gaza tunnel
An Israeli soldier keeps guard next to an entrance to what the Israeli military say is a cross-border attack tunnel dug from Gaza to Israel, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border near Kissufim January 18, 2018. Image Credit: Reuters

Jerusalem/London: What lies in wait for Israeli ground troops in Gaza, security sources say, is a Hamas tunnel network hundreds of kilometres long and up to 80 metres deep, described by one freed hostage as “a spider’s web” and by one expert as the “Viet Cong times 10”.

The Palestinian Islamist group has different kinds of tunnels running beneath the sandy 360-sq-km coastal strip and its borders - including attack, smuggling, storage and operational burrows, Western and Middle East sources familiar with the matter said.

The United States believes Israel’s special forces will face an unprecedented challenge having to battle Hamas militants while trying to avoid killing hostages held below ground, a US official said.

It looked like a spider’s web, many, many tunnels. We walked kilometres under the ground.

- Yocheved Lifshitz, recently released Israeli hostage

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin noted that Iraq’s nine-month-long battle to retake the city of Mosul from Daesh might prove to have been easier than what awaits the Israelis - likely to be “a lot of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), a lot of booby traps, and just a really grinding activity”.

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Even though Israel has invested heavily in tunnel detection - including a sensor-equipped underground barrier it called an “iron wall” - Hamas is still thought to have working tunnels to the outside world.

After the last round of hostilities in 2021, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yehya Al Sinwar, said: “They started saying they destroyed 100kms of Hamas tunnels. I am telling you, the tunnels we have in the Gaza Strip exceed 500kms. Even if their narrative is true, they only destroyed 20% of the tunnels.”

Hostage witness

There has been no corroboration of the comment by Sinwar, who is thought to be hiding underground ahead of an expected Israeli ground offensive.

But the estimate of hundreds of kilometres is widely accepted by security analysts, even though the blockaded coastal strip is only 40km long.

With Israel in full control of Gaza’s air and sea access and 59km of its 72km land borders - with Egypt 13km to the south - tunnels provide one of the few ways for Hamas to bring in weapons, equipment and people.

While it and other Palestinian groups are secretive about their networks, recently released Israeli hostage, 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz, said: “It looked like a spider’s web, many, many tunnels,” adding: “We walked kilometres under the ground.” Hamas believes that with Israel’s overwhelming aerial and armoured military superiority, tunnels are a way to cut some of those advantages by forcing Israel’s soldiers to move underground in cramped spaces the Hamas fighters know well.

An Israeli military spokesperson said on Thursday: “I won’t elaborate on the number of kilometres of tunnels but it is a high number, built under schools and residential areas.”

Urging the United Nations Security Council to intervene, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has called for an immediate cessation of “aggression” on Gaza and moves toward “a political solution instead of military and security solutions”.

Underground city

Israeli security sources say Israel’s heavy aerial bombardments have caused little damage to the tunnel infrastructure with Hamas naval commandos able to launch a seaborne attack targeting coastal communities near Gaza this week.

“Although we have been attacking massively for days and days, the (Hamas) leadership is pretty much intact, as is the ability to command and control, the ability even to try and launch counter attacks,” said Amir Avivi, a former brigadier general whose senior positions in the Israeli military included deputy commander of the Gaza division, tasked with tackling tunnels.

gaza tunnel
A general view shows the interiors of what the Israeli military say is a cross-border attack tunnel dug from Gaza to Israel, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip border near Kissufim January 18, 2018. Image Credit: Reuters

“There is a whole city all over Gaza underneath with depths of 40-50 metres. There are bunkers and headquarters and storage and of course they are connected to more than a thousand rocket launching positions.” Other sources estimated depths of up to 80 metres.

One Western security source said: “They run for miles. They are made of concrete and very well made. Think of the Viet Cong times 10. They have had years and lots of money with which to work with.”

Long game

Hamas was created in Gaza in 1987 and is thought to have begun digging tunnels in the mid-1990s, when Israel granted Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization some degree of self-rule in Gaza.

The tunnel network is a key reason why Hamas is stronger in Gaza than in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Israel’s settlements, military bases and monitoring devices make it harder to get anything in from Jordan.

Tunneling became easier in 2005 when Israel pulled its soldiers and settlers out of Gaza, and when Hamas won power in a 2006 election.

Shortly afterwards Hamas’s military wing, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, captured Gilad Shalit and killed two other Israeli soldiers after burrowing 600 metres to raid the Kerem Shalom base on the Gaza border.

A year later Hamas used tunnels in Gaza to launch a military strike against the forces of Arafat’s successor as PLO leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

Although the military tunnels remained off-limits to outside eyes, during that era Gaza smugglers would show off their scarcely concealed commercial tunnels under the Rafah border.

These were around three feet (one metre) wide and used winch motors to haul goods along the sandy tunnel floors in hollowed-out petrol barrels.

One Rafah tunnel operator, Abu Qusay, said a half-mile tunnel took three to six months to dig and could yield profits of up to $100,000 a day. The most profitable item was bullets, bought for $1 each and fetching more than $6 in Gaza.

A Palestinian fighter from the Izz El Deen Al Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, gestures inside an underground tunnel in Gaza August 18, 2014. Image Credit: REUTERS

Kalashnikov rifles, he said, cost $800 and sold for twice that.

In 2007 the military wing is thought to have brought its commander Mohammed Deif into Gaza through a tunnel.

Deif was the mastermind behind Hamas’s deadly Oct. 7 attack into Israel, which killed 1,400 people and hostages were taken.

Tunnel hunting

Professor Joel Roskin, a geomorphologist and geologist with Israel’s Bar-Ilan University said it was difficult to map the tunnel network accurately from the surface or space, adding highly classified information was essential for 3D mapping and imagery visualisation.

Among the elite units tasked with going underground is Yahalom, specialist commandos from Israel’s Combat Engineering Corps known as the “weasels”, who specialise in finding, clearing and destroying the tunnels.

A Palestinian man works in a tunnel in Rafah, on the border between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip. Since the summer, Egypt’s military has tried to destroy or seal off most of the smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, a consequence of the heightened tensions between Cairo and the Hamas government in Gaza. Image Credit: AP

Earlier this week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Yahalom fighters, telling them: “I rely on you, the people of Israel rely on you.” Israeli sources said what awaits them is formidable and they faced an enemy that has regrouped and learned from previous Israeli operations in 2014 and 2021.

“There are going to be a lot of booby traps. They have thermobaric weapons that they didn’t have in 2021, which are more lethal. And I believe they acquired a lot of anti-tank weapon systems that are going to try to hit our APCs (armoured personnel carriers), tanks,” said Amnon Sofrin, a former brigadier general and former commander of the Combat Intelligence Corps.

Sofrin, who was also previously head of the intelligence directorate with Israel’s Mossad spy agency, said Hamas would also be trying to kidnap soldiers.

Daphne Richemond-Barak, professor at Israel’s Reichman University and author of the book Underground Warfare, said the conflicts in Syria and Iraq had changed the situation.

“What the IDF (Israeli military) is likely to face inside the tunnels is also all of the experience and all of the knowledge that has been gained by groups like ISIS (Daesh) and has been ... passed on to Hamas.”