In the latest reports from the Israeli military, Hamas appears to be changing its tunnel strategy, shifting from a focus on border-crossing attack routes to more “internal defense structures.” This means that instead of constructing tunnels with the goal of infiltrating Israel, or attacking civilians across the border, Hamas will instead work on bolstering its network of tunnels under Gaza itself. This network allows the terror organization to move men and equipment throughout the strip hidden from Israeli surveillance technology.
What is the reason for this shift in strategy?
After all, Hamas’ attack tunnels were highly lauded by Hamas leadership and were admittedly a highly effective tool of psychological warfare against Israel.
There can be a few causes for the strategy shift within Hamas, which may point to important changes in nature to the group’s drawn-out fight against Israel, and even asymmetrical conflict in general.
First is the fact that attack tunnels are dangerous to those that use them. Plain and simple. Attack tunnels, which approach the border with Israel and have to be hastily built before they are detected, often lack structural soundness. Countless incidents have occurred in which Hamas fighters have died from tunnels collapsing, with at least three casualties just this month alone.
A second consideration is effectiveness in the context of Israeli strategy. Israel has long been at work building its underground defense system to address the threat of attack tunnels emanating from Gaza. The project, estimated to cost 3 billion shekels ($833 million), will include a large concrete wall, outfitted with sensors and reaching dozens of meters deep into the ground. The completed structure will stand six meters high from ground level. The massive operation in recent months has seen Israel set up concrete factories near Gaza, bring foreign laborers, contract companies to flatten the construction area, and the build massive sand mounds to protect the workers from Hamas attacks. With this new Israeli defense infrastructure underway, the chances of possible returns for the digging of an attack tunnel went significantly down.
And finally, the last round of clashes between Israel and Hamas in 2014, known as Operation Protective Edge, demonstrated just how un-enduring attack tunnels are. During the fifty-day-long conflict, the IDF’s Corp of Combat Engineers, the most central unit during the operation, located and destroyed over thirty of Hamas’s tunnels. In a matter of weeks, years of investment of labor and money were swept away in bursts of bangalores and plastic explosives.
All of this demonstrates an important lesson: While asymmetric tactics to defeat a technologically superior enemy may be effective in the short term, you can never discount the possibility that countermeasures to these methods will not be innovated, whether complex or simple. While Hamas’ tunnels were seen as the group’s ace-in-the-hole, at least in terms of being able to circumvent Israel’s cutting-edge military machine to inflict some damage, Hamas is coming to realize that this method is far from a sure thing.