Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue Israel’s military operation in Gaza until Hamas’ tunnel network in Gaza is destroyed. While many of the airstrikes against Gaza and many of the civilian casualties in Gaza over the last few weeks seem to have little to do with tunnels, it’s clear that Hamas’ underground network—at least 23 tunnels with 66 access points have been uncovered so far—seems to weigh heavily on Israeli policymakers and has provided the main rationale for continuing the operation.
In an excellent essay for the Washington Post, historian Gerard DeGroot looks at the history of tunnels in warfare, citing examples from the Roman Empire to World War I to Vietnam.
“Tunnels offer succor to the insurgent ground down by the greater wealth and superior technology of his enemy,” he writes. But he argues that because of the expense and difficulty of maintaining them, they do little to change the military balance in a conflict and that their main advantage is “propaganda potential.” He provides one example:
In response to the tunnel threat in Vietnam, the United States created teams of “tunnel rats,” perhaps the worst assignment ever given to American soldiers. Troops were sent into a cramped, claustrophobic, noxious world infested with poisonous insects and snakes. Around every dark corner lurked the possibility of a booby trap, a mine or a silent, murderous enemy.
The point about propaganda value has certainly been the case in Israel, where tunnels have been a menacing presence since Hamas used one to capture Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006 and the prospect of tunnels stretching into Israeli towns is understandably alarming.
On the other hand, as the New York Times recently noted, the massive amount of concrete and other resources devoted to the tunnels have “left many Gazans unable to rebuild their homes and hampered construction projects that provide Gazans with jobs.” Another set of tunnels, those connecting Gaza to Egypt, were the blockaded region’s main point of access to the outside world until the new government in Cairo began destroying them.
(Tunnels have a much older history of use in Gaza, in fact. Locals are believed to have used them when Alexander the Great laid siege to the city in 332 B.C.)
Strangely, given their long history and seeming impracticality, the U.S. military believes tunnels are the future of warfare. The U.S. Army last year issued a request to defense contractors for new tunnel warfare equipment on the grounds that “the growing use of tunnels and underground facilities by military and irregular forces to gain a tactical advantage is becoming more sophisticated and increasingly effective, making the likelihood of U.S Forces encountering military-purposed subterranean structures on future battlefields high.”
Asymmetric warfare between advanced military powers like the U.S. and Israel and irregular armed groups is fast becoming the norm in global combat. Those battles may increasingly be fought underground.