Shortly after midnight on Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) declared that they had executed an assault on a tunnel that permitted Hamas to infiltrate Israel through the sea. This sea tunnel was uncommon and indicated that Hamas had developed new and lethal methods of attacking Israel. While Hamas already possesses an extensive network of tunnels beneath the Gaza Strip, this particular tunnel had an exit on a beach.
Amidst the various reasons why Israel postponed dispatching troops into Gaza following the Hamas attack on October 7, military experts believe that the tunnels played a significant role. Beneath the densely populated Gaza Strip lies an immense network of subterranean pathways, chambers, cells, and even roads for vehicles. Hamas is recognized for concealing weapons, fighters, and command centers in these subterranean chambers. On Saturday night, Israeli fighter planes targeted 150 subterranean targets in the northern Gaza Strip.
The tunnels pose a substantial challenge for Israeli forces during any large-scale ground invasion, as Hamas has dedicated years perfecting them. For those residing above the tunnels, the prospect of subterranean warfare is remarkably alarming. General Joseph L. Votel, the former leader of United States Central Command, cautioned that the combat in the tunnels would be bloody and ruthless.
Tunnels have long been a part of life in Gaza, but their quantity significantly increased after Hamas took control of the enclave in 2007, and Israel imposed a blockade. Palestinians responded by constructing hundreds of tunnels to smuggle in goods, people, and weapons. These tunnels require Hamas approximately $3 million each, and many are equipped with medical rooms and hiding spaces.
Israel refers to the tunnel system as “lower Gaza” or the “metro.” Tunnel warfare specialist Daphne Richemond-Barak mentioned that the precise number of miles of tunnels in Gaza is unknown, with approximations ranging from hundreds to 310. The sandy terrain in Gaza facilitates easier tunnel construction.
Tunnels utilized by Hamas fighters typically measure around six and a half feet in height and three feet in width, making movement challenging for soldiers. Clearing tunnels presents an operational challenge for the IDF due to defensiveness and the presence of booby traps. Booby traps, such as remotely-triggered bombs or tripwire explosives, have been responsible for injuries and deaths among Israeli soldiers. Entering the tunnels is considered a risky endeavor, as the enemy can employ them to encircle and assault Israeli forces.
Although airstrikes and sensors have the capability to demolish tunnels, eventually deploying ground forces becomes imperative for complete dismantlement. The IDF possesses an underground warfare unit called Samur that specializes in countering tunneling tactics and conducts training on simulated tunnels within Israel. Altogether, the tunnels remain a formidable challenge for Israeli forces in any conflict with Hamas.
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