The Gaza war goes deep underground

The IDF are now battling Hamas in hand-to-hand combat in tunnels deep below the surface


In this picture taken during a media tour organised by the Israeli military on December 15, 2023, soldiers stand at the entrance of a tunnel that Hamas reportedly used to attack Israel through the Erez border crossing on October 7. (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

January 11, 2024 14:18

Brigadier-General Dan Goldfus can’t find a fitting historic comparison to the battle the men and women of the IDF’s 98th Division are now fighting in Khan Younis. In the end, he goes back nearly 80 years to the Battle for the Pacific in the Second World War.

“It’s like the Battle of Okinawa,” he says, “where the Japanese Army knew they couldn’t face the overwhelming American landing forces, so they retreated to the hills, where they could make the Americans fight hard for every inch of ground.”

There are no hills in Khan Younis. That is, except the thousands of ruined and bombed-out buildings. In Brigadier Goldfus’s analogy, the hills are the maze of tunnels under the city where the division is now pursuing three missions –- to rescue the 136 hostages still held in Gaza, most of them now believed to be under Khan Younis, to destroy Hamas’s formidable local brigade, and to capture or eliminate Hamas’s senior leadership, especially Yihya Sinwar, whose hometown this is.

The IDF has the overwhelming advantage overground, with its tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, drones and overwhelming firepower. Underground, he says, reaching even further back into military history, “It’s like trench warfare, chest-to-chest. And when you’re fighting chest-to-chest, your chances are only 50-50. Or less than that if you’re the one who is attacking.” And despite these odds, some of the special-force teams under Goldfus are now for the first time in this war starting to fight inside the tunnels. Or as he calls it “we are manoeuvring underground.”

As a rule, conventional armies avoid fighting a guerrilla enemy underground. The Americans in Vietnam rarely if ever ventured into the Vietcong tunnels. An army loses all its advantages in the dark tunnels. The IDF is no different. In Gaza City, it forbade its soldiers to enter the tunnels. Most shafts when discovered were either bulldozed or blown up, or in some cases first investigated using micro-drones and sniffer-dogs with cameras. And then destroyed.

In Khan Younis, the Israeli underground doctrine is evolving. New methods are being used and the control the IDF has overground is being used to entire tunnels from different directions. “It’s like a Rubik’s cube,” says Brigadier Goldfus, who commands no less than seven brigade combat teams operating in and around the city. “Every piece you move has changes something elsewhere.”

The deep tunnel he has just taken a small group of journalists into under the northern part of the city, going down at least 30 metres and stretching under the centre of the city, is now clean and under Israeli control. But forensic evidence, including bloodstains, collected there in recent days has proven that it was used by Hamas to hold Israeli hostages.

Sending soldiers into the tunnel, is as the brigadier says, “part of a learning curve”. It is also a sign of how time might be running out for the IDF as international pressure, and the need to release a large part of the hundreds of thousands of reservists called up over three months ago on October 7, is now also a factor in changing tactics. The IDF’s previous strategy of taking control overground and waiting until Hamas are forced up due to lack of air and provisions didn’t work — and time may be running out for the hostages as well.


l More drastic measures are being taken on the northern front as well. The assassination in an airstrike of Wissam al-Tawil, a senior commander of Hezbollah’s Radwan force, in south Lebanon on Monday, wasn’t acknowleged by Israel (though Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz seemed to blurt that Israel had done it in a television interview).

But the next day, the IDF spokesperson, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, did officially confirm that a second assassination on Tuesday, of Ali Hussein Burji, commander of Hezbollah’s drone unit, was indeed an Israeli airstrike.

Why the change in Israel’s non-acknowledgement policy?

A senior Israeli officer said that, on the one hand, it wasn’t exactly a change, as Burji had been directly and operationally involved in the missile and drone attacks of recent weeks, so in the unwritten rules of the tit-for-tat strikes on the border, it was within the accepted parameters. But also, it’s part of increasing the pressure on Hezbollah just a bit more.

Israel’s assessment now is that Hezbollah, and its Iranian patrons, have made a strategic decision not to risk inviting the scale of devastation that has destroyed Gaza City on Lebanon and not escalate to all-out war. That isn’t enough for Israel, however.

Some 100,000 Israeli citizens have left the communities near the border and are reluctant, understandably, to return home while the Radwan Force is still near the border and capable of carrying out an attack similar to Hamas’s on October 7. Hezbollah is under increasing pressure within Lebanon to pull its forces back north of the Litani River, rather than risking another war. The Biden administration is trying to broker an agreement for this to happen. Meanwhile, Israel is adding pressure. A risky manoeuvre, but the situation on the north has to be resolved one way or another.

​Barack is Back

Meanwhile, on a very different battlefield, as the judges of the International Court of Justice take their seats to hear the South African request to recognise Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocide”, Israel’s representative on the panel will be the most unlikely jurist to have been selected by the current Israeli government.

For the nine months, until the war, during which the Netanyahu government pursued its “legal reform” to weaken the Supreme Court, Aron Barak, who retired as the court’s president 17 years ago, was most often cited as the chief culprit for the court’s “progressive activism.” Justice Minister Yariv Levin accused those who followed Barak’s path as denying the right of the rest of Israelis to have their say. Another minister, David Amsalem, said in the Knesset last year: “I think Aron Barak should go to prison for the rest of his life.”

And yet, when the government had to send an Israeli judge to sit on the ICJ bench for this crucial case, it was the 87-year-old Barak they chose.

In a stormy Likud faction meeting last Monday, Likud MKs demanded to know why he had been chosen. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Despite the differences on internal matters, on international matters Barak has done a lot for the state of Israel. And he’s a Holocaust survivor as well.”

That didn’t count in Barak’s favour last year when he was lambasted by Likud ministers but that’s as close to an apology as he’s likely to get.

January 11, 2024 14:18

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