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tunnel gaza

The recent military confrontation between Israel and Hamas has unveiled a new form of warfare enacted by the Palestinians: the construction of subterranean tunnels which the Israeli found very difficult to spot, if not through the invasion of the Gaza strip. It is an operative novelty that is not entirely alien to preceding armed confrontations, but which has now become central in the overall strategy against Israel. It is a tactic which, in the near future, both in an offensive and defensive way, could become widespread throughout the middle east.

Hamas has dug a subterranean network of tunnels underneath Gaza for several reasons. The most obvious one derives from the need to defend themselves from an enemy that controls the skies. But the tunnels serve a wide scope of purposes: the contraband with Egypt, the storage of weapons, the protection of Hamas' leaders and, last but not least, the carrying out of offensive operations. Hamas dug the tunnels with the technical and operative assistance of the Hezbollah, as confirmed by a number of documents found by the Israeli during the invasion of the Gaza strip.

If the Hezbollah taught Hamas how to build tunnels, it is because it is a skill and expertise that they have and which they used with good operative results in the past. One good example is the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah; even then the militia of the Shiite movement hid inside tunnels. After all, the south of Lebanon is similar to the Gaza strip in that Israel controls its skies and the territory is under the constant threat of invasion.

tunnel lebanon

Korean lessons

The Hezbollah have made use of a specific skill developed in North Korea, where the same technique was used along the border with South Korea. This know-how was passed on to Iran which then taught it to the Lebanese militia. Operative experiences and technical, tactical knowledge are the object of exchanges that don't mind geography. You learn the trade elsewhere and apply it to your specific context.

The North Korean tunnels were dug at a depth of 70 to 80 meters in order to shelter oneself from possible nuclear attacks. Those in Gaza and Lebanon should only be about 25 meters deep. The Hezbollah, however, have made an exception for their command structures, which are located 40 meters underground and lined with reinforced concrete.

The Hezbollah's technique of building tunnels, like that of training their militiamen in the construction of rockets, is inspired by the teachings of Imad Mughniyeh, a longtime terrorist from Lebanon who was killed by the Israelis with a car-bomb in Damascus in 2008 after a manhunt that lasted for over 20 years. Two years ago the Lebanese newspaper 'al Joumhouria', quoting anonymous European intelligence sources, said that the Hezbollah have built, extended and reinforced a network of tunnels both in the Bekaa valley (where the majority of Lebanon's Shiites dwell), on the border with Syria (to guarantee more security to the traffic and support of Bashar al Assad and to move arms towards Lebanon), and in the south of Lebanon between the river Litani and the border with Israel (called the “Blue Line” by the UN).

The Hezbollah have built this noteworthy underground network with the same goals as Hamas, but the 'God's' militias have surely a military capability which is a lot more advanced than their Palestinian colleagues: Hezbollah have more weapons, more money, and more freedom of movement on the Lebanese territory. In the eyes of Israel they pose a greater threat to the security of the Jewish nation than does Hamas.

According to the aforementioned Lebanese publication, the tunnels of the Hezbollah have lighting, ventilation and fiber optics for communications. These are all vital elements which would allow the Hezbollah to endure a prolonged attack and bombing by Israel. Some parts of the tunnels have allegedly been structured to serve as dormitories, moving hospitals, bathrooms, kitchens and food deposits that would allow for a long stay underground to any head of the militia that might need it. They could even lead operations from there, if need be.

tunnels lebanon
Tunnels and Bunkers in southern Lebanon

The long hand of Iran

Hezbollah's tunnels were allegedly built with the financial support of Iran which, in some cases, helped the Shiite militia by providing technical personnel up to the task. Such aid was needed because, unlike the sandy Gaza, the ground in Lebanon is rocky, so more efficient instruments and a more qualified personnel are needed to excavate it. In the past, until the end of the Syrian civil war, Iran financed these works with roughly 200 million dollars per year. Successively their contribution has decreased but, in the meantime, the Hezbollah were able to achieve financial independence thanks to dubious commerce practices (among which the diamond trade), the sale of fake documents, the traffic of drugs and the affairs of a number of investment companies.

Another newspaper, 'Al Watan al Arabi', revealed in early 2014, information allegedly obtained from within the Hezbollah. The newspaper spoke of large tunnels, not unlike the tunnels of the metro in European cities, that had been fit out to serve as operative commands. The other news was that, with the support of Iran, the Hezbollah would have been developing underground missile facilities. They would have adopted this measure after the losses suffered during the war in 2006, when missile ramps were carried on trucks. During said conflict, despite the constitution of special teams (one to position the launcher, one to carry the rocket and the third to fire away) trained to carry out the operation in a maximum of 28 seconds, the Hezbollah were crippled by the Israeli strikes.

It is logical to ask oneself how the Hezbollah can go about digging tunnels and filling them with arms and equipment under the eyes of the UN mission UNIFIL, which officially controls the entire southern part of Lebanon. A mission which has been operative since 1978 with 'peacekeeping' duties, not 'peace enforcement' ones. The answer is that the UN has enacted superficial controls without carrying out in-depth investigations. UNIFIL operates with the support of the Lebanese army and, since Hezbollah are a State within a State, it is highly improbable that the Lebanese would take a stand against the Shiite militias. The result is that the Hezbollah can dig around in southern Lebanon and build their structures there undisturbed. Israel, which systematically violates the Lebanese airspace with airplanes and drones and which does not disdain invasions and incursions, is well aware of the problem.

Overall, the Hezbollah allegedly have access to 600 arms caches, mostly rockets, in the south of Lebanon. The Lebanese militiamen took security measures to prevent these caches from being uncovered. Every commander knows the location of his own cache and of two subsidiary caches. If the commander is captured by the enemy, he will not be able to disclose information about the location of the remaining structures. This compartmentalization is true for the Hezbollah connection systems as well, so that, if the central command is hit, the rest of the network remains in place. The Hezbollah have attempted to diversify their operations in order to prevent being completely destroyed by Israeli bombings.

A long term threat

Hezbollah's structures are articulated and positioned according to the range of the rockets that they fire against Israel: from the Katyusha (5-9 km) to the Grad (15-36 km), the M-75 (80 km) and the Fajr 5 (190 km). Their missiles in southern Lebanon are managed in a centralized way by the three brigades that operate in the region (Nesser and two others, the names of which are unknown). Great operative discretion is left to the other cells that comprise Hezbollah in order to prevent any single one of them from becoming a target or constituting a significant objective. These cells enact guerrilla techniques that are borrowed by the Vietcong experience against the USA.

It is alleged that the Hezbollah own roughly 60.000 rockets (a number that has been publicized by Israeli authorities in 2013). The fact that only about 4.000 rockets were fired during the war in 2006 gives us an idea of how disproportionate this firing potential is. This is probably due to the intention of the Hezbollah to fire many rockets at once in order to saturate the reaction capabilities of the Iron Dome. Also, faced with so much dispersed abundance of enemies on the territory, no bombing by the Israeli could actually hinder the firing capabilities of the Hezbollah in any significant way.

From the defensive point of view, Israel has not yet found a way to defeat this kind of threat without, as happened in Gaza, invading and materially looking for the tunnels on the ground. There have been recent tests with sensors by specialized military groups, but their projects are still in an experimental phase and are not yielding satisfactory results this far.

On the offensive front, the tunnels have not become such a threat to the Israeli population like their constructors wished they would. Only the future will tell if this technique can effectively condition the coming wars that Israel will likely fight along its borders.