OpinionIsrael at War

Planning for the unknown in Gaza

Israel can counter the tunnel threat, but what happens next is difficult to ascertain.

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.
Hesh Kestin. Credit: Courtesy.
Hesh Kestin
Hesh Kestin is an IDF veteran and former foreign correspondent whose book The Siege of Tel Aviv describes a fictional Islamist conquest of Israel. Stephen King called it “scarier than anything Stephen King ever wrote.” Kestin's latest book is The Wrong Jew: Defeating Those Who Want Us Dead.

Decades ago, I was asked to advise a joint working group from Israel’s Foreign and Tourism Ministries on a new slogan, essentially a new approach, that would help bring more visitors to Israel. I suggested, “See Israel While It Exists.”

No one laughed. Everyone at the table was deeply conscious of the precarious position of this tiny nation surrounded by enemies. Only a few years earlier, the Yom Kippur War had threatened disaster. On the third day of the war, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan said, “This is the end of the Third Temple”—the State of Israel itself.

No one is laughing now either. Some 1,400 Israelis murdered by Hamas and over 240 hostages will have that effect. Israel is once again fighting for its survival.

The next phase of Israel’s war on Hamas is on the drawing boards. But what happens if and when Hamas is destroyed is not only unplannable but, at worst, unthinkable.

Hamas’s tunnels are the least of it. That no one really knows their extent would appear to be an obstacle, but it isn’t. However many tunnels there are, the problem and the solution remain the same.

With as many as 25,000 Hamas soldiers hidden underground, the IDF must now put aside its legendary bravado and play the waiting game. No matter how much water and food is stored down there along with the fuel needed to power ventilation systems, one thing is certain: These supplies are limited. Thus, the tunnels Hamas spent 15 years building will likely spell its doom. The IDF need only wait for its enemy below to die slowly.

But the longer this takes, the more the international clamor for an Israeli withdrawal will grow more vociferous.

Meanwhile, since Israel’s last war with Hamas in 2014, the IDF has had a chance to regroup, research, replan, reequip and retrain. Today’s IDF has at its disposal specially designed weapons to neutralize the enemy in tunnels even 100 feet underground. Especially efficient in the sandy soil upon which Gaza is built, Ground Penetrating Radar can identify concrete structures, metal, stored water and voids. GPR is excellent at detecting vertical structures; that is, exits to the surface. For horizontal structures like the tunnels themselves, there is seismic tomography, analogous to sonar. ST, however, is limited. It works best through water or wet ground, but this can be arranged.

Except where it has specific intelligence on hostages, the IDF is unlikely to risk entering the tunnels. Most are three feet across, meaning every battle will be one on one, effectively wiping out Israel’s numerical superiority. Instead, the IDF has developed specialized vehicles that can be lowered into the tunnels, along with micro-drones that explode on contact with the enemy. Moreover, IDF combat engineers have developed the curiously misnamed “sponge bombs”—they are neither—composed of two chemicals that, when mixed, expand and harden to seal off passageways.

Hamas’s tunnels are as much trap as refuge. Even their remote-controlled booby traps are limited in shelf-life: They depend on electricity, which depends on fuel, which in turn will eventually run out. Moreover, these same booby traps can be triggered by attackers, closing off the very exits they are designed to defend.

For all the sophistication of its technology, Israel also possesses the cheapest and most readily available weapon of all: seawater. Egypt has been flooding the tunnels used to bypass its Rafah gate since 2015. Death by drowning is ultimately the safest way to do away with a Hamas army confident that its tunnels are secure.

That these methods threaten the lives of the hostages is tragic, but outside of withdrawing from Gaza in exchange for the hostages’ safe return, there is no other choice. Israel must either destroy Hamas or live in fear.

Once this mission is completed in northern Gaza, it is likely that two million people will have to be relocated north to evacuate southern Gaza for a repeat performance. The ensuing military operations will take months.

What comes next is as unknown to outside observers as it is to Israel’s war cabinet. However, two things are certain: 1) The IDF will maintain some sort of presence on Gaza’s periphery but is unlikely to remain as a long-term occupying force. 2) This leaves only one effective option to administer a wrecked landscape the size of Washington, D.C. with a population three times as large.

That option is U.N. supervision, policed by a broad international force or one limited to Muslim countries. The latter may be in short supply. Egypt, which wiped its hands of Gaza after the Six-Day War, may well refuse. The Palestinian Authority, which corruptly governs much of Judea and Samaria, is too ineffective to meet the challenge, even if Gazans welcome it, which they won’t. The fanciful idea of a P.A. takeover, now being floated by the U.S., will fail for the same reason the P.A. was successfully overthrown by Hamas in Gaza: As pre-war polls showed, the Gaza street is unwilling to accept the P.A.’s acceptance, however qualified, of Israel.

Rebuilding Gaza will not be easy, and even getting to that point could take a year, during which anything can happen.

So far, Iran has kept its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah on a tight leash, but if that changes, all bets are off. Up to now, Israel’s nuclear capability, with at least two nuclear-armed submarines on permanent station in the Persian Gulf, has kept Iran in check. Iran has done little more than supply weaponry to and train its proxies in Gaza, southern Lebanon and Syria. But faced with a growing rebellion against their theocracy at home, the Iranian mullahs may make a tragic miscalculation, especially if U.S. warships off the Lebanese coast join Israel in closing down Hezbollah for good.

Of course, Washington could simply put the screws to Israel, refusing further support unless the IDF pulls out before Hamas is destroyed. Should this occur, Israel may very well fall back on what might one day be called the “Golda Effect.”

During the Yom Kippur War, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger refused to resupply the IDF unless Israel ceased its counterattack. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir then made Kissinger an offer he couldn’t refuse: Israel would arm its nuclear weapons—estimated at 20 bombs, each more lethal than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In a Hollywood movie, the scenario would be laughable: Unless the U.S. folded, a woman in orthopedic shoes would take out Cairo and Damascus. Kissinger folded.

Just as Israel’s leaders are determined to destroy Hamas at the cost of international condemnation, it is willing to utilize its weapons of last resort. This possibility, along with the ensuing knock-on effect, is no paranoic fever dream, but very much on the minds of governments worldwide—Israel first among them.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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