I’ve mentioned a few times over the last eight weeks that one of the key challenges in reporting on or making sense of events in Gaza right now is that at the most basic level we don’t know what is happening in the military engagement or even precisely what the aims are. According to the latest reports, some 15,800 residents of Gaza have died in the fighting over the last two months, just a staggering number. Some percentage of those are Hamas combatants. The Gazan health ministry doesn’t disagree. But the great majority are civilians. (The Gaza health ministry is run by Hamas but in previous conflicts there numbers have proven generally accurate.) At the same time Israel has estimated that it has killed some two or three thousand Hamas fighters, just a tiny percentage of a fighting force reputed to total 30,000 or more.
But a number of factors suggest that killing Hamas fighters has never been the primary goal of the campaign. A far more likely goal is eliminating the tunnel infrastructure. Without the tunnel infrastructure, Hamas has nowhere to securely hide its weaponry – either its sidearms and RPGs or its rockets. It also has no way to hide its personnel from IDF attacks. No tunnels, no Hamas fighting force – not one capable of remaining mostly invulnerable to IDF attacks. To get some sense of this I recommend this article in the Financial Times which you should be able to access with a free account.
The article provides some key details on the harrowing technical challenges of getting to the tunnels, destroying them and verifying that they’re destroyed. Once tunnels are found, they’re generally destroyed and collapsed. But they’re designed to be segmented and resilient. So destroying one tunnel right here doesn’t necessarily mean another just adjacent to it was also destroyed, undermined or even cut off. Released hostages have now provided some additional information on the tunnel system, though presumably they would have been allowed to see only a very limited amount of it. The FT article suggests that some tunnels may eventually have to be reached and destroyed from below.
Reading through the details, the network of tunnels of tunnels is reputed to be more than 500 km long, longer than the London underground. It’s hard to know how much of this is real vs assumptions or propaganda. But lots of evidence suggests a network of scope and capacity far beyond what most seem to imagine.
It’s hard to imagine that even in 16 years a relatively small force could build such an immense network. But the rock underneath Gaza is soft. So building a tunnel infrastructure like this is considerably easier than in most parts of the world. Still, it’s hard to know just what in these accounts is real: hard data, unproven assumptions or just the propaganda that is the inevitable partner of war.