It was a warm night in Jabaliya, northeast of Gaza City. Abu Zein and his wife were fast asleep when what the couple first thought was an earthquake shook their bed so hard, its legs buckled.
When Abu Zein — who did not want to give his real name for this article out of concern for his safety — told them, the fighters promised to repair any damage in the couple’s house. The next day, a man turned up with tools to repair the damage to the floor and money as compensation for the damaged furniture.
Land of layers
Palestinian resistance factions in Gaza have long used underground tunnels as an integral part of their military tactics. In this, they have taken a lesson from history. The Vietnamese dug an extensive network of tunnels in their battle against US troops, a network with which the American military never got to grips. Hizballah also went underground to resist the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and during Israel’s war on the country in 2006.
For Palestinian groups — especially the Qassam Brigades — the tunnels serve a multitude of purposes, from smuggling to infiltration to shelter. They are the only protection from Israel’s air power and prying eyes in the sky. They have also been used offensively, most notably in a 2004 attack on an Israeli military observation point in Rafah that saw five Israeli soldiers killed and in the 2006 capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Abu Zein’s story is one of many suggesting that Gaza is now made up of layers. Most people live and work above ground. But below — as illustrated in a 2015 Al Jazeera documentary in which correspondent Wael al-Dahdouh gained access to tunnels in the western part of the coastal enclave — others, these in military fatigues, go about their business.
Al-Dahdouh’s documentary is eye-opening. It shows the kind of tunnels seen on the news: narrow, claustrophobic, snaking their way under the surface. But it also shows larger spaces that function as storage rooms, bedrooms, living spaces, kitchens and bathrooms.
Tunneling is dangerous work and tunnels are designed from bitter experience. Roofs are curved, Qassam members explained to Al Jazeera, as flat ceilings collapse more easily. And their use is of utmost strategic import to the Palestinian resistance, say observers. They explain, said Yousef al-Sharqawi, a retired Palestinian Authority major-general, the ability of the Qassam Brigades to resist repeated, prolonged and ferocious Israeli attacks.
Tunnels, al-Sharqawi said, offered fighters shelter, freedom of movement and the ability to surprise and in some cases capture Israeli troops.
The Al Jazeera documentary also shows that tunnel engineers have access to reasonably sophisticated equipment that is a far cry from the manual methods used in the past. Additionally, the tunnels have their own communication network, allowing fighters to exchange information without risk of interception.
In a chance encounter with a group of diggers from the Qassam Brigades, this reporter had an opportunity to ask about their work. Estimates vary, but according to the Brigades, as per the Al Jazeera documentary, some 4,000 people are engaged in digging tunnels, getting paid between $200 and $400 a month.
The work is round the clock, tough and dangerous.
“We suffer breathing problems,” said one of the men, in a coarse voice. All of the men remained masked during the brief encounter. “The air is not good beneath ground. But we get used to it.”
Another said they overcame their fear of tunnel collapse through faith.
“When we are inside, we trust in God. If something should happen, it will be our honor to be martyrs.”
The group left quickly. Security procedures do not allow members of Qassam, when bearing the group’s colors, to stay in the open long.
Their bravura notwithstanding, casualties of the tunnel industry are a commonplace phenomenon in Gaza. In January, seven young men died after a tunnel collapsed in bad weather.
With such danger involved, it is perhaps not surprising that the Qassam Brigades should be keen to advertise the strategic importance of the tunnels. At the beginning of the year, the group published a report on its official website citing what it called the “major achievements” of the tunnel tactics over the years. Seventy Israeli soldiers were killed in 13 operations, according to the report, 129 soldiers were injured and two were captured, Shalit in 2006 and Shaul Aaron during Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza.
Israel’s costly counter
The Israeli military is certainly taking the tunnels seriously. Tunnels are one of the reasons Israel cites to prevent materials such as cement and wood from entering Gaza, stymying attempts at rebuilding the civilian infrastructure — from sewage networks to housing — badly damaged during repeated Israeli assaults.
The military is investing millions in technology to detect tunnels. In April, the army claimed to have discovered a tunnel 30 meters underground. It has secured US support in these detection efforts to the tune of $120 million.
None of this deters military leaders in the Qassam Brigades. One high-ranking fighter told this reporter in a written reply through an intermediary that “nobody can stop our tunnel operations … Israel tries to hide its failure to destroy tunnels by blocking the entrance of equipment and materials to Gaza.”
Fayez Abu Shamala, a political analyst and professor at Gaza’s al-Aqsa University, recently suggested in a Facebook post that any technological advances on the Israeli side would only be met by greater determination on the Palestinian side. A high-ranking source, he wrote, “told me that they have recently succeeded in establishing offensive tunnels at a depth of 50 meters.”
Destroying the tunnels was the stated goal of Israel’s 2014 ground invasion of Gaza and their continued existence is an embarrassment to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and a potential spark for another conflict. In January, Netanyahu threatened to act with “much more force” than in the 2014 offensive that killed more than 2,200 people. And the appointment last month as defense minister of Avigdor Lieberman, who has previously threatened a “thorough cleansing” of Gaza, only adds fuel to the fire.
Yet Palestinian resistance leaders maintain the tunnels are of such strategic importance as a means of pressure on Israel that the high costs are worth it. Of the tunnel Israel detected in April, one leader of the Brigades estimated its cost at $4 million and told Lebanon’s al-Akhbar newspaper that an average tunnel costs $2 million to dig.
“This cost is nothing compared to their value as an effective military tactic,” he said. “They remain a real challenge to Israel.”
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist from Gaza.
This article was first published in Electronic Intifada