'A city beneath a city': Israel says 'nine miles of Hamas tunnels' smashed in overnight air strikes on Gaza

·4 min read
A file photo shows a Palestinian fighter in an underground tunnel in Gaza in 2014 - Reuters
A file photo shows a Palestinian fighter in an underground tunnel in Gaza in 2014 - Reuters

The Israeli military said air strikes destroyed nine miles of militant tunnels under Gaza early on Monday, claiming that it has taken out 60 miles of the underground network in the past week.

Israel said 54 aircraft took part in an operation targeting an elaborate tunnel system it describes at the “Metro” used by militants to move safely and avoid surveillance.

War planes struck 35 other targets, it said, including nine homes belonging to high-level commanders in Hamas, the militant group that has run the besieged enclave since seizing power in 2007.

Israel describes the tunnel network as an underground city that is enabling Hamas to fight a “war of attrition”.

"You're talking about hundreds of kilometres of tunnels used for various operations, they are used to move commanders and troops underground, they used to move munitions, rocket, fuel, food, everything,” an Israeli military official said.

"This is a war of attrition, the IDF can go with this forever, and they [Hamas] can go on sadly also for a very long time," the official said, using the acronym for the Israel Defence Forces.

In seven days, the Israeli military says it has destroyed over 60 miles of tunnels in Gaza, a strip of territory 25 miles long and up to 7.5 miles wide.

It was not clear how the military determined the length of destroyed tunnels and its claims could not be independently verified. Hamas tightly controls reporting on its military installations and Israel is currently restricting journalists from entering the enclave.

Early on Friday, the Israeli military incorrectly alerted the media that a ground invasion of Gaza had begun. While officials later said the erroneous notification was an accident due to the fog of war, Israeli media reported that it was a “planned ploy” aimed at luring Hamas fighters into tunnels and frontline positions, where they could be more effectively targeted in Israeli air strikes.

Afterwards the military said 160 aircraft, alongside tanks, artillery and infantry units stationed on the border had struck 150 targets and “damaged many kilometres of the Hamas ‘Metro’ network.”

Palestinian security forces search for missing or dead militants after Israeli blew up a cross-border tunnel in Khan Younis - REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
Palestinian security forces search for missing or dead militants after Israeli blew up a cross-border tunnel in Khan Younis - REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Hamas has previously offered journalists tours of parts of its tunnel network, which was constructed in the years since the last Gaza war in 2014. An Al-Jazeera Arabic documentary broadcast in 2015 showed the tunnels under construction, with militants digging new sections by hand and with electric tools, while leaders extolled the network’s strategic value.

The miles of tunnels enable Hamas fighters to move undetected by Israeli surveillance, while bunkers with electric lighting and plumbing allow them to remain underground for extended periods. The tunnel network is reinforced with precast concrete sections.

Israel has regularly blocked cement imports into Gaza – hampering reconstruction – arguing that Hamas uses it to build and fortify tunnels.

For years, Israel has warned of the risk posed to it from cross-border raids via tunnels and identified tunnels as a primary conduit for smuggling into Gaza.

In March, Israel finally completed a 40-mile underground wall along the Gaza border to prevent cross border incursions.

Announced in 2018, the barrier was built to prevent incidents such as the 2006 raid in which Hamas fighters used a cross-border tunnel to ambush Israeli troops, killing two and capturing Gilad Shalit, a 19-year-old soldier who was held for over five years before being released in a prisoner swap.

Hamas says the tunnels are essentially defensive in purpose and has not used them to attack Israeli civilians.

“If what Israeli leaders are claiming is correct — that Hamas dug those tunnels to attack the Israeli towns and kill civilians — how come Hamas hasn’t done that during the war?” asked former Hamas leader Khalid Mishal in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2014.

During the 2008-2009 Gaza war, the Israeli military cited destroying smuggling tunnels from Sinai into the Hamas-run strip as one of the main objectives of its Operation Cast Lead. At the time, Israel claimed that its bombing campaign had destroyed up to 70 percent of those tunnels.

But last week though, an Israeli military spokesman said “there is still a highway of tunnels from Sinai into Gaza”, suggesting that for Israel, bombing Hamas tunnels was at best a temporary solution.

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