Times.

Hamas’ tunnel strategy has is proved a potent psychological as well as military weapon and is reminiscent, on a smaller scale, of the use of tunnels by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. In that case, too, a vastly superior military power was unable to win a decisive victory.

In any case, Hamas’ fighters are now well-armed, well-trained and well-led. In an article written for the Washington Post on Aug. 1, Robert H. Scales, a retired U.S. Army major general, and Douglas A. Ollivant, a fellow at the New America Foundation, noted that Hamas units “stand and fight from building hideouts and tunnel entrances. They wait for the Israelis to pass by before ambushing them from the rear.”

As Hamas militants combine “their fanatical dedication with newly acquired tactical skills, renewed intervention might generate casualties on a new scale — as the Israelis have been painfully learning.” Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’s political wing, would agree.

Israeli casualties in this conflict have been far greater than in the two previous encounters with Hamas, though of course far less than those on the Hamas side. It has been the country’s largest single-conflict military loss in nearly a decade.

Gaza was ruled by Egypt from 1948, when Israel was formed out of most of the British Palestine Mandate, until 1967, when it was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War. At first things were relatively quiet. I visited Gaza in 1967 — I remember seeing a burnt-out Soviet-made Egyptian tank sitting in a street — and 1972, something inconceivable today.

But by 1987, when Hamas was founded, the tiny strip along the Mediterranean was a hotbed of Palestinian nationalism. Israel would have been wise to return Gaza to Egyptian oversight after 1967 — but that’s all water under the bridge (or sand in the tunnels) now.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.