There is an increasing fear among the Israeli public about what lies beneath. Representations of an underground Gaza circulating in Israel’s media outlets reveal how tunneling gives shape — at least in the imagination — to the underground as political space. And Hamas’ shift belowground is pushing Israel into terrain where its military and infrastructural control over Gaza and Palestinians recedes. Tunneling subverts one of the pillars of Israel’s security apparatus: hermetic enclosure.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on national television on July 29 that Operation Protective Edge would not end “without neutralizing the terror tunnels.” Later, Major Gen. Sami Turgeman informed the press that Israeli forces were “but a few days away from destroying all the attack tunnels.” After Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reported 32 tunnels were destroyed, including 14 that connected Gaza with Israel.
But can Israel fulfill its promise of destroying every tunnel? The question is not merely rhetorical. Sources in the IDF have spoken openly about the operational and technological challenges posed by the war against the tunnels; despite Israel’s military prowess, there is no underground equivalent of the Iron Dome, and tunnels are an elusive target.
Yet as Netanyahu’s announcement made clear, their very elusiveness makes them an ideal justification for protracted conflict. Israel’s military might be able to destroy the tunnels, but it cannot undo the fact that tunneling shapes a political space where military victory seems increasingly out of reach.
Hence a paradox: Tunneling defies the siege yet justifies its continuation.
Gaza’s underground is a thick entanglement of rhizome-like structures that defy Israel’s economic embargo, sealed borders and ever-growing control from the air. Although Hamas cannot outdo Israel’s dominion of Gazan airspace, the dense architecture of tunnels that hollows the land on which Israelis lay birthright claims signals the intensification of a type of spatial politics that Eyal Weizman poignantly described back in 2006.
“The territorial logic of Israel’s occupation of Palestine is increasingly manifested by a creeping progression along a vertical axis, in opposing directions,” he wrote shortly after the first major underground incursion by Hamas into Israel, which led to the kidnapping of an IDF soldier. “The more efficient the destructive capacity of the Israeli air force has become, the deeper the resistance has had to retreat belowground. This reality sustains the last symmetry of the asymmetrical conflict: absolute control of airspace and outer space … is mirrored by the enemy’s mastering of subterranean warfare.”
Despite Israel’s military prowess, there is no underground equivalent of the Iron Dome.
Of the hundreds of tunnels running below Gaza, only a small fraction burrow into Israel, yet tunneling writ large is making Israeli territory more porous. The increased sense of insecurity among Israelis — which the government has successfully employed to justify the escalation of violence (first authorizing a ground operation on July 17, then again on July 29, with Netanyahu’s announcement) — attests to this shift.
The sense of infallibility once created by the Iron Dome’s promise to stop enemy rockets from hitting targets in Israeli territory has been increasingly undermined from below.
Tunnel warfare has evolved not only as Hamas’ adaptation to Israeli airpower but also, concurrently, as a mode of Palestinian assertion of political autonomy and resistance to economic sanctions. Yet the dominant media narrative presents the tunnels as a lucrative and often corrupt Hamas-led business.
But this line of argument conflates Hamas’ political responsibility with the cycles of destruction, de-development, suffocation and isolation that Israel has used as a matter of policy to keep Gaza under control. There is no point in denying that Hamas has invested resources in underground Gaza that should have been aimed at supporting the life of Gazans. Yet Gaza’s dependence on Israel for its economy and infrastructure as well as for the provision of food and health and other social services by humanitarian agencies (funded by countries that support Israel) is not an aberration of the occupation but precisely what it is designed to do.
As Noam Chomsky denounced in 2010 and later a leaked U.S. State Department cable confirmed, the function of the occupation is to keep Gazans barely alive in a strip at the brink of collapse.
What the tunnels attempt to subvert — even if only temporarily — is precisely the cycle of destruction and impossible reconstruction that has proved essential to the project of establishing Israeli sovereignty. As the Goldstone report revealed, designed destruction has been a pattern of Israel’s military incursions since at least 2006 and constitutes one of the main operations of Israeli state building. Tunneling defies this political project.
Moreover, as a deliberate and planned work of infrastructure, it is an attempt at asserting Hamas’ state-making ability. As Pelham noted:
The tunnels have also helped Gaza rebuild itself. While international donors failed to deliver $4.5 billion in promised aid for reconstruction in protest at Hamas’ continued rule, tunnel operators have ferried in 7,500 tons of steel rods, cement and gravel daily, supplying 90 percent of the enclave’s construction materials. According to World Bank figures, construction starts in the first half of 2011 grew by 220 percent.
There is undeniable irrationality in inciting one of the most powerful armies in the world to unleash its violence against a population crammed in a stretch of land with no way out. Unfortunately, as Weizman has pointed out, for years Israel has deliberately and explicitly created conditions in the Palestinian territories that are too complex and illogical to make any form of partition possible. Every repeated cycle of attack and restraint is followed by heightened weariness toward a political solution. Gaza becomes increasingly uninhabitable, and the Strip’s contested surface continues to grow thinner, leaving those between air and underground power stranded in the dystopia of not one but two sieges: the Israeli occupation and Hamas’ despotic rule.
As for the Israeli public, it is growing increasingly weary of the IDF’s ability to wage tunnel warfare. On July 24, before the first 72-hour cease-fire, journalist Avi Issacharoff asked, “If … Israel announces in a few days that it has destroyed the attack tunnels and the IDF withdraws its forces into Israel, what then?” Given Israel’s capacity at devising new military technology, it might well be the case that a few years from now a subterranean equivalent of the Iron Dome could prevent further tunneling.
But for now, Israel’s subsoil remains vulnerable to what is left of Hamas’ underground infrastructure and its resolve to fight the enemy from below. “It’s obvious that Hamas will rebuild the tunnels at an accelerated pace.” Issacharoff wrote. “In the next round, let’s say in another two years, IDF forces will not have to deal with 40 tunnels but double or triple that number.” Meanwhile, Hamas’ spokesman said the group’s determination “is more important than tunnels dug in the mud” because “out of the first … you can make thousands of the second.”
Israel has long known about the tunnels below Gaza but chose to act only now, partly because offensive tunnels are a rather recent phenomenon but also because lifeline tunnels were not perceived as an immediate security threat. Now that Israel has confronted them, it has brought their larger political and economic significance into public consciousness. As Operation Protective Edge comes to an end, the tunneling, the war against it and the subterranean politics of Palestinian statehood remain nothing but unfinished business.