How Israel will take the fight into Gaza's maze of tunnels

The next phase of Israel's war on Hamas will be its most difficult


Fighters from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) walk in a tunnel in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 19, 2023. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP) (Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images)

The IDF is prepared to enter Hamas’s sprawling network of tunnels to fight as a measure of last resort, an Israeli intelligence source and an urban warfare expert have told the JC.

The revelation contradicts previous claims made by Yair Golan, a former IDF deputy chief of staff, that Israel would enter the so-called Gaza metro under “no circumstances”.

The IDF source said: “We are very conscientious about letting troops go inside tunnels themselves—it plays into the enemy’s trap. There’s nothing more they want than to get us into the tunnels. 

“So we are very conscientious about that. We are trying to be technological and clever about how to deal with the tunnels. We are usually quite innovative. We are trying to take care of enemy in tunnels and to be as lethal as possible while minimising loss of life to our troops.”

When all high tech options have been exhausted, however, Israeli soldiers may be sent underground “when there is no other way,” the source added.

At the very least, they said, that may involve highly trained specialists entering tunnel areas that have been searched and cleared in order to study their construction.

The ground underneath Gaza is riddled with hundreds of miles of tunnels built by Hamas to hide and transport weapons and soldiers, enabling the terror group to avoid airstrikes and spring surprise attacks on invading troops.

The extent of their length and size—with some wide enough to drive a car through—massively raises the complexity and risk of any operation in the Palestinian enclave.

Speaking to Israeli army radio, Golan said: “The wisdom is to find the entrances and seal them, or send in smoke that will cause the enemy to come out or will harm him,”

Leading urban combat expert John Spencer, who founded the International Working Group on Subterranean Warfare, told the JC the IDF “will have to fight in tunnels” however.

He said: “I see [the Israeli army] doing a lot of pre-planned strikes, striking at tunnel bunkers. The last thing you want to do is stick a soldier in there.

“They’re exploding entrances, calling up special engineers to examine them.”

The IDF will use surveillance drones, specially trained soldiers, and dogs to assist with underground warfare, he added.

Urban warfare in an area as dense as Gaza, Spencer said, requires “beyond 360 degrees” of perception given the threat to soldiers from the air and below the ground.

“You need to know what’s underneath you,” he said. “[Soldiers have to use] tactics with their heads on a swivel. You can never relax, you can never leave tunnel entrances behind you… It requires alertness. 

“None of that will stop the IDF, but it requires more time and more focus.”

Once soldiers enter the tunnels, their ability to fight will be severely hampered by the conditions, Spencer said.

“You have to have special training and special equipment. Nothing you have on the surface works, not even night vision works… You can get claustrophobia and lose sense of time and direction. You can get disoriented.”

But, he added, those effects work both ways, and while they created the tunnel network, Hamas will also struggle to fight within it.

“The amount of tunnels we know about is a drop in the ocean,” the IDF intelligence source claimed. 

“Most tunnels we don’t know where they are. Very possibly troops are walking over tunnels somewhere without even knowing.”

The Gaza metro is also being used to transport and store hostages, complicating the picture for the IDF further.

“A lot of firepower and aggressiveness has to be limited because of the hostages,” the source said.

“It is an extremely delicate situation. There are 240 in different spots around Gaza, we only know the location of some of them.”

The fight put up by Hamas so far, however, has not been impressive, he claimed.

“The resistance has not been strong. It’s not like Hezbollah who are a much more sophisticated military style organisation. Hamas is a group of terrorists.”

He added: “I think they are discouraged. I think they understand they are overpowered, of course they are outnumbered

“We will incur losses—they have been able to get us to incur losses. There is no combat where Hamas wins the combat [though], that never happens.”

Spencer said that while the war had been “bloody and destructive” to date, Israeli forces had also been “methodical”,

“I am very impressed by the use of combined arms, tanks, infantry all supporting each other,” he said.

“That is really hard for an army to do. To me it looks like the IDF have learnt the right lessons. You have to balance that with civilian casualties.”

He added: “I think Hamas are really surprised at how far the IDF have got so far.”

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