The U.S. has declassified intelligence revealing, for the nth time that, yes, al-Shifa hospital in Gaza was used by Hamas commanders. I’m not sure what people thought the tunnels underneath the complex might have been used for if not for militants’ travel and moving hostages, but it underscores an important aspect of this conflict: The public debate has largely ignored the significance of the tunnels and what they mean for the future of warfare.

Set aside the Hamas tunnel network in Gaza for a moment, which is well documented. Let’s pan out.

In 2019, the IDF uncovered and sealed off tunnels running from southern Lebanon into Israeli territory. As Reuters reported regarding one of those tunnels, which the IDF showed to the public: “The tunnel was rigged with electrical wiring, fuse boxes and communications equipment. An army spokesman said it began almost a kilometer (mile) away inside Lebanon and reached depths of some 80 meters (265 feet)—about the height of a 22-storey building—as it crossed into Israel, near the town of Zarit.”

If Zarit sounds familiar, it is because it was one of the targets of the opening rounds of the 2006 war between the IDF and Hezbollah. Rockets were fired at the Zarit area as a diversion, and Hezbollah terrorists infiltrated Israeli territory further east, killing soldiers on patrol and kidnapping two. The presence of the tunnel in the same area added another dimension to the threat.

But that wasn’t, it turned out, the full extent of Hezbollah’s tunnel system. Yesterday, the Times of Israel published an interview with Tal Beeri, a veteran of IDF intelligence units and currently head of a security-research organization focusing on Israel’s north. According to Beeri, the Zarit passage is a tactical tunnel, one of four kinds of tunnels in south Lebanon: “They are intended for people only to move around in, and in extreme circumstances, maybe a motorcycle. Tactical tunnels are close to villages, and they enable terrorists to fight from underground—to fire from tunnel shafts and duck back in, to rearm from weapons stores inside, to rest, and emerge again.”

Israelis have also identified attack tunnels under Lebanon, which are large enough to fit cars and some trucks and can be used in direct raids. Third are proximate tunnels, which enable movement to, from and around the border underneath Lebanon without crossing into Israel. Fourth, explosives tunnels, which are exactly what they sound like: long tracts of ground rigged to explode under IDF soldiers’ feet during an invasion.

Another deeply concerning development was revealed last month when IDF troops in Jenin found “two tunnel shafts and three bomb-making labs,” according to reporter Emanuel Fabian.

These tunnels aren’t dug with plastic shovels and pails. The Lebanon tunnels were constructed with the help of North Korea and maintained by Iranian proxy militias. The existence of such infrastructure in the West Bank is indicative of a threat far greater than smuggled weapons, as Oct. 7 showed.

Those aren’t the only tunnel-fronts that Israel has to worry about. As our own Jonathan Schanzer explained here last week: “the Gaza-Sinai border has become a major zone for Hamas smuggling activity. Weapons and cash move all too freely beneath what is known as the Philadelphi Corridor along the Gaza-Sinai border. In recent years, these tunnels have also enabled Hamas leaders and fighters to come and go as they please. Once we understand that, we begin to understand how Hamas was able to re-arm and replenish after multiple rounds of fighting over the years. We can also begin to understand how Hamas leaders and fighters have been able to get training and advice from the outside.”

During the British Mandate period (from 1923 to 1947) and the early years of the state of Israel, the need for “defensible borders” was a constant source of tension in negotiations. Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 gave the country the bare minimum of breathing room to prepare for an Arab invasion over land. But the advent of the rocket war by Israel’s enemies in the 2000s closed the distance between borders. So Israel and the U.S. developed the Iron Dome defensive system to shield its population from most of the rockets. Then Israel’s enemies dug tunnel systems to close the gap back up.

All of this is about making parts of a country the size of New Jersey unlivable, with the Palestinian threat closing like a vise around the Jewish state’s throat. And that is why so much of the discussion of this war is divorced from reality. This is not a punitive war to make Gazans pay, although reestablishing deterrence from terror groups is both legitimate and essential. The ground above must be cleared of fighters and held by the IDF so that the threat below can be neutralized.

As Ron Ben Yishai explains, in past wars, tunnel systems were largely for hiding troops and materiel. But Hamas built an underground city to live and fight in. The presence of hostages underground also means that this second level has to be cleared and held all over again. The IDF is fighting a double war in each theater. The extent of the underground part of that war is unprecedented. And Israel’s enemies will attempt to replicate it from every direction.

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