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The Hamas ‘Metro’ tunnel network: Secret, sprawling and in Israeli crosshairs

Smoke and flame rise during Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)
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A ferocious series of strikes on the Gaza Strip, launched by Israel at midnight, targeted a vast network of underground tunnels used by Palestinian militants, Israeli officials said Friday.

According to the Israeli military, 160 aircraft struck more than 150 underground targets in the northern Gaza Strip, centered on Beit Lahiya, with the goal of severely damaging an extensive network dubbed the “metro” and used by Hamas, which has controlled the enclave since 2006.

The strikes came just after an announcement by the Israel Defense Forces that Israeli ground forces had entered Gaza — a statement officials later walked back.

Some Israeli media outlets speculated that the announcement of a ground invasion was a ruse to lure Hamas military forces into the tunnels. In remarks later Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to hint at that possibility.

“Over the last day, we attacked targets underground,” Netanyahu said. “Hamas thought it could hide there. It could not hide there. Senior Hamas officials think they can escape our grasp. They cannot escape.”

Israeli allegations of tunnels dug by Palestinian militants often figure in conflicts in Gaza. Unlike with Palestinian rockets, which leave clear evidence of their existence after being fired, it can be hard for reporters to verify some details of the hidden, underground systems and their covert use.

After a nearby explosion, a Reuters camera operator turned the camera in time to see a second mortar fire during a night attack in Israel on May 15. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Reuters/Reuters)

However, Hamas leaders have confirmed the existence of tunnels in interviews with Western journalists, describing them as an “innovation” but insisting that they are largely defensive, and suggesting that even as Israeli forces destroy them, they have many more.

The Israeli military has taken journalists on tours of tunnels it has captured, showing them to be surprisingly sophisticated structures with concrete walls, electricity and carts, and some journalists have been shown around operational tunnels by militants.

Unlike many tunnels targeted in the past, officials said those targeted in recent strikes were for use within the Gaza Strip, not to move in and out of the territory.

Tunnels first appeared in Gaza in response to an Israeli blockade imposed after Hamas took power. Initially, they were used to smuggle goods into the enclave and marked illicit entrepreneurship rather than militarism.

But they were soon used for other purposes. In 2006, Hamas used a tunnel to capture Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit was held captive for five years before his release as part of a 2011 prisoner exchange deal.

In the 2014 Gaza War, Hamas released videos of masked militants, carrying automatic weapons and grenade launchers, crawling from a hole in the ground, and Israeli officials said troops had been ambushed by fighters who emerged from the ground.

During that conflict, Israeli forces said they discovered Hamas militants carrying handcuffs and tranquilizers, apparently with plans to kidnap Israelis.

About 30 tunnels were destroyed during the 2014 conflict. At the time, Israeli officials said Hamas had built more than 1,300 tunnels since 2007 at a cost of $1.25 billion, diverting funds that could have been spent on public infrastructure in Gaza.

Netanyahu has invoked fears that the tunnels would be used to kidnap not only soldiers but Israeli civilians. Hamas has killed civilians in the past, and its recent rocket fire, though crude, can be deadly.

Experts suggest that part of the point of the tunnels is to instill that fear.

Gerard De Groot, a professor of history at the University of St Andrews who writes about war and politics, once described tunnels as being able to “evoke a peculiar horror — as though the devil himself were emerging from hell to spread torment on Earth.”

Hamas officials have bragged about the scale of their tunnel network, with deputy leader Ismail Haniyeh claiming in 2016 that the group had twice as many tunnels as communist forces used against U.S. troops in the Vietnam War.

That may be an exaggeration, but those who have studied the system suggest it is complex.

In a recent paper, Rami Abu Zubaydah of the Egyptian Institute for Studies said that interviews with militants had revealed a variety of tunnels used for strategic reasons, including those used for combat, ones where leadership can gather, and others where rockets and weapons are stored.

There are also smaller tunnels used for quick transport, Ahmad wrote.

Israel has come up with a variety of methods to combat the tunnels, including the construction of an ambitious underground wall that was finally completed in March after years of work. Officials have refused to say publicly how deep the wall goes.

Speaking on the sidelines of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington in 2018, an official who headed the underground-warfare section of the Israeli military’s technological unit told reporters that Israel had sophisticated new techniques for finding tunnels but refused to go into details.

Israel has several weapons capable of striking underground, many of which were originally developed with Iranian bunkers in mind.

Whether the false reports of a ground invasion were a trick or not, Israeli officials have said that the latest round of attacks on Gaza was designed take out senior members of Hamas, including those responsible for building and maintaining tunnels, and spook those still alive.

“We see their fears, after about 100 of their friends were killed in the last few days,” military spokesman Hidai Zilberman told Kan radio on Friday morning.

“We reach them everywhere, all their people, and we will continue to do so,” Netanyahu said Friday at the end of a meeting with security chiefs in Tel Aviv.

Shira Rubin in Jerusalem and Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.