As the invading forces move the fighting underground and into the dreaded Hamas tunnels, more Israeli soldiers might lose their lives.
The war in Gaza carries on as everyone attempts to make sense of Israel’s prime minister’s declaration that it would permit “little tactical pauses” to allow assistance or hostages to be released.
All sides are calling for a ceasefire, pause, or whatever term one might use in tiresome international political wrangling, but Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardline unity government are doing everything they can to keep the momentum going, knowing that once it is halted, their Gaza offensive will be much more difficult to resume.
In the days following the horrifying October 7 Hamas assault, Israelis united behind demands for retaliation, supporting the armed forces and administration. However, sights from the front lines, where the Israeli army has little to show in terms of success and the elimination of Hamas, may have shattered that unity at any costs, a month later.
Unknown numbers of Hamas fighters have been destroyed, but the relentless aircraft bombardment has claimed over 10,000 Palestinian lives and left nearly unfathomable amounts of damage in its wake. The ratio alone—a massive military effort for minimal military gain—must unnerve many Israelis, even if it is difficult to establish that those assaults claimed the lives of 1,000 warriors from the Qassam Brigade.
Although the current level of Israeli military casualties—roughly thirty—is relatively low and deemed acceptable, what would happen to society if those numbers were to rise? Since the invading forces have shut off Gaza City from the southern portion of the Strip, there is a significant chance that more Israeli soldiers may lose their lives when the fighting moves underground and into the infamous Hamas tunnels.
Excavating and reclaiming
The idea of tunnel construction for military usage dates back to the first human settlements and has never been abandoned. Tunnels were used to escape besieged towns or access fortified castles before the discovery of gunpowder. With the use of gunpowder, tunnelers might detonate tremendous explosives beneath the locations of their adversaries, followed by all-out assaults designed to seize the region.
The greatest explosions of this idea occurred during World War I, when Italy and Austria-Hungary detonated almost 1,000 tons at once while digging and counter-digging on the Western Front alongside Germany and Britain.
After World War I, tunneling among evenly matched forces declined, but when employed by the underdog in asymmetrical warfare, it came back to life. In the 1930s, China constructed tunnels to protect itself against Japanese invasion.
Japan also began to dig after seeing their efficacy. Japan employed a great deal of tunnel construction and defensive strategies to protect its occupied Pacific islands from Allied invasion. This resulted in significant losses for both Allied and US Marine units, which were far out of proportion to the number of defenders.
A generation later, the Vietcong, who were battling the US in Vietnam, moved around, or rather beneath, their adversaries by using tunnels to evade capture in certain areas and launch surprise attacks in other areas. Their network of tunnels was extensive; the US Army confirmed around 320km (200 miles) of subterranean links simply in the southern part of Cu Chi. The Palestinian estimates of 300–500 km (186-310 miles) of tunnels beneath Gaza become credible when considering those 60-year-old statistics.
Rats, weasels, and bantams
Any country or army that had to utilize tunnel warfare to defeat an adversary soon discovered that normal soldiers were essentially ineffective for such specialized work. They were not skilled diggers, and a lot of them felt uneasy in the stuffy, gloomy, and musty air. Britain began hiring miners and preparing them for military service in 1914.
Then it formed special Bantam forces, which included of soldiers under 160cm (5.25 feet) in height, which prevented them from serving in normal groups. They performed significantly better than regular forces, as did the US’s “Tunnel Rats,” experts in subterranean combat in Vietnam.
Israel realized that subterranean warfare would become more dangerous during the 2000–2005 First Intifada when it first found and investigated the Gazan tunnels. Therefore, it set out to build troops suitable for the job, beginning with the Combat Engineers, also known as Yahalom.
The Combat Engineers soon realized that even with their advanced technology and specialized gear, even more specialized, well-trained, and dedicated soldiers were required.
The Israeli tunnel-warfare commandos initially surfaced in 2004 under the name Samur, or Weasels. The experts were trained in covert attack methods by Sayeret Matkal commandos and are from the engineering corps. They will undoubtedly be the initial Israeli soldiers into the tunnels of Hamas.
Extending tunnels beneath the Strip: The tunnels beneath Gaza were first excavated for smuggling across Egypt’s border in the 1980s, long before Hamas came into power. Palestinians in Gaza found that the majority of the land was clay-rich, simple to dig through, and typically didn’t require complicated supports, with the exception of a short band around the shore where the soil was sandy and particularly unsuited for digging.
When the Palestinians realized that the tunnels could be used for military purposes, they hired the tunnelers to build further tunnels beneath Gaza.
The initiative was expanded and given a strategic importance after Hamas gained control. Local civilian laborers completed the majority of the tunneling; they were purportedly paid more for their arduous labor than the going rate.
One of the biggest risks of tunneling beneath or close to the enemy is being discovered by the sound or vibration of your work, but Hamas was not concerned about this because they were operating beneath land they controlled. When they were not restricted, they are reported to have worked swiftly.
Israel was astounded at the length and sophistication of the tunnels—at the time estimated to be more than 100 kilometers (62 miles)—when it stormed Gaza in 2014. It realized that its preparations for subterranean combat needed to pick up pace.
Tomorrow: A detailed examination of Gaza’s subterranean warfare tactics