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Tunnels—Terror below the Surface

September 16, 2014
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Highly-engineered terror tunnel
Webster’s Dictionary defines a tunnel as “a covered passageway through or under an obstruction, or a subterranean gallery such as in a mine.” When people today hear the term, they often think of a train passing through a mountain, or a subway carrying people beneath the streets of a city.

Until recently, few would have equated the word with a staging area for terrorist activity, or a subterranean gallery created to facilitate murderous raids or kidnappings. Thanks to Hamas, “tunnel” seems to have a new definition.

Tunnels as Weapons of War

That doesn’t mean that tunnels have never been used during wartime before, however. As far back as the Roman Empire, their use for military purposes can be documented. While the Roman army made its way across Europe, Germanic tribes hid themselves in tunnels in order to easily ambush marching columns of soldiers. The Viet Cong made significant use of tunnels during the Viet Nam War as did the North Koreans. Even ancient Jewish fighters used networks of underground caves in their struggle against the Romans.

The star of the tunnel-warfare-show, however, may well have been the Allied forces during World War I. During the course of that conflict, 20,000 British military tunnel diggers planted 958,000 pounds of explosives beneath German trenches and military installations, preparing the way for Allied victories.

The WWI tunnels were often located as much as 100 feet [30.5 meters] below ground and had to be dug and armed as silently as possible. The diggers faced constant danger from carbon monoxide poisoning and tunnel collapse, but the greatest threat was the possibility of encountering German tunnel diggers coming from the opposite direction. In such cases, the diggers ended up in hand-to-hand combat in total darkness in a confined area with walls that could easily collapse and bury everyone alive.

Historically, tunnels were a weapon of war, governed by recognized rules of engagement. The combatants were, for the most, part uniformed men on opposing sides who accepted that they might be injured or even die. Targets in these conflicts were strategic to military objectives.

Hamas’ Tunnels—Weapons of Terror

IDF Paratrooper brigade
disables tunnel network
Hamas, however, has changed the rules. Tunnels are now weapons of terror, targets are innocent civilians and the goal is fear and manipulation. The more heinous the action, the more publicity will be garnered; the greater the terror, the more successful the action will be deemed.

It was at one time estimated that there were from 1,500 to 2,000 tunnels beneath the Gaza Strip. Construction of the tunnels under the border with Egypt began as early as 1988 when they were used primarily to smuggle consumer goods and illicit drugs. Stories have even circulated of luxury cars, zoo animals and Kentucky Fried Chicken dinners for wealthy Palestinian families entering Gaza through the tunnel system

The project began in earnest, however, in 2007 when Hamas gained control of the Strip. Using expertise gained in the construction of the smuggling routes, a network of offensive tunnels continues to be built at an estimated cost of (US) three million dollars per tunnel.

Designed for cross-border attacks on Israel, tunnel entrances are usually hidden in houses, schools or near hospitals. Most reach a depth of 18 to 30 meters [60 to 100 ft] and are at least three kilometers [1.9 mi] long. Often, they interconnect with other passages, bunkers and underground command centers for easy access to weapon stores.

The backbreaking work of digging the tunnels has been done primarily by Palestinian laborers. Toiling in unventilated shafts under the scrutiny of armed Hamas guards, some were forced while others were paid meager wages for their very dangerous work. In recent weeks, dozens of these workers have been executed by Hamas to ensure that the location of the tunnels could not be revealed to Israel. Sadly, a report in the Journal of Palestinian Studies has also revealed that children who were small and able to maneuver in cramped spaces were used as forced labor in tunnel construction. It is estimated that at least 160 of them lost their lives in the process.

Fighting Back—Detect and Destroy

 Since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, several suicide bombers and other Hamas operatives have been intercepted as they exited tunnels into the heart of Israeli communities near the Gaza border. Hamas plans for a major offensive against Israel using the tunnels have also been uncovered, which included the kidnapping and murder of innocent Israeli civilians. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been unrelenting in his resolve to incapacitate Hamas and its terror infrastructure, which demands the destruction of the tunnel system.

However, that has proven to be a very difficult task. It is an IDF imperative to exercise the utmost care in pinpointing the tunnels and destroying them with as little damage to Gaza’s civilians as possible. Air strikes have destroyed some, while others were discovered and demolished during Israel’s ground incursion. IDF officials have stated that they have destroyed 35 to 40 and are uncertain how many more await discovery.

Egyptian forces have been more successful along their border with Gaza, having destroyed approximately 1,500 smuggling tunnels in the past few years. Their methods are often a bit unorthodox including spraying them with toxic gas and even flooding them with sewage. As with the Israelis, however, they are uncertain how many remain and at what rate they are being rebuilt.

IDF/Flickr/wikipedia.org Israel’s scientific and military communities are currently collaborating on efforts to use technology to locate existing tunnels and prevent new ones from being dug. One promising system is an underground “seismic fence” which would deploy sensors along the Gaza border, hidden several meters underground. These “geophones” would detect a tunnel being dug and send the security forces an accurate warning through a central computer. This is just one of several innovations currently under consideration.

But in the meantime, Israelis continue to face a radical yet sophisticated enemy, bent on the destruction of the State of Israel and willing to sacrifice innocent life on both sides to achieve its goals.

Source: By Cheryl Hauer, Associate Editor

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