A fossorial animal or insect is one that lives in tunnels. Moles, meerkats, beetles, and wasps are just a few of the dozens of species that burrow underground to sleep, eat, procreate, and die.
Hamas is fossorial. Israeli intelligence estimates that the terrorists have dug some 300 miles of tunnels under the Gaza Strip. The length of this “Gaza Metro,” as Israelis sardonically call it, is almost half that of the New York subway system. Unlike fossorial animals, though, that dig close to the surface, Hamas bores down to as deep as 200 feet, and carves out not only tunnels but storerooms, aid stations, command centers, vehicular causeways, and meeting halls. Unlike fossorial animals, which excavate in order to live, Hamas tunnels to kill.
Why this obsession with tunnels? Are they merely tactical —a low-tech, relatively low-cost weapon in a war against the incalculably superior IDF— or do they tell us something essential about Hamas? Are the tunnels not only subterranean but also, tellingly, subconscious, revealing as much as they hide?
Hamas sunk its first tunnel shafts, crudely scooped out of Gaza’s sandy soil, in the 1990s. Most extended under the Egyptian border and served as conduits for the goods and armaments smuggled across the Sinai desert from Sudan. But with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in October 2000, Hamas turned its tunnels toward Israeli positions in Gaza. Operating underground, terrorists planted mines under an IDF tank and two border posts, killing twelve.
Still, Israel hoped that its August 2005 disengagement from Gaza would eliminate the tunnel threat. Palestinian Authority policemen, trained and equipped by the U.S. military, claimed total control over the Strip. These forces, Israel believed, would suppress Hamas and end its excavations.
Not so. Ten months later, on June 25, 2006, Hamas terrorists exited a tunnel at the Kerem Shalom border crossing. They killed two soldiers and captured another, Gilad Shalit. Held for five years, Shalit ultimately was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, among them Yahya Sinwar, the current commander of Hamas in Gaza. The terrorists had learned the supreme value of hostages and the singular efficacy of tunnels.
One year after Shalit’s capture, in June 2007, Hamas overthrew and executed those Palestinian Authority policemen and became Gaza’s sovereign government. From the outset, though, terrorists regarded the Strip not as an independent mini-state but rather as a staging ground for pursuing holy war against Israel. Along with firing hundreds of rockets at Israeli towns and cities, the terrorists assiduously dug.
The new tunnels were reinforced with steel and concrete, well-lit and lined with communication wires and fuses for remote rocket-launching. Their multiple entrances were hidden in homes, schools, chicken coops, and mosques, their exits located in open fields where they cannot be easily detected. And even when they are, Israeli troops clearing them have to run a gauntlet of booby traps, IEDs, and mines.
It took five years before Dennis Ross, a presidential advisor in 2009, admitted that Obama’s position was a mistake. “I argued with Israeli leaders and security officials, telling them they needed to allow more construction materials, including cement, into Gaza so that housing, schools, and basic infrastructure could be built,” he wrote. “They countered that Hamas would misuse it, and they were right.” Hamas spent around $90 million, and poured 600,000 tons of concrete, in order to build three dozen tunnels. The same materials could have built at least as many schools.
At least nine of those tunnels were used to attack Israeli troops during the 2014 Protective Edge Operation, and nine Israelis were killed. The body of Lt. Hadar Goldin, shot during a humanitarian ceasefire, was hauled into a tunnel and kept by Hamas as a bargaining chip. Still, the IDF claimed it had eliminated all of the tunnels reaching inside Israel.
Nevertheless, taking no chances, Israel constructed a forty-kilometer-long wall along the Gaza border. Sunk to classified depths and rising twenty feet above the surface, the barrier contained enough concrete and rebar, if laid in a straight line, to reach Australia. An array of highly sophisticated alarms and sensors was all but guaranteed to detect any underground drilling. At a costing $1.1 billion, the wall was considered a bargain. “The barrier is reality-changing,” then-IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi said at its inauguration ceremony “What happened in the past won’t happen again.”
And it didn’t. Rather than tunneling under the border, Hamas terrorists broke through and flew over its fence, and landed on our beaches. The tunnels though played a primary role in this disastrous assault by providing a clandestine environment for its planning as well as command-and-control centers for its execution. In keeping its murderous schemes secret, tunnels were Hamas’s secret weapon.
There is nothing new about tunnel warfare. Since antiquity, armies have employed it to penetrate fortresses and undermine castles. The Union army used it against Confederate emplacements in the Civil War (see the opening scene of “Cold Mountain”), as did British and German miners during World War I (see the British TV series “Birdsong”). The Japanese tunnels confounded American forces in World War II (“Letters from Iwo Jima”), and Vietcong tunnels bloodied them a generation later. More recently, ISIS and other terrorist groups wielded tunnels in their fight against US and coalition troops in Syria and Iraq.
Hamas undoubtedly drew on these examples, and perhaps even employed ISIS engineers in its burrowing. But there is something different about Hamas’s tunnels, something far more grandiose and compulsive. As deeply and pervasively as they undergird the Gaza Strip, the tunnels delve profoundly into Hamas’s psyche.
Practically speaking, the tunnels facilitate surprise attacks against Israeli communities and army bases. Small arms, rockets, and ammunition can be stored close to the terminus along with the handcuffs and tranquilizers needed for transporting hostages. Once employed for these purposes, the tunnels provide shelter for their perpetrators and their commanders. Every Hamas official is reportedly assigned secure quarters for his entire family for the duration of Israeli retaliations.
And the counterstrikes come, initially from the air. But aerial bombing, no matter how devastating and precise, is of limited utility against tunnels. Less useful still is Israel’s vast arsenal of tanks, artillery, missile boats, and helicopter gunships. "[The Israelis] started saying they destroyed 100 km of Hamas tunnels,” Yahya Sinwar boasted after the 2021 round of fighting. “Even if their narrative is true, they only destroyed 20% of the tunnels." A tunnel, for Hamas, is the ultimate equalizer. In its depths, an IDF soldier armed only with a rifle or handgun has little advantage over the Palestinian terrorist he meets. Just last week five Israeli soldiers were killed and four wounded by a booby-trapped Hamas tunnel.
Yet tunnels are more than just defensible. Tunnels, for Israeli civilians and soldiers alike, are terrifying. They represent the unseen and unknown, a threat that touches on our most subliminal fears. The image of more than two hundred and forty individuals, children especially, being dragged down into darkness, is immensely demoralizing for Israelis. The thought that their loved ones now provide the ultimate human shield for Hamas is utterly unbearable. Some Israelis are willing to accede to Hamas’s demands for a ceasefire and the freeing of hundreds of convicted terrorists from Israeli jails—anything to secure the hostages’ release.
All of these goals, the tactical as well as the psychological, could have been achieved with a far less monumental complex. Clearly, for Hamas, tunnels have an even deeper, perhaps primal, meaning.
Tunnels help to hide Hamas’s kleptocratic and sociopathic nature. Their storerooms contain all the food, fuel, and medicines that Gazans chronically lack. Piercing and draining Gaza’s aquifer, tunnels exasperate the critical shortage of water in the Strip. Hundreds of Palestinian children are purportedly pressed into service digging the tunnels. Many have been crushed.
Tunnels also expose Hamas’s uniquely cynical brand of cowardice. Spanning the length and breadth of Gaza, underlying all its major cities, they transform not only their populations but the land itself into a shield.
Finally, built with the expectation of an Israeli ground attack, the tunnels are testaments to a uniquely apocalyptic vision. With Gaza reduced to ruins and Israel paralyzed by a ceasefire, the tunnels will enable Hamas to rise from the rubble and declare a jihadist victory.
Still, the search for the tunnels’ meaning might take us lower still—beneath the military, the pathological, and millennial, to the moral. As the ninth circle of Dante’s hell was reserved for the worst of all sinners, for Judas, Brutus, and Satan himself, so, too, do the tunnels descend to a realm of unrivaled wickedness. Hamas is not, in fact, fossorial. Hamas, the tunnels tell us, is evil.