Israel learning how to prevail in Gaza’s tunnel wars

The tunnels have proved a major challenge, which the IDF is gradually overcoming. Hamas’s rockets largely failed, and the IDF proved prepared to fire back at every launch, even from populated areas. Hezbollah will be watching and learning

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Illustrative photo of a tunnel opening discovered by the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza, July 20, 2014. (photo credit: IDF)
Illustrative photo of a tunnel opening discovered by the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza, July 20, 2014. (photo credit: IDF)

KHAN YOUNIS — I am inside the Gaza Strip. Although the APC has been traveling westward for several minutes, I am still unable to spot any familiar sites here. It’s been seven years since I last visited Smaller Ibsen, a quiet suburb of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, as a journalist, before Israeli authorities forbade us from entering.

Today, those authorities are the host. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit agreed to bring a group of journalists on a tour of combat sites, primarily, it appears, to give us a sense of Hamas’s tunnel-building project. Instead of Ashraf, the driver of the yellow taxi who would wait for me on the Gaza side of the Erez crossing, this time it’s the APC driver who is taking me in.

During these seven lean years, I had to make do with conversations with my Gazan friends in order to gain the slightest idea of what was happening in the Strip. I understood that this place, as extremist and poor as it was in 2006, had become only more extremist and poor. Hamastan.

After its violent revolution in June 2007, Hamas succeeded in establishing its kingdom. It made the rules, and it’s also the one that broke them.

It’s illegal for a woman to ride a bicycle in Gaza. Why? Because it’s not moral, explained the religious scholars. Teens can’t have a Ronaldo-style haircut, like the Real Madrid soccer player. Yes, he has an annoying haircut, but what does hair gel have to do with morality? About a year-and-a-half ago, Hamas police arrested some youths who violated this rule, beat them badly, and shaved their heads. And there are plenty of other examples.

But in my conversations with residents, stories about the new post-revolution Gaza came through, of a region which no longer saw armed gangs in the streets and saw some sort of prosperity, as long as the tunnel industry between Gaza and Egypt operated. Coffee shops on the beach were filled in the summer. Ramadan nights became big celebrations of shopping and amusements.

It didn’t turn into the Singapore of the Middle East, as they used to think it could — far from it. But the stories from the other side of the border awakened a certain yearning in me to see the place.

I didn’t imagine that my return would be like this. It’s difficult to identify anything in the Gaza skyline. All that remains is a hodgepodge of destroyed homes, soot, torn-up roads, and the sounds of war all around. The machine gun fire, the sound of shells, and plenty of IDF bulldozers looking for tunnel entrances.

The Hamas operatives move from one tunnel to another, emerging each time from a different hole, they fire, and then they disappear again

Many commentators and officials speak of the attack tunnels leading into Israel.

But one of the most important stories of the fighting here has been Hamas’s defensive tunnels, into which the Islamists invested tens of millions of dollars, spreading across much of Gaza, from north to south.

Almost every soldier I talked to spoke about the unbelievable, even impossible reality that Israeli forces are dealing with in battle zones — an extensive network of tunnels, bunkers and caches, which allow Hamas to fight the Israel Defense Forces and inflict heavy losses with minimal exposure. The Hamas operatives move from one tunnel to another, emerging each time from a different hole, they fire, and then they disappear again.

One of the officers told me about a network of defensive tunnels the IDF faced in Hiz’aa, one of the southern towns in the Strip. He said that Hamas dug three tunnels along three streets, with numerous entrances and exits.

“Every time they fired at us from a different place. Small squads of two of three people. We decided to put smoke into one of the shafts, and suddenly saw smoke rising from dozens of places along these three streets.”

Hamas’s fighting style in Gaza, those unconventional Vietcong-style guerrilla tactics, raises many difficult questions about the ability of a conventional army to deal with this new battlefield. Some infantry soldiers undergo training in underground fighting, but not on this scale.

As always, the army trains for the last war — Operation Cast Lead in this case. But since then, Hamas has dramatically improved its capabilities, at least in terms of the array of defensive and offensive tunnels in Gaza: The organization spent 40% of its budget on this project. The best proof of this is the minimal harm that Hamas’s senior leadership has suffered. From within these channels and tunnels, the military and political leadership continues to function, controlling the rocket launches and attacks into Israel.

Hezbollah was the first to use defensive tunnels to attack IDF soldiers and to continue firing rockets

And perhaps the equally troubling question is what is happening on the northern border against Hezbollah while Israel fights in Gaza, and in general after eight years of quiet against the Shi’ite organization. It must be said that Hezbollah does not want a war right now. It is in over its head in fighting against the Syrian opposition, and it has suffered hundreds of deaths.

But the potential for escalation still exists, although to a lesser extent. Hezbollah was the first to use defensive tunnels to attack IDF soldiers and to continue firing rockets. One can assume that, in the eight years since the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah has accelerated its digging project on two levels: defensive tunnels within Lebanon, and attack tunnels into Israel. Eight years of work can mean that, in the next war, we will find Hezbollah fighters emerging from tunnels deep inside Israel, not necessarily near the border.

Yes, the ground there is harder to excavate compared to that of Gaza, but it can be assumed that, as always, what Hamas does well, Hezbollah does better.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks to supporters (photo credit: Ferran Queved/propaimages/Flash90 File photo)
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks to supporters. (photo credit: Ferran Queved/propaimages/Flash90/File)

Beyond launching a massive number of rockets into Israel, Hezbollah will try to carry out a series of attacks south of the border. And it’s not clear how much of an answer the IDF will have to this type of fighting in the more-difficult theater of southern Lebanon.

Yet the fighting in Gaza shows to the other side, Hezbollah, a major challenge for its next fight with Israel. First, it has taken some time, but it seems that the IDF forces are managing to meet the challenge presented by the defensive tunnels, despite the heavy human toll this fighting incurs. Moreover, some of the main methods of the Shi’ite organization, implemented by Hamas, have proven ineffective, to say the least.

The Gazan organization invested tens — if not hundreds — of millions of shekels in equipping itself with rockets, and the ongoing trauma and intermittent “successes” apart, they have failed to paralyze life in Israel or its economy.

Hezbollah has invested much more. The Shi’ite organization has 10 times as many rockets as Hamas, more than 100,000 in all, which will stretch Iron Dome’s capabilities. Yet one can imagine that the system, like other defensive systems, will have better answers in the future to even heavy barrages from the north. This is the nature of the technology and methods of the defender, that change and improve in the face of the attacker’s improved methods and technology.

The question is whether, in light of Israel’s impressive response to the rockets on the southern border, Hezbollah will understand that focusing on the development of this capability is less worthwhile than it thought, and will reduce its investment in this area.

Another issue Hezbollah will have to pay attention to is situating its launchers and rockets in the heart of populated areas. Hamas operated in recent years according to this concept, again inspired by the Shi’ite organization. However, in the case of Operation Protective Edge, Israel was simply not ready to play that game. Hamas laid “humanitarian ambushes” for the IDF, launching rockets from civilian areas, from the courtyards of mosques, from clinics and even markets, as was the case last Wednesday in Shejaiya. Hamas has booby-trapped hundreds of houses throughout the Gaza Strip, despite the enormous risk to residents, and fired rockets and mortar shells from UNRWA schools being used as shelters for refugees.

The IDF returns fire at every launch, and hits Hamas launchers and warehouses everywhere, even in populated areas. This brings harsh international criticism on Israel, but it does not deter the IDF.

Hezbollah’s decision to plant tens of thousands of rockets in homes throughout Lebanon is not expected to give them immunity, but will instead lead to more casualties among Lebanese civilians.

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