A Hamas tunnel in Gaza (Picture: Wikipedia)

The rebels’ tunnel complex branched out to hidden openings from which they could launch surprise attacks on the invaders, before vanishing back underground. Initially the tunnels were built to shelter people from Imperial attack.

One was purely to ensure water supplies for those hiding inside. But they expanded into military attack tunnels. Once lured into the dark passageways, the enemy could be ambushed and killed.

These tunnels at the heart of a Middle Eastern insurgency were built in Herodium around 132CE during the Bar Kokhba Jewish revolt against Roman rule.

Then, the tunnels were a weapon that enabled the revolt to last years against a stronger enemy. The Romans’ response was burning, smoking out or suffocating the occupants.

Now, Hamas has built a network of some 1,300 tunnels in Gaza, perhaps more than 300 miles in length. Israel is dealing with the tunnels by inventing entrances to them—in one case at least it was a water duct, in another a cellar.

And in a more Roman empire-like manner it has decided that the way to get to the tunnels is to destroy every hospital, school and refugee camp above ground.

Now as then, the tunnels of resistance are a response to the unevenness of forces on the battlefield. A Hamas paraglider with a gun can’t defeat a F-35 fighter jet. A slingshot is little match for an attack helicopter. But even the most advanced drones do not see 60 feet underground. A tank cannot enter a tunnel and troops fighting below ground cannot navigate by GPS or radio.

Hamas’ tunnels are a way to hit back against a better-armed adversary.

As the former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said in 2014, “In light of the balance of power, which is shifted toward Israel, we had to be creative in finding innovative ways. The tunnels were one of our innovations.”

Tunnel warfare has a long and brutal history. But it was the wars of the last century that turned the earth below ground into a battlefield. In the war the political establishment were keen for us all to celebrate earlier this month, tunnels were an acceptable method of mass slaughter.

During the trench warfare of the First World War, both sides tunnelled under no man’s land to lay explosives beneath each other. It reached a peak with the 26,000-foot tunnel built under German lines at Messines, in Belgium. On 7 June 1917 the British and their allies detonated some 600 tons of explosives, killing 10,000 people.

A more direct analogy to the Hamas tunnels is the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese fighters against US imperialism turned tunnels into a highly effective guerrilla weapon. Their hundreds of miles of deep tunnels were used as hiding places. But they also provided communication and supply routes, hospitals, kitchens, food and weapon caches, living quarters and even a theatre for the fighters.

When Israel tightened its cruel blockade in 2007 as Hamas grew in influence, an extensive network of smuggling tunnels grew under the border between Gaza and Egypt. These tunnels were used to circumvent the blockade and allow the import of a wide variety of goods, from weapons and electronic equipment to construction materials and fuel.

Egyptian rulers have made extensive efforts to destroy these routes, including pumping seawater to flood the network and collapse many of the tunnels. Tunnelling is not a sign of despicable plotting by Hamas. Rather it is an entirely logical response to asymmetric warfare.

People often describe Gaza as a prison for the Palestinians. But in this case the prisoners are not tunneling to escape but to survive. While the leaders of the West bemoan the use of tunnels as an excuse to bring more slaughter it is perhaps better to think of them as Karl Marx did of revolutions.

For long periods it can seem resistance is crushed under the weight of the oppressor.

But in reality it is working away out of sight, only to emerge and terrify our rulers. And when it does we should declare, “Well burrowed old mole!”


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