Israel-Gaza conflict: Hamas' tunnels are just the latest play in this lethal game of cat-and-mouse

The tactic is as old as the hills, but tunnelling has a new relevance in the age of the drone attack

Middle East Correspondent

From Aleppo to Gaza, they are digging tunnels. In Aleppo, the Syrian army have dug down into the tunnels of their Islamist opponents;  in Homs, they even dug counter-tunnels. In Gaza, the Israelis have blown up the underground earthworks of the Palestinians.

But a visit to the great Sheikh Najjar industrial estate north east of Aleppo – base for more than a year to the al-Qa'ida-Nusra-Islamic State forces fighting the Assad regime in Damascus – proves that underground warfare is in the blood of Islamist forces.

Dozens of miles of tunnels criss-crossed the now-captured fortress south of the Turkish border, in some cases wide enough for vehicles to be driven through. In the old city of Homs, which endured months of siege by the Syrian army, Sunni Muslim groups used mining drills to cut through the living rock beneath ruined apartment blocks. The tunnels of Gaza have been built and rebuilt — and rebuilt again — under Israel’s siege, complete with internal railway tracks and pre-stressed concrete walls and ceilings, a subterranean world created both for the transportation of food and weapons into the Palestinian enclave and for attacks – literally underground — against Israel.

There is, of course, nothing new in what Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu – with his usual facility for cliché – calls “tunnels of terror”. Tunnels have always provoked fear. The Romans were petrified of the tunnels constructed by the Jews in the great revolts in Judea and Samaria. The Crusaders and Saracens undermined each other’s castles by digging beneath the walls. In the Great War, as the world has been constantly reminded these past few weeks, the British and Germans tunneled and counter-tunneled each other beneath the battlefields of the Somme.

An IDF soldier exits one of the Hamas tunnels running from Gaza into Israel An IDF soldier exits one of the Hamas tunnels running from Gaza into Israel The huge British mine explosions at Messines in 1917 have been repeated in miniature in Aleppo this past year, when Nusra and other Islamist groups have dug beneath the Syrian government front lines and blown up military offices in the government-held part of the city. Syrian officers say that it was a mine shaft dug beneath the 13th century Omayad mosque in the city which brought the minaret crashing to the ground last year with the ‘vibration of an earthquake’. Civilians on the army side of the Aleppo front line – under the eyes of government militiamen — have been digging up the streets to prevent tunnelers from undermining their homes. Militias in the Damascus suburbs – perhaps because of the rocky terrain – vainly attempted to dig their own tunnels.

For years, the hundreds of tunnels of Gaza – those running between Egypt and the 141 square miles inhabited by 1.8 million besieged Palestinians – have been the capillaries of life for both civilians and fighters.  Entire cars, live animals, beds, household goods and food – as well as rockets and ammunition – have passed through these often professionally-built transit routes, constantly bombed by the Israelis and, most recently, flooded with water by the Egyptian military. Hamas makes millions in taxes from their operation – another reason why the organization will fight for them to remain open.

Just why it took so long – in a Middle East laced with barbed wire frontiers, walls and checkpoints — for Muslim military forces to resort to tunnels, remains unclear.  Al-Qa'ida’s cave tunnels at Tora Bora stretched up to 15 miles through the mountains outside Jalalabad, and the success of Osama bin Laden’s fighters in eluding their Russian – and later US – enemies, may have been an inspiration for those who followed them in Syria, even in Gaza.  The Islamic faith may have played a role; as bin Laden himself was well aware, the Prophet Mohamed received his message from God in a cave.  Light and darkness are constantly invoked in the Quran.

But the vast underground trench network built by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and army during the 1980-88 war against Iraq – battlefields which often resembled the killing fields of the 1914-18 war – may also have influenced the Muslim guerrillas of the Middle East. The tunnels which the Israelis uncovered stretching deep beneath their land border with Gaza appear to have been constructed with curved concrete walls remarkably similar to those built by the Iranians during their war against Saddam. 

The same must surely apply to the warren of tunnels which the Syrian army have been discovering during their own battles with Islamists.  In Homs, the underground passageways were groined through solid rock – the tunnelers obligingly wrote their names and their date of completion at the entrances —  the direction changing course to avoid gas pipes and subterranean waterways. North east of Aleppo, the tunnels – in this case, built under al-Qa'ida’s direct control — were also connected with miles of deep trench-works lined with iron and sandbags, a replica of the Iran-Iraq war front lines.

One Palestinian official in Beirut, who remembers the weapons and makeshift rockets stored under the city during the 1982 Israeli siege, believes that the introduction of pilotless drone aircraft — used by the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by the Israelis over Gaza – drove fighters underground.  “Conventional armies like daylight, guerillas prefer darkness,” he says.  “When drones could see at night, we had to go beneath the earth.”

Video: Resident - 'we've had rockets here for 14 years'

In Homs, the Syrians also used drones and, within the past two years, the Iranian-supported Lebanese Hizballah, which have been fighting alongside Assad’s forces in Syria, have launched their own drone flights over Israel, taking pictures of Israel’s own underground communications centre outside Haifa.  Hizballah’s machines were made in Iran, which has itself seized US drone aircraft which crashed – or were shot down – over Iranian territory.

The more powerful that eye in the sky, it seems, the more tunnels will be dug.  If, in the mantra of US forces, guerrilla war is asymmetrical, it is becoming ever more three dimensional.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
news
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick