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Israel faces a vicious underground battle against Hamas

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The writer is assistant professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, Reichman University

Israel awoke last weekend to a new and shocking reality that few had believed possible: attacks by Hamas on its most vulnerable, involving medieval levels of brutality on top of the already-painful conflict with the Palestinians.  

Now, with air strikes, warnings for civilians in the Gaza strip to move south and preparations for a ground offensive against Hamas militants under way, Israel faces an enormous challenge — how to dismantle an entrenched, well-prepared, and resourceful enemy that plans, moves and operates mainly underground.

Hamas is an army built for urban warfare, embedded within the civilian population in Gaza. When it fires rockets over the border into Israel, it provokes a response which will land amid the civilian infrastructure of schools, mosques and residential neighbourhoods. One of the group’s main command-and-control centres is believed to be located beneath Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital, and its roads are hundreds of kilometres of underground tunnels honeycombing the 40-kilometre-long Gaza Strip. Its communications lines are largely non-electronic. Inevitably, and by design, striking any of these assets results in significant collateral damage — with a huge humanitarian cost.

The challenges of fighting Hamas are not unprecedented. The US faced similar dilemmas battling Iraqi militants in Fallujah. Israel itself has confronted Hamas on no fewer than five occasions since it withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. But the combination of urban warfare in Gaza’s densely-populated towns and refugee camps, and the presence of kilometres of tunnels beneath, makes for a uniquely complicated battlefield. 

So how will the Israel Defense Forces’ new operation be different? Israel’s strategy has changed. In previous rounds of fighting, ceasefires were reached after days or weeks of air strikes and limited ground incursions, on terms generally accepted as Israeli victories and Hamas defeats. In each case, Israel inflicted significant blows, but Hamas retained most of its military underground apparatus, where its leaders and fighters have sheltered.

This time — having suffered a surprise attack more destructive than that of the 1973 Yom Kippur war — Israel is seeking total victory. The IDF will not be content to see Hamas merely surrender or cede to a ceasefire; the goal is the destruction of the organisation as a military threat. 

But Hamas will have been preparing for months, if not years, for an IDF ground incursion in response to its atrocities. The group will have watched and learnt from the experiences of terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, including Isis, and also from its own previous battles. It knows how to navigate sustained combat in this terrain. Below the surface, it has the upper hand, possessing perhaps the most extensive underground warfare capabilities in the world. 

The obstacles to fighting in and around tunnels cannot be overstated. The IDF only has limited intelligence on their location, routes and the activity that takes place inside them. Below ground, traditional GPS, surveillance and night vision systems do not work. Tunnels increase the risk of surprise attack, kidnapping, booby traps and one-to-one combat. Few soldiers can operate in this claustrophobic, dark and volatile environment. In short, the tunnels are a great equaliser, neutralising Israel’s advantages in weaponry, tactics, technology, and organisation. The IDF learnt this painfully in the 2014 operation Protective Edge.  

Given these realities, Israel would need to engage in a prolonged and extensive air and ground operation to degrade this underground infrastructure. Collapsing, flooding, exploding and sealing the tunnels, bunkers and bases that pocket Gaza’s 365 square kilometres would take many months, requiring huge resources and sustained operational supremacy. And all of this while under fire from Hamas operatives exploiting their strategic advantage below the surface. Even in such a scenario — which would come at an unthinkable human cost — it is unlikely that the entirety of Gaza’s tunnel network would be destroyed. 

It seems far more realistic that Israel will reframe its objectives over time to focus on more achievable goals, while maintaining domestic and international support. It can degrade Hamas’s military and political leadership in ways that weren’t possible in previous rounds of conflict, and refocus on its defences. Crucially, it must sharpen its capabilities to prevent such a surprise attack from ever happening again. 

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