TZE'ELIM TRAINING BASE, Israel - Israel’s military says its mission to destroy an estimated 500 kilometres of Hamas tunnels across the Gaza Strip will take months, causing a scale of urban destruction that may prove impossible to reverse.
The devastating outcome of a drawn-out campaign against the militant group — with air strikes and ground battles continuing alongside the tunnel attacks — is likely to leave many of Gaza’s 2.2 million Palestinians homeless and a question mark over where they can be re-housed.
In Beit Hanoun, a town of more than 50,000 people in the northern Gaza Strip, a 41 kilometre-long Mediterranean enclave run by Hamas, the Israeli military has set about blowing up almost 100 shafts and several dozen tunnels, said Lieutenant Colonel Amit, who is overseeing their destruction and withheld his surname in line with army rules.
Beit Hanoun was among the places from which Hamas launched its surprise attack on Israel that killed about 1,200 people on Oct 7, triggering the ongoing counter-invasion. Hamas is designated a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union.
“The way it is now it’s not liveable,” Amit said of the town in a briefing near Gaza at the Tze’elim military base, where his 252nd Reserve Division is based.
“This is not beautiful what we’re doing. There is nothing nice about wars but this is necessary.”
The destruction of tunnels is advancing Israel’s stated aim of dismantling Hamas infrastructure so the group can’t repeat its deadly Oct 7 assault. At the same time, reducing much of Gaza to rubble — which Hamas-run authorities say has killed at least 16,000 people to date, mostly civilians — is raising international concerns, including in the United States.
The inhabitants of Gaza have been driven south by the fighting, but Israel’s campaign has started to move in the same direction. The United Nations has warned that civilians have run out of safe harbours and may need to be displaced into neighbouring countries.
The situation is “fast deteriorating into a catastrophe”, UN chief Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday, dramatically escalating his call for a ceasefire.
The tunnels, which are used by Hamas to move its militants from one place to another and to store weapons, are mostly located in densely populated areas, Amit said, using a map to illustrate.
Many are booby trapped, as are houses and roads, meaning that heavy de-mining equipment such as bulldozers are needed, increasing the extent of the damage. In a presentation, the military showed photographs and videos of rockets, grenades and Kalashnikov automatic rifles it said were found stashed in homes, schools and hospitals. (Story continues below)
An image released by the Israel Defense Forces the shaft of a Hamas underground tunnel that was uncovered during a ground operation against the the Islamist militants in the Gaza Strip. (Photo: Israel Defense Forces via Reuters)
“Our goal is to hurt Hamas and destroy Hamas as a political and military organisation but you can see that these shafts are under normal people’s homes,” Amit said, with his talk occasionally punctuated by the roar of fighter jets heading toward Gaza.
The military has so far discovered 800 tunnels across Gaza and destroyed 500 of them, with Beit Hanoun an area of particular focus. Now virtually all the inhabitants have fled the town, of which little is left. Amit is a reservist whose civilian work is in urban renewal, though he says he’s now doing the opposite.
Some of the shafts are 30 metres deep, equivalent to the height of a 10-storey building. Destroying them is a painstaking process with a considerable amount of explosives required to break down the concrete walls and blast-resistant doors.
Hamas has been building the tunnels since 2008 and “it will take months”, he said. “We will be able to destroy Hamas as a functioning organisation and then the infrastructure will take time.”
Israel has yet to show it has a plan for Gaza after the war. Key allies such as the US have expressed concern about the absence of a long-term strategy, as have key Arab nations.
Yet for now, the military is not letting up on pursuing its goals for the territory — regardless of the damage caused.
“For Gaza to be demilitarised, there is only one force that can see to this demilitarisation — and that force is the Israel Defense Forces,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week.
“I am not prepared to close my eyes and accept any other arrangement.”