Western Jerusalem plans to clear out the group’s tunnels in Gaza but this might be mission impossible
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Hamas, an Islamic movement that controls Gaza, is believed to have a network of tunnels that is 500 kilometers (310 miles) long. It features command rooms and training grounds, bunkers, and meeting rooms and is connected to a sophisticated ventilation system and a steady water and electricity supply.
It’s been more than 50 days since Israel launched its Swords of Iron operation aimed at eliminating Hamas, following the group’s deadly attack on the country’s southern communities, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,400 people and injured thousands of others.
Key locations, including Gaza’s parliament and the court and police headquarters, have already been captured by the IDF. The main, and the largest hospital of Gaza city – Shifaa – has also been taken. Israel believes the medical complex boasts a sophisticated tunnel system, with gathering rooms and bunkers, where some of the hostages might have been kept.
Shifaa is only one element of the puzzle, however, according to Israeli intelligence. Based on reports, the city has some 1,300 tunnels whose overall length stands at 500 kilometers – a hundred kilometers longer than the metro system of London.
The network – which is located 75 meters (246 feet) deep under the surface – allegedly boasts ammunition caches, command and control centers, as well as training grounds and meeting rooms. The ‘metro’ also possesses its own ventilation system and a steady supply of water and electricity.
“What we know so far is that the Gaza Strip has different types of tunnels,” says Avi Melamed, a Middle East expert and a former intelligence officer of the IDF.
“There are the so-called smuggling tunnels [used to smuggle goods, weapons and fighters from Sinai – ed.]. There are attack tunnels that penetrate the Israeli territory, and there are also those that have been constructed by Hamas for inner military purposes.”
The construction of the network has reportedly been carried out for years, starting in 2007, when Hamas took control of the enclave, prompting Israel to impose a blockade of the area. Israel has been well aware of the challenge and has tried to thwart it by limiting or banning the import of concrete, steel, and other essentials into Gaza, but Hamas has always found ways to divert the flow of construction materials from civilian projects into their military purposes. It has also allegedly used the generous money donations – coming from Qatar – to fund this grand project.
FILE PHOTO: Armed Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, military wing of Hamas, deploy at a tunnel in Shujaya neighborhood of Gaza City, Gaza. © Mustafa Hassona / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
“Our intelligence knew about those tunnels but we didn’t have any will to destroy them,” said Amit Assa, a former member of Israel’s inner security agency, the Shin Bet, which has been tackling the issue of Hamas for years.
“[Instead], Israel invented underground barriers and technologies to prevent infiltrations. We exerted diplomatic efforts [to stop the flow of funds to Hamas], and we believed that if we gave Palestinians prosperity or created for them economic opportunities, they would drop their plans to destroy us.”
By “economic opportunities,” Assa was referring to a number of boons introduced by the Israeli governments in recent years. Those included the permission for thousands of Gazan employees to enter Israel for work, the expansion of fishing zones, and the permission to import goods.
Now, however, Assa claims Israel has come to realize that the concept of concessions was fundamentally wrong and this is why, he says, the state is determined to “fight back.”
It is not that Israel hasn’t attempted to fight back before. Over the course of many years, it has launched a number of operations aimed at weakening the military capabilities of Hamas, including their tunnels, but – although have been damaged or partially destroyed – they have always managed to withstand the pressure. Now, Assa promises, it will be a different ball game.
According to estimates of the IDF, Israel destroyed 400 tunnel shafts since the beginning of the war on October 7. Thousands of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants have been killed.
FILE PHOTO: Palestinians walk inside a tunnel used for military exercises at a Hamas-run youth summer camp, in Gaza City. © MOHAMMED ABED / AFP
Experts are certain that once Israel tackles the issue of tunnels in the north of Gaza, it will move down south, where another network is allegedly located, and Melamed says the IDF will know to exploit the Achilles heels of those tunnels’ construction.
“Operating and staying in these tunnels requires a constant supply of oxygen, and that depends on the functioning of generators and fuel that operates them,” Melamed explained.
“So one option for us is to suffocate them by cutting off the flow of the oxygen to the tunnels. Another one is to collect enough intelligence about the exits and entrances so that we can block them, and catch Hamas terrorists inside.”
That, however, might be a mission impossible. Hamas and other Palestinian factions are believed to be holding more than 200 hostages and at least some of them are hidden in tunnels. Blocking these constructions or cutting them off from oxygen would mean certain death for these people too, and it is widely believed that this is a step Israel would not risk taking.
And there is another catch, Assa believes – time. While eliminating the threat of terror, Israel has also been bombarding civilian infrastructure, including mosques, schools, hospitals, and residential buildings. More than 14,000 Palestinians have already been killed, many of whom are civilians. Nearly 36,000 have been wounded.
Pressure on Israel has long started mounting, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying Israel should stop targeting women and children. Similar calls have also been made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other world leaders, and officials in Jerusalem believe it is only a matter of weeks until this criticism grows louder.
“Stop watch [on Israel’s actions] has always been an issue,” Assa believes. “But this time Israel is not in a position to take advice from anyone. If we really want to get rid of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, we should show no tolerance in this war. We need to go till the end, no matter what our allies are saying,” he summed up.
By Elizabeth Blade, RT Middle East correspondent