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An IDF combat engineer inspects a tunnel uncovered in Gaza. Photo: IDF
An IDF combat engineer inspects a tunnel uncovered in Gaza. Photo: IDF

The Gaza strip provided an excellent terrain for the construction of the Palestinian subterranean network, established in the about 10 years, since Israel’s withdrawal from the area. Due to the soft soil and sand covering the majority of the area around Gaza, the Palestinians were able to dig those tunnels relatively quickly.

According to Palestinian sources, tunnels 300-400 meter long were dug within ‘months’, using ‘dozens’ of diggers working 24/7 in several shifts. Overall, tunnelling a source of steady income for many Palestinians in the Gaza strip, which suffers from extremely high rate of unemployment. Those families were digging and maintaining the tunnel infrastructure, charging service fees for all goods transported through these tunnels.

Like makeshift rockets and explosives constructed form ordinary materials and fertilisers provided by Israel, and international aid, the concrete and metal supports for the tunnels were also provided by Israel, in form of building supplies delivered to rebuild and develop the civilian constructions in the Gaza Strip.

The network comprised of three types of underground facilities:

  • Logistical supply tunnels
  • Communications, command and control tunnels
  • Strike tunnels

Hundreds of logistical (smuggling) tunnels dug under the borderline separating the Palestinian Rafah from the Egyptian side of the city provided a source of living for many families in the southern Rafah area. Other tunnels located in the north and center, controlled by the militant governing Hamas, provided caches of supplies, weapons and ammunition.

Part of the Gazan subterranean complex is providing a protected operational space connecting buildings in urban areas, with the tunnels dug under open areas providing save passage for combatants, as well as hidden positions for mortar and rocket launchers.

Over a thousand such tunnels have been destroyed by the Egyptian Army in recent months, as part of the Egyptian effort to cease uncontrolled traffic from Gaza to Egypt. By 27 July Egypt’s army said it has destroyed 13 more tunnels connecting the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip, taking to 1,639 the overall number it has laid waste to. [ismember]Cairo has poured troops into the peninsula to counter a rising insurgency since the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last year, and its security operation involves the destruction of these tunnels. The Palestinian militant group Hamas, uses these tunnels to smuggle arms, food and money into the Gaza strip but also send insurgents and activists to support the insurgency and Jihadist terrorists in Sinai and Egypt.

Those positions are maintained covered, and expose the weapon just prior to the firing. Mortar positions are operated by teams while multiple rocket launchers are prepositioned and elevated to the firing position using mechanical elevation techniques. Unlike standard multiple rocket launchers that fire salvos in quick succession, those remotely controlled launchers are designed to release rockets simultaneously, resulting in relatively high dispersion. Nevertheless, the rapid execution enables the launcher to retract before Israeli fighter planes can engage it.

Communications, command and control and underground living facilities are constructed in sites considered protected or immune to Israeli attack, (such as under hospitals, mosques, schools and UN facilities). Some of these facilities provide command posts, equipped with communications means to deliver commands and, in some cases, even activate remotely-controlled weapons. In numerous instances the Israeli forces have found such remotely controlled IEDs and rockets wired with self activation or remote activation.[/ismember]

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A tunnel entry in Gaza. The left image shows the cached access. On the  right, the tunnel entry is exposed. Photo: IDF
Tunnel entries on the surface are concealed by large covers, enabling insurgents to use the facility for rapid egress, surprising enemy forces or as firing positions, launching rockets or firing mortars. The left image shows the cached access. On the right, the tunnel entry is exposed. Photo: IDF

[ismember]Typical strike tunnels extend from few hundreds meters to 1,500 meter and beyond. Each main tunnel has several entries, connections, extensions and exits, some dug across the border, well inside the Israeli area. Entry and exit gateways are hidden – where entries are often located under buildings, or agricultural facilities, covered from the prowling Israeli aerial surveillance.  Exits are often placed in open areas are maintained hidden from sight, under shrubs or sand banks. Other exits remain hidden by maintaining the top intact, digging out the exit just in time for the attack.[/ismember]

The tunnels are often high and wide enough to enable a line of soldiers to move freely and rapidly. Tunnels are dug at a depth of about 20 meters (66 foot) below ground, and use several sharp turns and height changes, eliminating direct lines of fire. Exits are often supported by steps and ladders to facilitate rapid egress. As noted on The Washington Post’s Morning Mix blog, in the fall of 2013 Israeli soldiers found a tunnel that was 2.4 km (1.5 miles) long, 20-30 meter (66-99 foot) ) deep and equipped with electricity and provisions that could last occupants several months. Israeli officials estimated that it required $10 million and 800 tons of concrete to build.

Hidden from aerial surveillance tunnel entries are often placed in basements, in residential homes and other covered structures. Some of the main entry shafts are strengthened with concrete and have ladders and power lines assisting access to the tunnel laying 20-30 meters (66-99 foot)  below surface. Photos: IDF
Hidden from aerial surveillance tunnel entries are often placed in basements, in residential homes and other covered structures. Some of the main entry shafts are strengthened with concrete and have ladders and power lines assisting access to the tunnel laying 20-30 meters below surface. Photos: IDF

Those strike tunnels are also supported by extensive infrastructure that secures those assets, gaining multiple paths of movement, alternative entries and exits, each pathway rigged with booby traps to protect the main path.

According to military sources the Israeli intelligence identified 38 strike tunnels which were briefed to the forces. Through the land phase of operation Protective Edge the IDF discovered 32 such tunnels and over 60 vertical shafts supporting those tunnels. According to IDF sources these were most of the tunnels the Israeli Intelligence has already knew about. Some are uncovered by heavy mechanical equipment and well digging equipment. Others are seized through known or uncovered accesses.

Inspection and mapping of those tunnels require extensive operations, that had to be undertaken in a combat zone, with large forces protecting a perimeter around those sites, enabling the engineers to conduct their complex subterranean operation. After the inspection phase, the tunnels are destroyed with explosives.

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