Official warns campaign to destroy tunnels will take years

Gaza tunnels stretch at least 350 miles, far longer than past estimate – report

Senior Israeli defense officials tell NY Times there are some 5,700 separate shafts leading to Hamas’s underground network under the Strip, which is only 140 square miles

Israeli soldiers show the media an underground tunnel found underneath Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, November 22, 2023. (AP/Victor R. Caivano, File)
Israeli soldiers show the media an underground tunnel found underneath Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, November 22, 2023. (AP/Victor R. Caivano, File)

Senior Israeli defense officials now assess that Hamas’s Gaza tunnel network is between 350 and 450 miles long, far longer than previously believed, according to a Tuesday report.

The estimate reported by The New York Times is markedly higher than an Israel Defense Forces’ assessment last month that there are some 250 miles of Hamas tunnels under the Gaza Strip, and an astounding figure given the enclave is only some 140 square miles in total size.

The newspaper quoted Israeli intelligence officials estimating there are around 100 miles of tunnels under Khan Younis in southern Gaza, where IDF troops are engaged in intensive fighting as they search for Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and other terror commanders believed to be hiding underground.

Two Israeli defense officials who spoke anonymously said there were roughly 5,700 separate shafts leading down to the tunnels.

The report stressed that the estimates could not be independently confirmed and noted there are different assessments among Israeli officials on the extent of the subterranean passages.

Since launching a ground offensive following in the wake of the October 7 massacres, in which Hamas-led terrorists killed some 1,200 people and took around 240 hostages, Israeli forces have worked to destroy the tunnels, uncovering more and more of the Gaza-ruling terror organization’s underground network. A defense official told the Times that this task has grown easier as the ground offensive pushes deeper in the Strip.

Hamas construction work of a major tunnel in the northern Gaza Strip, in an image obtained by the Israeli military published December 17, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The official said the IDF previously may have needed a year to detect a single tunnel, but is now able to do so much quicker as a result of the vast reams of intelligence gathered in Gaza during the ground campaign, finding details on the computers of Hamas operatives involved in the digging and discovering a list of families that “hosted” tunnel shafts in their homes, among other information.

The official said the IDF has also figured out about the “triangle” system, with troops likely to find tunnels below an area with a school, hospital or mosque.

The official cautioned that it could take years to dismantle the tunnels, noting that underground passages must be mapped and checked for booby traps and hostages before Israeli forces can destroy them.

Additionally, the report highlighted the different types of tunnels that Israeli forces have come across in Gaza, such as those used for fighting or manufacturing weapons. There are also differences in quality, with the more sophisticated tunnels slated for senior figures and rudimentary ones for fighters.

The entrance to a tunnel in a Hamas warehouse used to manufacture rocket parts in central Gaza’s Bureij, January 8, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Last week, the IDF said Hamas has used more than 6,000 tons of concrete and 1,800 tons of steel for its extensive tunnel network, citing new intelligence. It also said Hamas likely invested tens of millions of dollars in the project.

Several hostages freed in a ceasefire deal in late November described being held inside tunnels, which Hamas has laid throughout the Gaza Strip and which Israel says have long been used to smuggle weapons and fighters throughout the enclave.

It is believed that 132 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during the late November truce. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 25 of those still held by Hamas, citing intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

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