Israel’s great challenge: Gaza and its gigantic underground military base

 One of the biggest challenges faced by Israel’s ground troops when advancing through the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas, is the complicated urban development of the enclave and the labyrinthine network of underground tunnels. of the Islamists, comparable to a gigantic underground military base.

Although Hamas claimed in 2021 that it had built 500 kilometers of tunnels under the Strip, no one really knows for sure how long they are.

This is according to expert Daphne Richemond Barak, a professor at Reichman University in Israel, who has been studying this type of infrastructure for years and who pointed out in a virtual press conference this week that even the underground corridors could be longer than the extension of the Strip itself, since they are built in a zigzag pattern.

“Most military doctrine discourages soldiers from going into underground tunnels because it would put them at very high risk,” said Barak, who is also a visiting scholar at the War Institute at West Point Military Academy ( USA.).

Construction began in 1982

He explained that, once underground, it is difficult to communicate with the surface, since “normally the GPS does not work below” and if a soldier is injured it would be very difficult to rescue him.

“Obviously Hamas has developed means of communicating underground,” said the expert, who refused to refer to this network of tunnels as the “Gaza metro,” as they are popularly known, and preferred to compare them with a gigantic military base underground. , with corridors, larger rooms and warehouses, among others.

According to a study by Professor Joel Roskin of the Israeli University of Bar-Ilan, the tunnels under the Gaza Strip began to be built in 1982 after the peace agreements between Israel and Egypt, when the town of Rafah was divided into an Egyptian part and another in Gaza.

It was the residents of Rafah who began creating these conduits to bring in smuggled goods from Egypt and Gaza and to unify families that had been separated by the division of Rafah.

At that time, local miners were in charge of digging the tunnels to help the residents of both parts of Rafah. Over the decades, these tunnels began to grow in number and length, and weapons and ammunition were added to the smuggled essential goods.

Hostages in the tunnels?

The tunnels expanded to other parts of the Strip. In fact, Hamas militants who entered Israeli territory during the October 7 attack did so through those corridors.

Barak stressed that, if it is already difficult to destroy these tunnels, if they are in an urban environment with civilians, as could be the case in Gaza City, “the task becomes almost impossible.” And this is one of the dilemmas that Israel faces today.

Even so, the expert detailed, “we can expect that Israel will carry out bombings to destroy and not merely neutralize underground structures, with methods such as bunker busters, precision guided attacks, thermobaric weapons and, potentially, even high-pressure water.”

The question is how to measure the force used given the possibility that all or some of the 239 hostages held by Hamas and other Palestinian militias, who were kidnapped on October 7, may be found in the tunnels.

Barak stated that it is easy to become disoriented and lose track of time in these corridors, which have several floors and where humidity is high.

On the surface it is not so complicated to move, although Ahmed, a civil engineer from Gaza City, stressed in statements to EFE that this city is far from homogeneous when it comes to orienting itself.

A city of “dispersed nature”

“It is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with more than 750,000 inhabitants in a very small area, 56 square kilometers,” said Ahmed, who asked to hide his real name for security reasons.

However, many of Gaza City’s residents have moved to the south of the enclave in search of safer areas.

“The nature of the city is dispersed, it is one of the oldest towns in the world, different empires occupied it, so it does not have a uniform structure,” said this engineer.

In his opinion, Gaza cannot be compared to any city in the world because it is frequently exposed to attacks and “military actions that have changed its urban development and erased entire areas,” making it difficult for neighborhoods to be organized.

The town is articulated through two main streets or roads that link the north with the south of Gaza – one of them is Salahedín, on the eastern side, and the other is Al Rashid, next to the coast. Specifically, Israeli troops reached Salahedín this Monday, placing themselves on the outskirts.

Despite this structure, “if you know the city or the neighborhoods it is easy to get around, but if you are a foreigner and visiting for the first time it is better to use GPS,” said Ahmed.

By Nadeem Faisal Baiga