Hamas Has Reinvented Underground Warfare

Daphné Richemond-Barak
Foreign Affairs

An Israeli soldier securing a tunnel in the northern Gaza
Strip, November 2023. (Img. © Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Israel underestimated the strategic ramifications of tunnel warfare. The Group’s Gaza Tunnels Will Inspire Others.

When Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, it dragged Israel into one of the worst underground wars ever. By now it is abundantly clear that the scale of Hamas’s subterranean complex is unprecedented and that the use of tunnels has contributed to casualties among civilians and soldiers. More consequentially, by sustaining underground operations over months, Hamas has delayed an Israeli victory, causing unimaginable diplomatic and political costs along the way.

In terms of tunnel warfare, the only war that compares is World War I, where countless British and German soldiers died trying to expose, mine, and dig tunnels. No other use of tunnels in warfare comes close—neither the entrenchment of Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan that enabled him to evade U.S. forces and plan attacks undetected; nor that of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali, where tunnels were used in launching attacks from nearly impregnable underground hideouts; nor that of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which used tunnels to conduct attacks on U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq and Syria. Hamas’s use of tunnels is so advanced that it more closely resembles how states use underground structures to protect command-and-control centers than what is typical for nonstate actors.

Hamas’s buildup of below-ground capabilities has shaken Israel’s assessment of subterranean threats. Israel never imagined becoming embroiled in an underground war of such proportions. If anything, Israel had been focused on eliminating the Hamas tunnels that cross into Israeli territory. The war in the Gaza Strip will likely spur the development of new doctrine and new methods to deal with this unique type of war. Hamas’s tunnel system has no doubt caught the attention of other militaries and nonstate actors, all of which are noting how effective they have been for Hamas’s survival in Gaza.

Now that Hamas has overcome most of the hurdles inherent to underground warfare—communication, navigation, low oxygen levels, and claustrophobia, among others—there is every reason to believe that the tactic will continue to spread. Hamas’s innovative use of the underground has redefined the strategic value of the surface, altered military encounters, and transformed the use human shields.

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