Shortly after midnight on Tuesday, the Israeli army announced that it had done so It hit A tunnel that allowed Hamas to “infiltrate into Israel via the sea.”
The undersea tunnel was unusual, and is an indication that Hamas has designed deadly new ways to attack Israel. The militant group has miles of tunnels under the Gaza Strip – a US official likened them to “miniature cities” – but the way out was on the beach.
Among the possible reasons for Israel’s delay in sending troops to Gaza after the October 7 Hamas attack, one stands out, military experts say: the tunnels.
Beneath the small coastal strip with a population of over two million lies a vast network of subterranean passageways, chambers, cells, and even vehicle routes. Hamas, which oversees Gaza, is believed to be hiding weapons, fighters and even command centers in underground rooms.
The Israeli army said that its warplanes bombed 150 underground targets in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday night.
For Israeli forces involved in any large-scale ground invasion, one of the most daunting challenges is the tunnels, which Hamas has spent years improving. For the people living above the tunnels, one of the most frightening propositions is how to survive the subterranean war.
“We should have no illusions about how things will turn out,” said Gen. Joseph Votel, former commander of US Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East. “It will be a bloody and brutal fight.”
In one of the interviews, he recalled the last days of the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul, where ISIS fighters were He hid in a series of tunnels In 2017. “Our Iraqi soldiers were removing, using bulldozers, ISIS fighters who had been dug under the rubble,” he said. “It was absolutely brutal.”
Tunnels have been part of life in Gaza for years, but they multiplied sharply after 2007, when Hamas took control of the Strip and Israel tightened its blockade. The Palestinians responded by building hundreds of tunnels to smuggle food, goods, people and weapons.
The tunnels cost Hamas about $3 million each, according to the Israeli army. Some are made of precast concrete and iron, and have medical rooms to provide assistance to wounded fighters. Others have spaces 130 feet underground where people can hide for months.
In Israel, people often refer to the tunnel system as “Lower Gaza” or “the metro.”
Yocheved Lifshitz, an 85-year-old woman who was held hostage by Hamas for 17 days this month, described how she walked for miles through a “spider web” of tunnels. She told reporters on Tuesday that Hamas fighters led her through damp, damp underground passages to “a large hall where about 25 kidnappers are stationed.”
She said that after two or three hours, they put five people from her kibbutz in a separate room.
In a press conference on Friday, Admiral Daniel Hagari, an IDF spokesman, accused Hamas of building tunnels and other facilities under Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, the largest medical center in the Strip. He played an intercepted audio recording and An illustration is shown From the subterranean complex.
General Votel, who visited a tunnel controlled by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia near the Israeli border, said he was “surprised by the level of effort that went into creating these things.”
“These were not just holes in the ground, they were an architectural structure,” he said. “They were connected by chambers and built in such a way as to withstand hits on the surface.”
As Hamas expanded the subway system, it hid tunnel entrances in homes and other small buildings on the Egyptian side of the border, said Joel Ruskin, a geology professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, who studied the tunnels during his time in Israel. army. These tunnels allowed the smuggling of goods from Egypt.
The tunnel system extends all the way to the Israeli border in the north.
A decade ago, Egypt made efforts to destroy tunnels along its border, dumping sewage into some and flattening homes that hid the entrances, Ruskin said.
He added that Israel has a limited view of tunnel activity on the Egyptian side of the border. Many of the networks terminate in North Sinai, but the Egyptian government has rarely allowed Israeli researchers or government officials to visit the area, so it is not clear how many cross-border tunnels remain.
On October 14, Hamas Released A video shows a group of fighters emerging from tunnels and carrying out a mock attack on Israeli tanks. To music that could be part of the “Call of Duty” soundtrack, the fighters then drag and drop the alleged Israeli prisoners recovered from the tanks, heading first into the tunnels, before sliding back into the underground passages themselves.
“This is what awaits you when you enter Gaza,” the video says at the end.
Daphne Richmond Barak, a tunnel warfare expert at Richman University in Israel, said she doubted anyone knew how many miles of tunnels Hamas had. Some analysts estimate the number in the hundreds. The movement’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, said in 2021 that there were 310 miles of tunnels in Gaza.
In 2018, the Israeli army destroyed a tunnel It was over a mile long.
Some of the tunnels were built with mechanical digging equipment, but the tunnels that Hamas is believed to be using as a staging base for attacks on Israel are being dug by hand or with shovels, officials say, to avoid detection. The sandy terrain makes it easy to dig tunnels.
Experts said that the tunnels through which Hamas fighters move are usually six and a half feet long and three feet wide. The narrow width can be a nightmare for soldiers who have to move through them in single file.
“For defense purposes, this represents an operational challenge for the IDF,” Ms. Richmond Barak said.
Soldiers and officers who have worked to clear tunnels in Gaza in the past say that the army usually refrains from sending people into these tunnels. “Hamas has prepared its tunnels,” Ms. Richmond Barak said. “They’re probably booby-trapped.”
Colonel Emir Ulu, the former commander of the elite combat engineering unit known as Yahalom, which is responsible for dismantling the tunnels, said there was “no possibility” of booby traps. Colonel Ulo was part of an Israeli effort in 2014, dubbed “Protective Edge,” with the stated goal of destroying the Gaza tunnel system during a two-week ground invasion.
He said booby traps — typically bombs that are triggered remotely or explode when something crosses a detonation wire — are always present. In 2013, Six Israeli soldiers were injuredOne of them was blinded when a booby trap exploded while they were trying to insert a camera into a Hamas tunnel.
Soldiers who cleared the tunnels say entering one of the tunnels is the last thing they want to do. “By using tunnels, the enemy can surround us and attack us from behind,” Colonel Olu said in an interview.
Ben Milch, an American-Israeli who cleared tunnels with the Israeli army during the 2014 Gaza war, said his unit came under fire repeatedly while working to destroy about 13 tunnels.
At first, Mr. Milch said, he and the other soldiers were unsure where to look for entrances, which were often in densely populated areas near mosques and homes. But then, troops began discovering obvious signs, such as pulley systems next to buildings.
Military officials said air strikes and remote sensors could destroy the tunnels, but Israel will eventually have to send people if it wants to ensure the network is completely dismantled.
“Confronting tunneling tactics requires ground forces,” according to a RAND Corporation report on the 2014 Gaza War. “Even after the end of Operation Protective Edge, the IDF faced real technological challenges in detecting, fighting in, and ultimately destroying tunnels.”
An Israeli military unit called the Samour, or Weasel, specializes in underground warfare, and trains in fake tunnels in Israel.
An Israeli reserve soldier in the West Bank said that other infantry units were also training in tunnel warfare.
He described a technique called “purple hair” used to locate tunnel tentacles. Israeli forces throw smoke bombs into the tunnel, then watch for purple smoke to emerge from any house in the area. The soldier said that the smoke indicates that the house is connected to the tunnel network and must be closed before the soldiers descend into the tunnels. He said the smoke moves like strands of hair throughout the tunnel system.
But Ms Richmond Barrack said submarine tunnels represented a dangerous future trend.
In 2018, Israel destroyed one of them Which extended meters into the seaIt is perhaps the first of this type to have been discovered. Hamas divers could have used the tunnel to cross into Israeli waters without being detected.
After the Israeli army announced on Tuesday the destruction of the tunnel leading to the sea, it published a video of another incident. Officials said the photo showed Israeli forces bombing Hamas divers who emerged from a tunnel along the Gaza coast and were trying to enter Israel near Zikim Beach.
“Hamas is constantly innovating in the field of subterranean warfare and exploiting its knowledge and experience in new and innovative ways,” Ms. Richmond Barak said.
Jeffrey Gittleman And Gal Koblewicz He contributed reporting from Jerusalem.
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