analysisIsrael at War

Update: Operation Swords of Iron

IDF sharpens its tools against Hamas’s terror city under Gaza

Israeli forces, aided by advanced intelligence, are ready to destroy the labyrinth.

Infantrymen frrom the Golani Brigade's 51st Battalion train in underground tunnel urban warfare at a mock Arab village on the Golan Heights before heading to Gaza, May 15, 2021. Photo by Michael Giladi/Flash90.
Infantrymen frrom the Golani Brigade's 51st Battalion train in underground tunnel urban warfare at a mock Arab village on the Golan Heights before heading to Gaza, May 15, 2021. Photo by Michael Giladi/Flash90.
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin is an Israel-based military affairs correspondent and analyst. He is the in-house analyst at the Miryam Institute; a research associate at the Alma Research and Education Center; and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He is a frequent guest commentator on international television news networks, including Sky News and i24 News. Lappin is the author of Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet. Follow him at: www.patreon.com/yaakovlappin.

Hamas’s network of tunnels and bunkers, estimated to be many hundreds of kilometers long and embedded in civilian areas, has emerged as a defining feature of the Islamists’ ability to move terrorists and weapons under the Gaza Strip, to launch strikes and stay out of the Israel Air Force’s bombsights.

 It is also where the Hamas leadership is now hiding, and where Israeli hostages are being kept.

A key mission of the Israel Defense Forces—both by air bombardment and ground operations—is to destroy this underground city, often dubbed the “metro” by the Israeli defense establishment.

The aerial part of this effort has been underway for weeks. On several days this week, for example, the IAF struck hundreds of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, including tunnels with terrorists in them.

This represents a combination of intelligence-gathering to locate the tunnels and their shafts and converting that data into air power, a major endeavor against this threat.

And there can be no minimizing the threat such tunnels will pose to advancing ground forces, since they will allow terror squads to pop up, fire, and vanish back down underground, using hit-and-run tactics against the IDF.

However, IDF sources have argued for years that the assumption that this network is a safe zone for terrorists is deeply flawed.

“[Hamas] built this underground city to operate out of our sight. These tunnels will become death traps in the next war. My advice to them is, stay out of the tunnels,” one source from IDF Southern Command told JNS back in 2017.

With Israel’s enhanced tunnel-detection capabilities, which include dedicated teams of specialists sifting through intelligence to map out the network, the underground structures will become liabilities for Hamas, rather than assets, according to such sources.

“In officer-training courses, commanders are taught to make decisions on the battlefield based on the situation at hand—to go left or right, forwards or backwards. But if you dig a tunnel, once you enter it, you can only move in one direction. You can only decide to go forwards or not to go forwards. The route is set,” the source said at the time. “And I’m telling them, do not go in. Those who enter tunnels will not come out. The tunnels will either collapse with the people inside, or they will collapse empty.”

Map out the ‘metro’

Fast-forward to “Operation Swords of Iron”: When the ground offensive gets underway, specialized units, particularly from the IDF Engineering Corps and its elite Yahalom commando unit, will spearhead the mission, using special explosives, bulldozers and robots to destroy the tunnels and shafts.

But even before that, according to a report by Walla on Tuesday, fuel scarcity in Gaza will render whole sections of Hamas’s underground structures uninhabitable. The lack of fuel will halt electricity and air ventilation in these tunnels, forcing terror operatives and leadership to abandon their subterranean havens.

Should this assessment prove true, Hamas will become increasingly vulnerable, with its options rapidly narrowing. This reality underscores the organization’s growing desperation for fuel and could expose a crucial chink in the armor of its underground strategy.

Over the years, Israel has invested heavily in tunnel-detection technology. A tunnel-detection system, the first of its kind, has uncovered dozens of underground threats since 2014 and served as a model for operations against Hezbollah’s tunnel network on the Lebanese border in 2018 and 2019.

By sifting through a vast sea of intelligence data, dedicated teams are able to map out tunnel systems and provide actionable insights.

The IDF first encountered deadly Hamas tunnel threats in 2004, when the Islamist movement’s “military” wing began digging them under IDF positions within Gaza and blowing them up.

This prompted the IDF Engineering Corps to set up a tunnel team that operated under the command of the Gaza Division and Yahalom.

Israel’s ability to map out the “metro” has improved since then, but Hamas’s underground city has also grown, in leaps and bounds.

Between the IDF’s 2014 “Operation Protective Edge” and 2019, enough cement entered Gaza to build 16 of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscrapers—the tallest building in the world. That cement has largely gone underground, feeding Hamas’s war machine.

Gaza’s soft sandstone made it possible for diggers to make rapid progress during the peak days of the tunnel project. The tunnels contain rails, electricity, ventilation, communications lines and oxygen tanks—tanks that were sent to Gaza for hospital use.

The tunnels are a sign of Hamas’s priorities: The military terrorist build-up always takes precedence over investing funds in Gaza’s civilian population.

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