ONE of the reasons why Hamas has been able to continue its fight with the Israelis is because of the military strategy employed by Qassam Brigade, the military wing of Hamas. To resist the overwhelmingly powerful Israeli military, Qassam cleverly chose not to go for face-to-face combat. It had opted for guerrilla warfare. But the fight is not above ground but underground – through tunnels. That's what giving Netanyahu nightmares.
Tunnel warfare is not new. How to attack a well-defended enemy has always bothered battle commanders. It has been there in siege warfare for the past two thousand years, if not more. Digging tunnels under the walls of fortress to gain access to the defenders was the strategy used by opposing forces in many battles in the early ages. In the Middle Ages, defender of a castle under siege would put out a bowl of water. If there were ripples in the bowl it meant that the enemy was picking away at the ground underneath them.
Digging tunnels underground is dangerous and requires skill. The danger is that the tunnel may collapse and kill the digger. Both during World War I and World War II lots of tunnels were dug in the battle field. In 1943 British Prisoners of War (POWs) held in, German prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III, dug a long tunnel to escape. Based on true accounts “The Great Escape” directed by John Sturges became an epic movie.
The effectiveness “Củ Chi” tunnels of Vietnam are well known. The vast networks of these tunnels were the base of the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive of 1968. Viet Cong soldiers used the tunnels as hiding spots, supply routes, food and weapon caches, hospitals and living quarters. When the American discovered the tunnels they mounted several operations to destroy them, but failed. Sending down specially trained soldiers, known as “tunnel rats” into the tunnels was hazardous. Ultimately, the Viet Cong prevailed and the Americans had to quit Vietnam in haste.
To circumvent the effects of economic blockade by Israel, Hamas has been using tunnels for many years to smuggle goods and wares mainly across the Rafah border with Egypt. Egypt had closed many of these tunnels but soon new ones came up, which were used by Hamas to smuggle arms and ammunition.
Hamas also dug tunnels across the Gaza-Israel border gaining access into Southern Israel. Hamas has developed the skill to make a network of concrete tunnels with proper air supply. These underground complexes are similar in concept to the Viet Cong tunnels. It is estimated that more than a million dollars were spent to construct some of these tunnels.
The tunnels are interconnected with several camouflaged exits and entrances. Hamas fighters use them to mount surprise attacks on Israeli soldiers and disappear underground. The tunnels are booby trapped with explosives. It is hard to detect these tunnels, as most of the entrances are located under the bottom floor of buildings. And Gaza is a heavily built area.
These tunnels are used by Hamas to store and deploy weapons, hide Hamas fighters. Ihab al-Ghussein, spokesman for Hamas Interior Ministry described the tunnels as an exercise of Gaza's “right to protect itself”. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh described the tunnels “a new strategy in confronting the occupation and in the conflict with the enemy from underground and from above the ground”. Yahya al-Sinwar, Hamas political bureau member, said that the tunnels have shifted the advantage in favor of the Palestinians. “Today we are the ones who invade the Israelis”, he said. “They do not invade us”.
In 2006, in a surprise attack a Qassam assault group emerged behind Israeli border post, killed two soldiers and abducted Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier. Gilad was later exchanged in 2011 for the release of 1027 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
In the ongoing war, two squads of Hamas fighters crossed into Israel through a tunnel on 21 July. The first squad of ten fighters was killed by Israeli air strike. The second squad killed four Israeli soldiers. Again on 28 July Qassam fighters using a tunnel killed five Israeli soldiers near Nahal Oz. On August 1, Hamas fighters attacked an Israeli patrol and killed three soldiers, including Hadar Goldin. Goldin was believed to be abducted by Hamas.
Tunnel warfare is a dangerous military tactics, which relies on surprising the enemy. Hamas has been able to pose serious threats to the powerful Israeli military machine. It has helped to boost the moral of Hamas fighters and continue to fight on. In certain ways it has shifted the balance of power in favor of Hamas.
Israel refers to these tunnels as “terror tunnel”, which is used for cross-border attacks on IDF and Israeli civilians. Israel has so far located 23 tunnels with 66 access points. These tunnels are giving the IDF peculiar horror. Benyamin Netanyahu has vowed that Israel will continue to bomb Gaza until these tunnels are destroyed and Gaza is demilitarized. The problem is aerial bombing may not be effective in destroying these concrete underground structures. Even if the entrance of a tunnel is blown off the remaining part stays intact -- to be used by the fighters by digging an alternative entrance.
In order to destroy the entire network, Israeli soldiers will have to go into Gaza physically and start a house-to-house search, locate the tunnels and destroy them. Going into Gaza would mean reoccupying Gaza -- an option on which Israel is not too keen. Though Israel has “Yahalom”, specially trained soldiers, to go down and destroy tunnels, the casualty figures will rise dramatically. As of August 3, 2014 Israel has lost 66 soldiers. Israel has not forgotten the 2006 war in Southern Lebanon, when it suffered serious losses (121 killed) caused by tunnel warfare strategy of Hezbollah.
By indiscriminate bombing Israel may be able to defeat Hamas, but it cannot kill the resolve of the Palestinians to resist and eventually get back their homeland. For now Hamas is well entrenched in their concrete tunnels. It is an exasperating no-win situation for Israel.
The writer is former Ambassador and Secretary.