Israeli soldiers have crossed into Gaza in the past 36 hours tasked with penetrating a labyrinth of Hamas tunnels, wiping out their defenders and rescuing hostages held there for more than three weeks.
So what? Israel’s army has been here before. The odds against quick success are daunting, but in 2014 and since, the IDF has honed tactics for tunnel warfare based on five-person units known as “weasels”, or Samur teams – an acronym for “Slikim V’minharot” (passageways and tunnels). They use dogs, robots, scuba-style breathing equipment and high-tech goggles that can “see” in total darkness.
To an extraordinary extent the fate of the hostages, of Gaza’s civilians and of Israel as a state depends on how these units fare.
Tactics. As a rule the Israeli Defence Forces avoid fighting underground since in any tunnel system the defender has the advantage. They prefer to bomb tunnel entrances and drop precision bombs along the tunnel’s route or use Emulsa – a gel-like explosive.
But the presence of so many hostages changes that, a weasel unit veteran tells Tortoise.
- The hostages are thought to be held deep in the tunnels (see graphic).
- Heavy bombing and destroying air vents runs the risk of killing friend and foe.
- Hence the Samur units’ assignment to enter the “Gaza metro” on foot.
Strategy. Their strategy is known as “foresting”, says Joel Roskin, professor of Military Geoscience at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. Samur units consist of one soldier operating a robot, one with a dog and the rest moving and fighting. As they move through the tunnels they leave a “forest” of soldiers at every critical position – such as junctions, hatches, rocket fire bays or command and control rooms – to prevent the ground being retaken. Each “forest” sets up communications relays so advance units can stay in radio contact.
Personnel. Research in militaries around the world – including a difficult trial of subterranean tactics attempted by the British Army in tunnels beneath Leeds in 2022 – show underground operations produce increased lactic acid build-up, heart rate and stress. This affects memory and cognitive ability. Furthermore…
- The maze-like tunnels require special skills to navigate without light.
- The sound of weapons fire is amplified, and the discharge kicks up dust and dirt, further reducing visibility.
- Samur soldiers sometimes have to work alone for hours at a time.
These are unique challenges that favour a distinct personality type – “those who are calm,” says an IDF sergeant who has worked underground.
Technology. Samur troops wear oxygen tanks, respirators, chemical protective masks and thermal goggles (since regular night vision goggles don’t work without any light source). They use hyperspectral sensors that can pick up the chemical fingerprints of subterranean carbon dioxide, a sure sign of people – whether Hamas fighters or hostages.
“It’s even more complicated than operating an aircraft,” says Ilan, a former Samur officer contacted through a grassroots online forum set up to help journalists reporting the war from Israel.
Geography. Gaza’s soil consists mainly of sedimentary layers of dust and sand that harden with time but don’t turn into rock, says Roskin. “It’s much easier for Hamas to dig tunnels, almost with their hands, than Hezbollah in Lebanon who need explosives to blast rock.”
Hamas claims to have dug 500 km of tunnels. Their true extent is unknown but in 2014 Omri Attar, a special forces major who has been called up again as a reservist, found some were wide enough for a truck and some too narrow for a soldier with anything bigger than a rifle. “People keep asking when the ground invasion is coming,” he says. “It won’t be a cavalry charge… You have to advance so slowly. Even after you pass an area you need to pacify the area from all sides, above and below.”
No one said this was going to be easy.
aLSO, in the nibs
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