Hamas militants holed up in ‘Metro’ web of tunnels pose serious challenge newsbhunt


JERUSALEM: One of the greatest threats to both Israeli troops on ground offensive and the 2.3 million Palestinians trapped inside the seaside enclave called Gaza Strip is buried deep underground – an extensive labyrinth of tunnels built by the Hamas militant group stretches across the densely populated strip, hiding fighters, their rocket arsenal and over 200 hostages they now hold after an unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel.
Clearing and collapsing those tunnels will be crucial if Israel seeks to dismantle Hamas. But fighting in densely populated urban areas and moving underground could strip the Israeli military of some of its technological advantages while giving an edge to Hamas both above and below ground. “I usually say it’s like walking down the street waiting to get punched in the face,” said John Spencer, a retired US Army major and the chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point.
Urban defenders, he added, “had time to think about where they are going to be and there’s millions of hidden locations they can be in. They get to choose the time of the engagement – you can’t see them but they can see you.”Overnight on Saturday, the Israeli military said its warplanes struck 150 underground Hamas targets in northern Gaza, describing them as tunnels, combat spaces and other underground infrastructure. The strikes came as it ramped up its ground operations in Gaza.
Tunnel warfare has been a feature of history, from the Roman siege of the ancient Greek city of Ambracia to Ukrainian fighters holding off Russian forces in 24km of Soviet-era tunnels beneath Mariupol’s Azovstal Iron and Steel Works for some 80 days in 2022.
The reason is simple: tunnel battles are considered some of the most difficult for armies to fight. A determined enemy in a tunnel or cave system can pick where the fight will start – and often determine how it will end – given the abundant opportunities for ambush. That’s especially true in the Gaza Strip, home to Hamas’ tunnel system that Israel has named the “Metro.”
When Israel and Egypt imposed a punishing blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007, the militant group expanded construction of its tunnel network to smuggle in weapons and other contraband from Egypt. Yehiyeh Sinwar, Hamas’ political leader, claimed in 2021 that the militant group had 500km of tunnels. The Gaza Strip itself is only some 360 square kilometres, twice the size of Washington DC.
Ariel Bernstein, a former Israeli soldier, described urban combat in northern Gaza as a mix of “ambushes, traps, hideouts, snipers.” He recalled the tunnels as having a disorienting, surreal effect, creating blind spots as Hamas fighters popped up out of nowhere to attack. “It was like I was fighting ghosts,” he said. “You don’t see them.”


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