Hamas' tunnel warfare is nothing new: Lessons from Vietnam, Korea

Over a week into its invasion of Gaza, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) opened a new phase in the war – one taking it “down under,” driving Hamas out of its tunnels where, it is believed, some of the international group of hostages are being held. That is where one hostage, 85-year-old Yochaved Lifshitz, who was released by Hamas, said she was kept.

In 20th-21st century warfare, relying upon digging massive tunnel systems has usually been indicative of one side’s weakness in attempting to overcome the other side’s strength. Their use is nothing new to modern warfare.

During the Vietnam war, the Vietnamese greatly expanded a tunnel network, initially dug for defensive purposes to hide from the enemy during their earlier liberation war against the French, into a 350-kilometer-long system that took on more of an offensive mission against the U.S. While the tunnel passageways were extremely small, they connected meeting rooms, sleeping areas, armories and even kitchens. For the kitchens, a unique system was developed that dissipated smoke above ground so as not to disclose what was underground.

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Displacing such an immense amount of dirt presented the Vietnamese with another problem, for piles of dirt would raise suspicions of tunnel activity. Therefore, where possible, it was spread out in nearby jungles, or used to fill in bomb craters, or used by those who were more artistic among the Vietnamese to make fake termite mounds as termites abounded in the area.

As often these tunnel systems contained intelligence left behind by an enemy surprised by a U.S. entry into their network, smaller American soldiers volunteered as “tunnel rats,” crawling through passageways to see what they could find. These courageous souls entered a confined battlefield having zero maneuverability and, at times, discovered booby traps, such as explosives, punji stakes, poisonous snakes released by the Vietnamese minutes earlier, etc. Sadly, on some occasions, the body of a tunnel rat killed below ground could not be retrieved.

Tunnel entrances/exits were ingeniously camouflaged to avoid detection. Today, tourists can see portions of a tunnel system that has been preserved – enlarged to accommodate heavier-set foreign visitors. They are challenged by a guide to locate the entrance beforehand and, unable to do so, are surprised to find another Vietnamese guide pop up from the ground in their very midst. Touring these tunnels is not for those who are claustrophobic as they were originally constructed only for users to crawl through.

A chess match ensued between Vietnamese tunnel occupants and U.S. forces who had discovered an entrance. Rather than risk losing a tunnel rat, CS (tear gas) might be injected into a tunnel to drive the enemy out. A former Vietnamese tunnel occupant shared they were taught in such situations to urinate into a handkerchief and place it over their mouth and nose to screen the CS agents out. Later, they learned to dig two tunnels, linked together by a U-tunnel connector filled with water which it retained due to its clay consistency. When CS entered one side of the tunnel, occupants, holding their breath, would transit through the U-connector to get to the other side as the gas could not penetrate the water in the connector.

Another location where an enemy puts tremendous stock into tunnels is on the Korean Peninsula. These tunnels have been dug by the North under the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates it from the South. The plan to dig these tunnels evolved in 1971 when Pyongyang was led by Kim Il-sung. Kim claimed, “One tunnel can be more powerful and effective than ten atomic bombs put together, and the tunnels are the most ideal means of penetrating the South’s fortified front line.”

The tunnels are massively large, capable of accommodating the transit of 30,000 men per hour with light weaponry. The first tunnel, accidentally discovered in 1974, has been followed by the discovery of three more. Obviously dug to launch a surprise attack against South Korea, Seoul has accused the North of building “tunnels of aggression.” It believes there are many more, their exit points remaining hidden underground until North Korean invaders decide to flood the South by launching a surprise attack.

In typical fashion, upon the first tunnel’s discovery, Pyongyang denied building it – this despite the fact the tunnel could only have first broken ground in the North. After that excuse failed, Pyongyang claimed it was a coal mine. This excuse lacked scientific credibility as coal is found in stone of a sedimentary origin and the tunnel was being dug through granite – a stone of igneous origin.

One advantage the Israelis will have in taking their war underground is maneuverability within the tunnels. Hamas tunnels, estimated to run hundreds of kilometers and 80 meters deep, have been constructed for quick transit, allowing one to walk upright and fully armed. Many are even reinforced with cement.

Israeli fighter jets have hit 150 “underground targets” in northern Gaza, most likely the result of being detected at the time of construction due to the Israelis using tunnel-detection technology and ground-penetrating radar. But such technology has limitations as the deeper the tunnels were dug, the less likely the Israelis could detect them.

Thus, a dark reality the Israelis knew would come was the eventual need to put soldiers on the ground to locate the deeper tunnels and dislodge or kill those using them. They were prepared to do so as they had developed a secret new weapon both to help cut off transit through tunnels and/or to cordon off areas where terrorists might be hiding to ambush them.

This new weapon is known as a “sponge bomb” – a kind of chemical grenade containing no explosives. It is a volatile liquid emulsion consisting of two chemicals, kept separate until needed. When the two ingredients mix, a fast-moving “tidal wave” of liquid plastic foam is released, flowing in the intended direction and then immediately hardening as the flow stops. As such, tunnel doorways are virtually impossible to open against the encasing plastic. Even trapped terrorists encountering a plastic barrier would be hard pressed to dig through as the foam hardens like cement. Obviously, concerns about hostages also being hidden in the tunnels will somewhat limit sponge bomb usage.

Tunnel warfare is always a chess match between the occupant and the invader, with the initial advantage going to the former who knows all its secrets. New technology, like the sponge bomb, endeavors to offset some of that advantage but, in the case of the Gaza tunnels, the hostages will offset unlimited use of it. The fact Israelis value all life and the terrorists none also favors the latter.

The Israelis definitely have their work cut out for them.

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