Creative Producer: Naman Shah
Israel’s ongoing offensive in Gaza has brought a spotlight on the sophisticated network of tunnels that lay beneath.
This underground network has held significance for Gazans in the past. They are also reported to have been used by Hamas for coordinating attacks on Israel and holding hostages in captivity.
How Long are Gaza’s Tunnels?
The secret tunnel labyrinth comprises about 1,300 tunnels spanning throughout the Strip. Hamas claims that the total length of the tunnels stretch over 500 km. This is a remarkable figure given that the entire territory of Gaza is only 41 km long and 10 km wide. In comparison, the Delhi Metro’s total network length is around 393 km.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have dubbed this network as the “Gaza metro.” Some of the tunnels are believed to be almost 30 metres (100ft) below the ground. The actual size has not yet been determined.
When did Gaza’s tunnels come into Operation?
The earliest tunnels in Gaza have been operational since the 1980s. Since Hamas came into power in Gaza in 2006-07, the tunnel network was developed rampantly.
What Purpose Did These Tunnels Serve?
Following the blockade of Gaza in 2007, the tunnels, particularly those near the Rafah border (the border with Egypt), have been used to smuggle fuel, food and medicines for civilians from Egypt. However, due to the crackdown by the Egyptian government several of these tunnels have been destroyed.
Many of the tunnels are under populated urban areas, and are used by Hamas for weapon storage and as command centres for military operations. Earlier, they were one of the ways Hamas transferred weapons, equipment and people.
Tunnels' Role in Hamas’ 7 October Attack
The tunnels near the borders are reportedly used by Hamas for incursions and attacks into Israel. Experts suspect that these tunnels must have played a major role in the undetected crossing of Hamas into Israel during the 7 October attack. Movement through these tunnels cannot be detected through aerial surveillance hence are used by the fighters extensively. The access points to these tunnels can be found at public buildings like mosques and schools.
Recently, these tunnels have been used to hold hostages from Israel. Yocheved Lifshitz, one of the Israeli hostages set free by Hamas, while addressing the media said, "It looked like a spider's web, many, many tunnels… We walked kilometres under the ground."
The IDF claims that each tunnel would have cost around $3 million to be built and has alleged that Hamas has been diverting aid money for the construction.
In 2021, a deadly Israeli airstrike that was targeted to destroy the tunnels, resulted in the crashing of three residential buildings, killing 42 civilians.
The tunnels act as an advantage for Hamas as the network is well-known to them. The US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that these tunnels could be laced with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and other booby traps, making the ground invasion a challenge for the IDF.