Still, not many strategic alternatives remain for the organization ruling Gaza, expert says
While the fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas shows encouraging signs of enduring four days in, the Israeli military has already begun compiling a new list of sites and facilities slated to be targeted by its air force should another round of fighting be commenced.
“Israel’s defense system is continuously prepared to defend its citizens, and the Israel Defense Forces are deployed on the ground on all fronts. The reality in the field will determine future actions,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said over the weekend.
Hostilities flared earlier this month near Israel’s southern border after Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, launched rockets at Jerusalem and other Israeli cities.
One of the military’s top priorities over the past two weeks of combat was the so-called Gaza metro, a labyrinth of winding and intertwining tunnels reportedly dug by Hamas under the densely populated coastal enclave.
On an almost nightly basis, Israeli jets attacked dozens upon dozens of tunnels, bunkers and their entrance posts, intended to house thousands of troops belonging to the terror group during a potential invasion of Gaza by Israeli ground forces.
“During Operation Guardian of the Walls, large swaths of Hamas’ tunnel project were destroyed, including more than 100 kilometers of underground [real estate],” the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said in a statement sent to The Media Line.
These “terror tunnels constitute a strategic capability for Hamas,” it added.
I assume they were taken aback by the intelligence Israel had managed to accumulate about its tunnel complexes. This is a long-term reconnaissance effort [by Israel], years in the making
Dr. Yagil Henkin, a military expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security who specializes in urban warfare and counterinsurgency, says Hamas was probably surprised by the accuracy and success rate of Israeli bombardments.
“I assume they were taken aback by the intelligence Israel had managed to accumulate about its tunnel complexes. This is a long-term reconnaissance effort [by Israel], years in the making,” he explained to The Media Line.
“We’re talking about small shafts, the width of one or two people, a good few meters underground. We also know the efforts [Hamas] made to conceal its digging operations. But it’s evident that it wasn’t enough. They didn’t know how exposed it all actually was, and maybe they were also surprised by the technical aspect – Israel’s bombing capabilities and strength.”
In addition to the underground maze within Gaza, Hamas for nearly two decades has invested heavily in tunnels penetrating deep into Israeli territory.
Over the past five years, a designated military unit formed within the IDF was tasked with thwarting these offensive tunnels dug beneath the border fence. Using advanced sensory systems and complex physical barriers, Israel has largely managed to frustrate these Hamas operations.
It’s a question of alternatives. They’ve been doing this for a while for the simple fact that in open terrain, [Hamas fighters] don’t stand a chance against Israel’s military
During the previous round of fighting, the 2014 Gaza War, several successful subterranean infiltration efforts by Hamas operatives into towns and military posts near the southern border resulted in the killing of 11 Israeli soldiers.
More than 30 tunnels penetrating hundreds of feet into Israel were discovered and destroyed by Israel during that 50-day span.
Still, despite its offensive tunnels strategy largely foiled, and its “metro” project within Gaza heavily damaging, Hamas will have no choice but to largely stay the course, Henkin argues.
“It’s a question of alternatives. They’ve been doing this for a while for the simple fact that in open terrain, [Hamas fighters] don’t stand a chance against Israel’s military.”
“They’re not going to fight on Israel’s terms, where they’re at a clear disadvantage,” he continues. “Traditionally, tunnel fighting negates tank warfare, prevents large deployment of troops, it’s confusing, it’s messy, it grants the advantage to the technologically and quantitatively weaker side.”
“It’s the great equalizer.”
According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, approximately 280 Gaza residents were killed in Israeli airstrikes in the 12 days of fighting begun May 10, over 100 of them women and children. Israel, on the other hand, insists at least 225 were Hamas combatants directly involved in firing rockets.
In Israel, 11 civilians and one soldier were killed as a result of nearly 4,400 missiles launched from Gaza at southern towns and cities.
Some adjustments will have to be made by Hamas before future skirmishes, Henkin believes.
“They’ll certainly try to improve their abilities. Fortify the shafts, deepen them, install different systems,” he details.
“Hamas can also diversify its tactics further: immerse its people even more within the civilian population, step up its rocket firing from buildings, launch explosive drones, etc. We’ll see, next time.”