There are options in dealing with the Gaza problem; however, the ferocity of Hamas’ raid on the 7th of October barely allows Israelis the freedom to undertake rational options. Israelis want to avenge their dead, and the leadership has few choices left. The hostages taken by Hamas impose caution on the Israelis. The article evaluates a few options for clearing the Gaza tunnels.
In an unusual outburst after the horrendous 9/11 tragedy in New York, an angry President of the US, George W. Bush had said that he wanted the militant Islamic leader Osama bin Laden brought to justice, “dead or alive”, and added, “There are no rules.” During a visit to the Pentagon, he called “the attack on World Trade Centre a barbaric behaviour” – as they (Al Qaeda) “slit throats of women on aeroplanes to achieve an objective that is beyond comprehension… “The destruction of the World Trade Center in New York clubbed with the attack on the Pentagon led to a death toll that exceeded 5,000. Stoked by the horror and driven by an understandable rage building up inside him, President Bush had said, “We’re going to smoke them out,” as quoted by the New York Times.
When a tolerance threshold is crossed, most leaders, the world over, initially explode and react similarly; displaying restraint is difficult. The outpouring of international moral support strengthens this resolve, especially when the goal is ending terrorism and not the crushing of States. Take, for example, the recent horrible multi-front waves of attacks unleashed across southern Israel at daybreak on Saturday, 7th October, by Hamas. It killed more than a thousand innocent civilians, while Hamas took 200 hostages, all by springing a terrible surprise. The mood in Israel turned from initial shock to a clamour for unrelenting revenge. The first reactions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed similar emotions when he said that Israel is ‘at war’ with Hamas militants ruling the Gaza Strip and promised that it would “pay a price that it hasn’t known until now.”
Triggered by a highly provocative event, words spoken in rage, fury, and ire by a leader are triggers of huge fall-outs that engulf a mass of humanity, and at times, the situation spirals and leads into a not-too-easily retrievable situation. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, followed by hateful, angry utterances and rushed dialogues between leaders of European countries, led to World War I, ultimately.
The phrase “to smoke them out” is meant to force someone to leave a hiding place, and perhaps it has its origin in the practice of American natives using smoke at the mouth of foxholes to hunt animals. Even though President Bush spoke about it, it is conceivable that using the old native practice was not the intention of the President. But, it did point to the beginning of exhaustive punitive actions against the terrorists.
As we have witnessed, US President Bush unleashed the war on terror. It did not end until all the identified culprits like Osama bin Laden and the other leaders of Al Qaeda got eliminated or neutralised, even if it meant a worldwide hunt, massive deployment of military armaments and resources on foreign soils, billions of dollars and above all, immense human suffering and casualties.
The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s utterances immediately after the 7/10 surprise attack by Hamas militants were followed by the mobilization of Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and the reservists. After an initial siege of Gaza, pounding of targets in the city from the air and by tanks, rockets and missiles have destroyed most of the civic infrastructure, including hospitals, causing an immense tragedy. Hamas militants holed up in an intricate and complex network of concrete tunnels believed to have come up in the last two decades would have suffered equally.
Even though there are talks about tactical pauses to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, backing down now will not be an easy choice for Israel, mainly because of Israeli hostages held by Hamas. The situation is dire. The two opposite ends of the spectrum in the desired stratagem are how to strike a balance between alleviating the humanitarian crisis and bringing Hamas out to end the scourge of terror. If the right balance is not found, there are fears that the war will escalate further and engulf others in the region.
Hamas militants are holed up in well-lit and ventilated tunnels that crisscross beneath homes, schools, public utility facilities and open areas and serve not only as hideouts but also to rest and fight, with mines ready to explode at strategic points. There are well-prepared weapon platforms, ammunition storage facilities, water and rations. Back-up electricity, masks, oxygen and medicines are also part of the inventory. These well-camouflaged tunnels are hidden from satellites and extend long distances beyond the Gaza Strip. The discovery of the complex layout of the vast network of tunnels through technology is also challenging. IDF intercepting the Hamas supply route in the Mediterranean a few years back suggests there might still be tunnels leading to the sea.
To smoke Hamas militants out, the IDF may need to undertake a full-blown urban guerilla war. Underground concrete reinforced tunnels, dugouts and platforms have little or no impact of bombing from the top. Exit and entry points, though, remain vulnerable. What might be the options available to the IDF to force Hamas out of these hideouts? As one of the many options, the IDF has already begun its ground offensive to besiege Gaza after pulverizing the suspected positions by using multiple means, primarily aerial bombing.
The next stage is when the storming of the tunnels begins based on extensive reconnaissance and human intelligence to prevent casualties to the Israeli hostages held by Hamas. As long as they are alive and in Hamas custody, restraint by the IDF is of utmost importance. Storming the tunnels will be expensive in terms of the casualties to not only the IDF but also the hostages. Any loss of hostages will affect not only the already enraged people in Israel but also the IDF’s image.
Though nuclear options may not be used, if the war extends to a regional conflict, nothing is impossible. Is the use of chemical weapons to ‘smoke the militants out’ of tunnels then a possibility? Utilising persistent or even non-persistent chemical gases is a two-way killer: militants as well as the hostages. Is the use of tear gas shells the answer, but that, too, has inherent fallouts when used within enclosed spaces?
Flooding the tunnels with water, if carried out only partially, will need a humongous water supply at the besieged sites and would be challenging, especially when the flooding point is far away from the sea. Flooding would submerge Hamas’ dwindling supplies of ration, water and ammunition; however, its feasibility seems doubtful.
What might finally be the option would depend a lot on the evolving situation, available intelligence, condition of hostages, decisiveness of leadership and technical innovativeness of the IDF. One of the most important considerations is to exercise restraint in operations and prevent human suffering; otherwise, history is likely to judge Israel harshly. Let’s hope that none of the above options is used, Israeli hostages soon return home safely, human miseries in Gaza end, and the scourge of terror is neutralised.
Col SC Tyagi (Retd)