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Hamas can defeat Israel in tunnel warfare. Palestinian State once again closer to reality


Apr 28, 2011
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Hamas can defeat Israel in tunnel warfare. Palestinian State once again closer to reality​

Urban and tunnel warfare are the nightmare of armies and victory comes at a heavy cost, especially when the defender has a death wish, as Hamas does.​

Lt Gen H S Panag (retd)
02 November, 2023 12:28 pm IST

Smoke rises over Gaza, as seen from Israel's border with Gaza, in southern Israel October 28, 2023 | Reuters/Amir Cohen
Smoke rises over Gaza, as seen from Israel's border with Gaza, in southern Israel October 28, 2023 | Reuters/Amir Cohen

After several probing raids last week to test Hamas defences, the Israeli offensive into Gaza has begun. On 30 October, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began closing in on Gaza City in a two-pronged attack from the north and south to isolate and capture it. However, the main battle in the congested urban areas and Hamas’ vast subterranean network of tunnels has not started yet. Israeli forces are proceeding cautiously with their ground offensive to keep open the possibility of negotiating the release of 239 hostages, one of whom was freed Monday.

On 28 October, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israelis to expect a “long and hard campaign”, adding that “this is the second stage of the war whose goals are clear–to destroy Hamas’ governing and military capabilities and to bring the hostages home”. Hamas is equally determined to force a stalemate. “Netanyahu and his defeated army will not be able to achieve any military victory,” the militant group said in a statement the same day.

It is too early to predict the outcome of the war in Gaza. I examine the rival strategies and prognose on the progress of the war.

Strategy vs do-or-die

The ultimate aim of all wars is to secure lasting peace, more so, when decisive victory is not possible. All logic and wisdom dictate that the only solution is one where Israel and Palestine live at peace with each other. But both nations are a divided house. Moderates in Israel are ready to accept this solution, but the hardliners, who have been in power for long, are committed to a Greater Israel encompassing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian National Authority, which controls the West Bank with a population of 3.2 million, recognises Israel but is opposed to Israeli settlements of 0.7 million. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip with a population of 2.3 million, seeks the destruction of Israel. About 2 million Palestinians are Israeli citizens. All Jews can return to Israel, but 7 million Palestinians living abroad cannot. Oslo Accords of 1993 do provide a framework, but further details of any final settlement would require prolonged internationally brokered negotiations.

Israel created an invincible national security structure to ensure “never again”, which has been a national slogan and rallying call since the Holocaust. With this capability, in four wars, it neutralised the combined might of the Arab States, who all have or are in the process of mending fences (with Israel). After this, Israel modified its security structure to create ultra-technology-based manned physical barriers and overwhelming retributive capability to safeguard its mainland from the terrorist organisations in Gaza (Hamas), West Bank (Islamic Jihad and others) and Hezbollah in Lebanon. All these organisations are backed by Iran. Hamas shattered this aura of invincibility on 7 October.

Despite the glaring political and military failures, the whole of Israel, barring a few sane voices, is seething with anger and seeking retribution. The government and the military are overzealous to redeem their tarnished reputation. Netanyahu summed up the national anger, “There are moments in which a nation faces two possibilities: To do or die.”

Hamas is ideologically committed to the destruction of Israel. On 7 October, it launched the most brutal action in the history of terrorism killing 1,405 Israeli civilians and soldiers and injuring 5,431—the single largest massacre of Jews in one day since the Holocaust. Hamas and its fighters know that given their barbarous crimes, there is no escape for them. It is certain death or residual life in prison. Add to this the humiliation since the Nakba and the glorification of martyrdom in jihad. Thus, for Hamas as well, it is a do-or-die situation. It will fight to the finish and is well prepared for the same.

Rival strategies
The immediate political and military aims of both Hamas and Israel are driven by hate and retribution, which are against all tenets of strategy. As part of its long-term strategy, Hamas planned the attack on 7 October to force a massive Israeli retaliation on Palestinians in Gaza with the aim of promoting hatred for Israel, motivating an uprising in the West Bank, garnering support from the Arab nations, and encouraging an intervention by Hezbollah. So far, its radical ideology has overshadowed any strategy it may have to seek a logical solution.
Hamas’ political aim now would be to deny a decisive victory to Israel and seize the leadership of all Palestinians. Its military aim would be to fight a protracted battle exploiting the urban terrain and tunnels, to stalemate the Israeli offensive. It will use the hostages as a bargaining tool, and if it all goes down, Hamas will not hesitate to eliminate them to keep the cause alive.

Israel’s immediate political and military aims are driven by a strategy of retribution to annihilate the political structure and military capabilities of Hamas. This requires the capture and control of the whole Gaza Strip. Its initial plan would be to concentrate on Gaza City–the nerve centre of Hamas–to isolate it and capture it with a multi-pronged ground and sea offensive. The operations will be graduated to keep the door open for negotiations for the release of the hostages. Israel will then capture South Gaza if required. Its relentless air/drone attacks killing Palestinians (including the West Bank) making little or no distinction between Hamas targets and civilian population are aimed at creating a humanitarian calamity to put pressure on Hamas. Israel will be prepared for an escalated direct conflict involving Hezbollah and possibly an indirect conflict with Iran.

As per Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant, the first phase would be an air campaign followed by a ground offensive to defeat and destroy Hamas; the second phase would be continued fighting but at a lower intensity as troops work to eliminate pockets of resistance. The third phase would be the creation of a new security regime, the removal of Israel’s responsibility for day-to-day life in the Gaza Strip, and the creation of a new security reality for the citizens of Israel.

Tunnel and urban warfare

All earlier rounds of attacks in Gaza, in 2009, 2012, 2014, and 2021, were triggered by relatively minor terrorist actions and missile attacks of Hamas. In all these battles, Israel’s aim was limited to safeguarding its population with its retributive deterrent limited to air/drone strikes and limited offensive into Gaza. Ground operations were restricted to border areas, which are thinly populated and only include trans-border tunnels. In all these Given the psyche of Israel, these were considered ‘heavy casualties’. Israel attaches great value to the lives of its citizens and soldiers. So much so that in 2011, it exchanged 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for one soldier held captive by Hamas.

This time, Israel’s stated political aim is the absolute destruction of Hamas. It involves the capture of the Gaza Strip and fighting in the world’s most congested urban areas with a maze of modern and deep tunnels, both of which have been prepared for the tactical battle. Israel has no experience fighting in this kind of terrain, which favours a highly motivated defender. Urban Warfare and Tunnel Warfare are the nightmare of armies. Victory comes at a heavy cost, especially when the defender has a death wish, as Hamas does.

Hamas has prepared its defences over 10 years. It has nearly 30,000-40,000 fighters in its Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades and is well-armed with state-of-the-art small arms and anti-tank weapons. It has created the most sophisticated tunnel network for the tactical battle the world has ever seen. These would have been linked to the congested areas or the debris since the aerial bombing began. Israel is likely to adopt the ‘scorched earth’ policy using air power and artillery and then final clearance with infantry. The effect of air power and artillery on the tunnels is limited and debris of destroyed buildings will favour the defender. Infantry-predominant operations will result in heavy casualties. The presence of civilians in large numbers in the combat zone and the use of hostages as human shields by Hamas will further compound Israel’s problems.


Unless there is a psychological collapse of Hamas, the progress of the war will likely be very slow, and casualties will be very high. With the spectre of a stalemate looming large, prudence may force Israel to declare victory after the isolation of Gaza City is completed and negotiate the release of the hostages. Even if Israel succeeds, it will be a pyrrhic victory. Large-scale civilian casualties will ensure that there are no moderates left in the 7 million Palestinians under its direct or indirect control. And the entire Islamic world will once again become anti-Israel.
Whatever be the outcome, for the first time since the Oslo Accords, a viable Palestinian State is once again closer to reality.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was a Member of the Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

Is flooding the tunnel not possible?

Or using poisonous gas?

And for Hamas, they should dig the tunnel passing Israel border, so they can launch an attack without need to cross the border from the surface.
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