There is no place on earth like Gaza. Everywhere you look, there are people. Traders hawk produce on upturned plastic crates; old men lead donkeys through crowds, shopkeepers brew fresh coffee on iron stoves; and all around are children: running, playing, laughing and screaming.
Life here is relentless. People bellow at each other from apartment windows, file into mosques, argue in cafes and fire guns into the air when they marry.
Gaza is a strip of coastal land 25 miles long and, at its widest point, 7.5 miles across. It is home to around 2.3 million people, the majority of which are concentrated in small cities.
But beneath Gaza sprawls a 300 mile-long network of tunnels that criss-cross deep underground in all directions.
They form an entire subterranean world that is so vast it has been described as a ‘metro system’ – but one far larger than even the London or Paris undergrounds.
But beneath Gaza sprawls a 300 mile-long network of tunnels that criss-cross deep underground in all directions (file image)
They form an entire subterranean world that is so vast it has been described as a ‘metro system’ – but one far larger than even the London or Paris undergrounds (file image)
When I was last in Gaza in 2016, the influence of the tunnels was everywhere. Thousands of people have found work in them and tens of thousands more, from drivers to shopkeepers have benefitted from the money flowing into the Gazan economy from the work they provided. But they were of course totally invisible.
It is a disconcerting feeling, walking around with the knowledge that beneath your feet, a terrorist army is, smuggling goods, plotting attacks, and burrowing away, day and night.
The Israelis recently uncovered a tunnel exit on a beach in northern Israel – giving Hamas the ability to attack via the sea.
That the Jewish state’s intelligence service is still developing only a rudimentary cartography of the tunnels proves just how extensive, disorientating and complex the network really is.
They are everywhere, and they are lethal: The lifeblood of Hamas’s war against Israel.
The tunnels are a living, breathing force – and they need fuel and oxygen to function. One of the reasons Israel has been so reluctant to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza is its knowledge that Hamas is siphoning off badly-needed supplies to keep the tunnels operational.
The situation is both stark and brutal: Hamas has massive stockpiles of fuel to light its tunnels, while ordinary Gazans are rushed to hospitals that have barely enough electricity to power their equipment.
When the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) did finally send ground troops into Gaza last week, it was because they know that to win this war, they must destroy the tunnels and the terrorists inside them.
Israeli officials are reluctant to talk about such a sensitive subject during an ongoing operation but through long-standing personal contacts in the country I was able to speak to several sources who explained the situation they are facing.
‘The Hamas terror machine is subterranean,’ one senior Israeli official told me. ‘It is a network of tunnels under Gaza, primarily in urban areas. It is totally formidable. You cannot destroy Hamas’s military machine without dealing with its subterranean terror network. That is why we sent our ground forces in.’
IDF sources tell me that the tunnels range from narrow corridors of about 2 metres by 1 metre, to vast passageways that can accommodate cars and even trucks.
They are swaddled in concrete and well-lit; they contain command-and-control centres, ammunition depots and arms factories. They are used to launch attacks on Israel and also to smuggle in everything from vehicles to long-range weaponry.
When I was last in Gaza in 2016, the influence of the tunnels was everywhere. Thousands of people have found work in them and tens of thousands more, from drivers to shopkeepers have benefitted from the money flowing into the Gazan economy from the work they provided. But they were of course totally invisible (file image)
It is a disconcerting feeling, walking around with the knowledge that beneath your feet, a terrorist army is, smuggling goods, plotting attacks, and burrowing away, day and night (file image)
Most are high enough to allow a man of average height to stand in and often deep enough to avoid the IDF’s bunker-busting bombs, which can typically penetrate up to 40 metres. The deepest tunnel discovered by the IDF so far was about 70 metres below ground.
Hiding underground means two things. First, that you are that much harder to find and kill; second, that everything above you – which in Gaza are millions of civilians – becomes your ‘cover’.
As Amichai Chikli, Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs and the Minister for Social Equality, told me: ‘The biggest threat is to the Gazan population because all of these tunnel systems are covered by civilians. So when we say they are human shields, it is not a metaphor, we mean it literally.’
One former defence official, who couldn’t be named due to his active reserve duty service, was even blunter, saying: ‘they have literally created an entire underground terror tunnel network turning huge swathes of the Strip into legitimate military targets. These sons of b****** have intentionally put their tunnels under houses, mosques and hospitals to maximise civilian casualties. It’s not just cynical, it’s pure evil.’
An important question remains: how is Hamas able to spend millions of pounds acquiring the thousands of tonnes of concrete, millions of kilowatts of electricity and millions of litres of fuel and oxygen needed to build all this when Gaza is supposedly under total lockdown by Israel?
The answer is as simple as it is depressing. ‘For years the international community has been sending cement into Gaza for housing and Hamas has been stealing it,’ says the senior Israeli official.
‘And of course, no one can stop them because they are the only people in Gaza with guns. If they want something, they just take it. We have seen this with fuel and other humanitarian support flowing into the strip.’
He continues: ‘They need the fuel for their rockets but also to keep the oxygen and lights on in the tunnels. Let me be clear, without fuel the tunnels become a white elephant.
‘This is why they steal fuel from Gazan civilians and humanitarian aid deliveries – whether it is desalination materials for water or, most terribly, fuel to power generators for hospitals.’
Dr. Daphné Richemond-Barak, professor at Israel’s Reichman University and author of Underground Warfare was clear: ‘I have no doubt that any fuel that gets into Gaza right now is going to Hamas. It would be a big mistake to send fuel into the Gaza strip, it will just prolong the fight,’ she told me.
But building tunnels also requires equipment and expertise, and it is here that the picture gets even more terrifying.
The terror group ISIS, who rampaged through Iraq and Syria before finally being smashed by coalition forces, has now become a huge influence on Hamas’s military strategy.
ISIS made extensive use of tunnels when it held the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. Hamas has clearly imbibed the lessons learned there, too.
According to Richemond-Barak the influence of ISIS is critical here. ‘But we have to remember that ISIS was fighting in the tunnels in Syria and Iraq for a few months at most,’ she says. ‘Hamas has been in the tunnels for over twenty years.’
The Israelis recently uncovered a tunnel exit on a beach in northern Israel – giving Hamas the ability to attack via the sea (file image)
That the Jewish state’s intelligence service is still developing only a rudimentary cartography of the tunnels proves just how extensive, disorientating and complex the network really is. They are everywhere, and they are lethal: The lifeblood of Hamas’s war against Israel (file image)
But it is not just ISIS that has helped Hamas, but an entity far more powerful and dangerous: Iran. ‘Over 90 per cent of Hamas’s military budget comes from Iran,’ the senior official tells me.
‘Iran has supplied weapons and helped Hamas with their indigenous weapons-building capabilities. We know that there is a close working relationship between Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hamas. They meet, they coordinate, they work together.’
He’s not wrong. When Hamas launched drones against Israel during their last major clash in 2021, it used Shebab drones that were based on Iran’s Ababil 2 drone.
In Ukraine, in recent months, I have experienced attacks from Russian forces using Iranian Shahed drones. An alliance of rogue actors is growing across the world. And in Gaza its presence is most clearly felt in the tunnels.
‘Never forget, the tunnels are the oxygen of a terrorist group that has sophisticated military infrastructure – and all of it is inside these tunnels,’ says Richemond-Barak.
‘Everything you would expect a military to have to wage war, plan and execute attacks, manufacture and resupply weapons is underground. This is important.
‘The apparatus of the enemy that seeks to destroy you is underground, this is the problem the IDF is facing at the strategic level.’
At the tactical and operational level: the tunnels dominate how the IDF’s military operations will proceed – which means they dominate how the war will play out.
This type of warfare poses a serious risk to the IDF. When fighting underground, the military must rethink all of its assumptions: Which soldiers it deploys; how it equips and trains them; what tactical guidelines it will put in place.
As Richemond-Barak argues: ‘The tunnels are a terrifying place to fight. Tunnel combat is generally one-on-one. If you are wounded, you are probably not going to be extracted and of course Hamas is very keen on kidnapping Israeli soldiers.
‘Then there are the booby traps. This can be everything from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to even hostages wired to blow.’
Tunnels change everything at the tactical, strategic and operational level. This is why they are such a considerable threat for invading forces.
The Americans used B-52 bombers to try to take out the Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam, while last year the Russians relentlessly bombed the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.
Armies have traditionally deployed their most powerful forces and weapons to deal with them. This, says Richemond-Barak, ‘explains the Israeli response’.
That response has so far combined bombing from the air – which includes the dropping of sponge bombs of liquid foam that expands and hardens to seal up tunnels – and the use of dogs and robots on the ground.
The tunnels are a living, breathing force – and they need fuel and oxygen to function. One of the reasons Israel has been so reluctant to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza is its knowledge that Hamas is siphoning off badly-needed supplies to keep the tunnels operational (file image)
Most are high enough to allow a man of average height to stand in and often deep enough to avoid the IDF’s bunker-busting bombs, which can typically penetrate up to 40 metres. The deepest tunnel discovered by the IDF so far was about 70 metres below ground (file image)
Right now, elite Israeli Yaholom ‘diamond’ units are searching out tunnels to destroy. Their colleagues in Samur (‘Weasel’) unit, commandos, trained in subterranean warfare, will be sent in to fight Hamas terrorists hand-to-hand.
What Israel is facing is a highly sophisticated well-armed and well-funded terror group operating from what is to all intents and purposes an underground city of terror that has no equivalent anywhere else in the world.
It is one backed by Iran, a foreign power with global reach and a highly sophisticated political and military apparatus. Make no mistake, the goal of both Iran and Hamas is not just to destroy Israel but the western alliance supporting it.
If the Israel-Hamas war seems remote, it is not. This is no different from the battle against al-Qaeda or ISIS.
It is the same brand of extremely dangerous, radical Islamism that we are already experiencing in parts of the UK, US and Europe. Believe me, the battle is not as distant as it may at first seem.
At the end of our conversation, Amichai Chikli, Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs and the Minister for Social Equality, made a plea: ‘We really need the support of the civilised world, to destroy Hamas,’ he told me.
‘People need to understand that the same ideology can be found in the US and Europe – and it must be fought just as strongly there, too.’