In the current Gaza War between Hamas and other jihadists and Israel, Israel has encountered an unprecedented use of thousands of rockets and, even more importantly, an extensive labyrinth of sophisticated military tunnels. The latter in terms of consequences for strategy and tactics have been far more important.
In his 1990 novel, The Innocent, Ian McEwan, author of the subsequent 1998 Booker Prize-winning novel, Atonement, wrote, “Tunnels were stealth and safety; boys and trains crept through them lost to sight and care, and then emerged unscathed.” (p. 80) The latter is an ironic assertion since no one emerges from The Innocent psychologically unscathed. In the Israeli-Gaza War of 2014, the Israeli military has not emerged either physically or psychologically unscathed.
The IDF has suffered serious losses through the stealth and the safety that the tunnels have afforded the Palestinian militants. The air war has resulted in very few Israeli casualties, in spite of the radically increased use of rockets with greater range by Hamas, and enormous numbers of Palestinian civilian losses for Gazans. As a result, Israel, which started with a significant advantage in the propaganda war because of the initial murder of three Israeli school boys by autonomous Hamas militants in the West Bank and Hamas’ indiscriminate use of rockets, has virtually lost the propaganda war with stories of exploded ordinance in UNRWA schools where Palestinian civilians sought shelter – even though some of this ordinance may prove to have been Hamas rockets goneastray. But the real story of the war is being played out in the tunnels.
McEwan’s novel offers a fictional look at Operation Gold, the 1955 building and subsequent use of the Berlin Tunnel to attempt to spy on Russian telecommunications. After the novel reveals that George Blake, a Brit and double agent unrelated to the Cambridge British spies such as Burgess and Maclean, was all along spying for the Russians and revealed the plan for the tunnel long before the tunnel even started operations, McEwan writes that it was all a waste of effort. (p. 268) Has the Hamas tunnel labyrinth been a waste of effort by the radical Palestinians? Physically, mostly. Psychologically, no.
George Blake, a child of a Sephardic Jewish father and a Dutch Protestant mother (see his autobiography No Other Choice published in the same year as McEwan’s novel so the Blake’s biographical facts are not included) worked for Britain’s M16 and is the only character in the novel taken from the actual history of Operation Gold. William Harvey, the CIA station chief, the only other historical person mentioned in the novel, remains entirely in the background. The foreground is filled with romantics, though that is not quite the take of the John Schlesinger’s movie adaptation starring Campbell Scott as Leonard Marnham (an anagram for “harm man”), the naïve British main character, Anthony Hopkins as his American spy boss, Bob Glass, and Isabella Rosselinni as Maria, the fêmme fatale.
But why write about romance and a story about a spy tunnel when analyzing the role of military tunnels in the Israeli-Gaza war of 2014? Because romance is an important ingredient in the tunnel warfare used in Gaza. McEwan’s novel, unlike the movie effort that tries to be a spy flic, however unconventional, is a dialectical drama of fantasy and reality, of an idealistic dreamer and harsh and horrific world. A tunnel is, thus, an appropriate dominant metaphor as well as a character with its own existence and personality which takes us on a journey both through the tunnel of love and this surreptitious tunnel built to spy on an enemy. In McEwan’s telling, secrecy is the essence of both worlds. Secrecy and surprise are both crucial to understanding the psychological role of the tunnels in the Gaza-Israeli war.
The latter two purposes are most important and prevalent in urban warfare. Given the well-known Hamas’ use of tunnels for the purpose of import and export of goods, it would be very unexpected if the Israeli IDF, Shin Bet and Mossad were ignorant of the Hamas tunnels, though their elaboration and sophistication might have been a surprise. But they should not have been given the modern precedents in the 1854-1855 siege of Sevastopol by the Russians, the British use of 8,000 meters of tunnels at Messines in World War I, the tunneling by Chinese communist forces resisting first the Japanese and then the Kuomintang, the use of tunnels by the Japanese themselves as they resisted the American advance across the Pacific beginning at the island of Peleliu, the extensive tunneling networks of the North Koreans and the wide use of tunnels by the Viet Cong in the Vietnamese War to facilitate surprise attacks. Military tunnels have been an integral part of modern war, particularly, guerilla and urban wars.
More important, the labyrinth of tunnels in Gaza should not have been a surprise because Hamas has relied extensively on tunnel warfare prior to the current war. Tunnels have been used to plant explosives under Israeli military positions as well as to infiltrate terrorist teams into Israel The most infamous such use was the 2006 attack on the Israeli tank position in which three IDF officers were killed and Gilad Shalit was captured and held prisoner for five years until exchanged for the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. The Israeli defence forces have destroyed many tunnels over the years and there should be no surprise that the IDF have already lost over 50 soldiers in the conducting of tunnel warfare.
But military tunnels are not spy tunnels, tunnels used either to spy on Israelis or to infiltrate Palestinian spies into Israel. That is the real secret of the tunnel war between Israel and Gaza. This is the underground reality of warfare which seems to lack any of the romance sometimes attributed to military battles. That is the value of McEwan’s novel for it unveils the romantic side of the tunnel enterprise. And it is the romance of the tunnels that is so important for Hamas.
In this fictional account, love does travel through its own private tunnel and even seems to require the safety and secrecy of the tunnel to survive and thrive. Exposure to the harsh light of day ends up destroying that love. Leonard falls in love almost at the beginning of the novel with someone he would never have been allowed to consort with in any spy world and develops tunnel vision losing all peripheral sight of anything but the love of his life and his work on telecommunications in the spy tunnel. Hamas has had the same experience in spite of inflicting significant casualties on the IDF.
Tunnels are not only about constricted fields of vision. They are often like the carpal tunnel through which the median nerve runs for that tunnel connects one’s forearm to the palm of one’s hand, thumb and next three fingers, and, thus, the ability to manipulate the world. Irritate that nerve with certain types of repetitive movements, the kind Leonard performed in his work in arming the many listening devices in the tunnel in McEwan’s novel, then the nerve becomes irritated so that one experiences pain, weakness and numbness which is what happens to Leonard as he and Maria establish their private repeated dementia of romance. As his nerve becomes traumatized, Leonard loses his sensibility and ability to make reasonable judgments and exercise control over his life. He literally loses his grip and even loses the strength to defend himself when he is attacked by Maria’s ex-husband and his assailant squeezes his balls. This is what is happening to the military and political wings of Hamas, but this is not what is most important about the tunnels. Their .romantic role in an idealist vision is at the crux of their meaning.
The strategy and tactics of Hamas in combatting the Israelis and the Israeli counter-strategy in dealing with this form of warfare are both important. The romantic vision of the tunnels is even more significant. But first a word about Hamas rockets, the flying penises that seem to miss their mark so much of the time and to be so easily intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome defence so that, in spite of their extensive use, only 2-3 civilians, one a foreign guest worker, have been killed by their use. In fact, the most effective use of rockets led to the 48 hour cancellation by most foreign carriers of their flights to Ben Gurion airport. This threat, rather than the insecurity the rocket attacks sow among Israeli civilians, is the real future threat of rocket attacks. However, they are no longer a real existential threat though, with greater sophistication and the incorporation of smart guidance systems, they could reemerge as such.
The tunnels are military and spy tools of a different order, not simply because they belong in a subterranean world rather than in the open air above, and not only because they cost the lives of Israeli soldiers in significant numbers. The IDF by the end of July 2014 has already lost twice as many soldiers in combat as in the combined total of soldiers killed in Operation Cast Lead and Operation Defensive shield. This third Gaza War in the last six years cannot be allowed to end simply in a cease fire of a truce by either side. Israel must ensure that the tunnels are destroyed and cannot be rebuilt, and that future rocket warfare, which is bound to be more sophisticated, is eliminated. Gaza must ensure that it not remain as a permanently impoverished island and civilian prison for another five years.
For that to happen, the romance as well as the reality of the tunnels needs to be understood. For that to happen so that the IDF does not suffer larger losses and Palestinians suffer two thousand civilian casualties in a subsequent Gaza War, the physical tunnels must not only be blown up and demolished by the Nahal paratroopers and armored and engineering brigades of the IDF while the Golani and Givati brigades fight the jihadi militants, the romance of tunnels must be destroyed as well. The belief that the secret tunnels can offer safety and security to one side and stealth and surreptitious military surprise against the other side must be extinguished.
This is the real task of the peacemakers that removes from Israel the fear of both rockets and tunnels and offers Gaza , not a temporary truce but a real peace. That is why the war will not end soon and why Israel must not prepare to fight a fourth Gaza War as Benny Morris advises.
Peter Beinart (“Gaza myths and facts: what American Jewish leaders won’t tell you”, Haaretz 30 July 2014) may be correct in his account of the build up to the war in many respects, but it is totally insufficient to understand the misleading narrative of Jewish leaders and it is far more important to understand the physical and psychological dimensions of the threat of tunnels and their importance in the conflict. Just as the romance between Leonard and Maria had to end in McEwan’s novel The Innocent when romance crashed into reality, so the romance of both tunnels and Hamas must also come to an end as our innocence about violence is itself extinguished.