Benjamin Netanyahu’s hold on his position as prime minister of Israel appears increasingly tenuous.
Many Israelis hold him and his cabinet responsible for the security failures of October 7, and he has faced harsh criticism domestically for his handling of the war on Gaza. Added to this is the fact that he has long been mired by accusations of corruption and criticism of plans to change the judicial system.
Several polls show he would be forced to step down if elections were held now.
Now, as Israeli forces push deeper into southern Gaza, Netanyahu could face a decision that could have enormous political consequences for his career: whether to send Israeli troops into the tunnel network 500 km (310 miles) under Gaza.
“Each tunnel represents a significant threat”
If the Israelis penetrated Gaza’s tunnel network, it would pave the way for a new phase of the war, significantly leveling the playing field between opponents, according to Philip Ingram, MBE, a former British military intelligence officer.
On the surface, Israel carried out a relentless aerial bombardment and ground invasion of the 365-square-kilometer (141-square-mile) enclave, using its military superiority.
Underground, Hamas could rely on a sophisticated network of tunnels that would channel Israeli soldiers on foot in a single file.
The challenges for the Israelis would be “enormous” due to the lack of sufficient information about where the tunnels are, how far they extend and what potential traps Hamas has set up in preparation, Ingram said .
From a military point of view, the Israelis would like to “avoid having to fight in the tunnel,” he added.
Given Hamas’ expertise in setting traps and ambushes, “each tunnel poses a significant threat” to Israeli troops, said Elijah Magnier, a military analyst who has covered the Middle East for more than 30 years.
The “Palestinian resistance appears to have a strategic advantage” when it comes to tunnel warfare, he said, referring to the high number of Israeli soldiers who die or are injured while searching entrances to the tunnel network.
The Israeli army has among its ranks the Weasels (Samur), a unit specialized in tunnel warfare, Ingram said, explaining that the specialized troops will have “all the gadgets” and trained dogs to help navigate the tunnels .
Yet no matter how much they practice, he says, the reality of what’s happening there remains largely unknown, making the activity very risky.
Hamas’ preparations and in-depth knowledge of the vast tunnel network would also move the fighting from a “360-degree conflict” on the surface to a “3D” conflict for Israeli troops who could face an attack below. no matter what angle, he said. said.
Regardless, experts say a potential conflict in the tunnels remains a likely outcome due to Netanyahu’s promise to eliminate Hamas and its underground command centers.
Magnier believes that the recent seven-day “humanitarian pause” in Gaza “allowed Hamas and Islamic Jihad to restructure their defensive strategies and prepare for the ongoing conflict.”
A few weeks ago, media reported that Israel would consider trying to gain an advantage by using poison gas in the tunnels to try to eradicate Hamas fighters there. The idea caused an international outcry.
The Wall Street Journal recently said Israel might consider flooding the tunnels with seawater as an alternative to forcing troops to enter them.
Citing US officials, the media outlet said Israeli forces had already assembled a system of five pumps just north of the Shati refugee camp in mid-November.
The pumps would draw water from the Mediterranean into the tunnels and could flood the network within weeks, the article said.
Netanyahu pledged to “destroy Hamas” as one response to the October 7 attack.
And he may ultimately decide to send troops into the tunnels to save his political career, despite the risk of huge losses, said Nader Hashemi, associate professor of Islamic and Middle East politics at Georgetown University.
Netanyahu, Hashemi added, knows that unless he can “eradicate Hamas and… claim final victory, he has no chance of continuing in Israeli politics.”
It is not only the defeat of Hamas that Netanyahu has promised, but also the release of the 125 captives, according to Israel, still in Gaza.
Israel believes the captives are being kept in underground networks beneath Gaza, meaning access to the tunnels will be considered crucial by Israeli forces tasked with freeing them, according to Magnier.
A military operation in the tunnels could also put these captives in danger, something Netanyahu may be willing to risk to ensure Hamas’ defeat.
Hashemi refers to the Hannibal Directive, a mysterious Israeli military policy that would allow the use of maximum force in the event of kidnapping a soldier, even if it results in the soldier’s death, as an indication that Israel could “give priority to its military activities. objectives on the death of the hostages”.
Military costs versus political benefits
Hashemi said that even as Netanyahu considers a potential tunnel operation, the question that comes to mind will be “how many casualties is he willing to publicly suffer” to achieve his goal.
Ingram believes the decision will be made after weighing the risks and benefits and that a likely outcome will be that Israel continues to map the network from above, using ground-penetrating radar and seeking to identify centers command keys that they can specifically target by “making a hole”. » in the network.
He says that although there has been tunnel warfare in many previous conflicts, the “underground city” created by Hamas has taken it to “a new level.” The Israeli military faces an unprecedented task, he said, and will need to exercise extreme caution.
It is unclear when Israel might attempt to enter the tunnels.
Israel is under pressure, Magnier said, “in the face of mounting global criticism and war crimes and crimes against humanity” and while that means it will have to achieve its goals more quickly, “set a clear timetable for land operations is a challenge for him.” any military commander.”
The Israeli advance, he said, has been “remarkably slow, despite being in a small but densely populated residential area.”
Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas provided cover and shelter, inadvertently aiding the resistance, he explains.
If Israeli troops penetrate the tunnel network, it could result in a protracted conflict, taking place underground in an information vacuum.
Surrounded, Hamas could face shortages of fuel and supplies while conversely, Israeli troops could “crawl for weeks and weeks just to advance 100 meters.”