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The News Not Noise Letter: Gaza's Underground "Metro"
Israeli soldiers mass outside Gaza as 1 million Palestinians told to move overnight. Plus: Egypt under pressure.
As I write this, Israeli soldiers are massing on the border with Gaza. The Israeli Defense Forces, Israel’s military, say they’ve launched their first ground raids. They’re working to locate some of the roughly 150 hostages and kill Hamas terrorists.
The IDF says they have undertaken the grim work of notifying 120 families of those taken hostage. Still others remain missing. This, as Israel grapples with the largest loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust: 1300 Israelis killed. As a proportion of the population, that would be equivalent to losing 46,000 Americans to a single terror attack.
Across the border, bombs are falling. Palestinians are fleeing in cars, trucks and even donkey carts after Israel ordered Gaza City evacuated by morning. The death toll is mounting and one UN official says “Gaza is fast becoming a hellhole.” With the electricity off for days, hospital generators are running low on fuel forcing health care workers to make impossible choices about who to treat.
We are on the brink of a war that will claim many lives and “change the Middle East” — with unknown results. What awaits Israel's soldiers inside Gaza? Can Israel actually wipe out Hamas, will they sacrifice the hostages? How will Israel’s allies and Hamas’ sympathizers respond to a protracted battle — does this explode into a larger regional war?
My goal is to help you understand some realities of the fight with Hamas ahead, the circumstances that shape Israel’s strategic decisions, and the impossible dilemmas faced by people on all sides of this conflict.
Before we get into it, I want to underscore that Hamas is not the Palestinian people. Hamas hasn’t allowed elections in more than 15 years, and they rule by fear and intimidation. For more on this, see Monday’s newsletter.
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Israel orders 1 million to move:
In a surprise announcement overnight, the IDF ordered over 1 million Palestinians in the north to evacuate south – dropping leaflets on the city encouraging the move. Israel’s ambassador to the UN says the evacuation is intended to protect Palestinian civilian life, explaining “we want to eradicate Hamas and sadly there is no other way to do it.” CNN says some people are already moving on car and foot though where to is unclear — there are no available shelters. The UN condemns the order as “impossible,” saying it would lead to “devastating humanitarian consequences.” In fact, the UN considers the forced transfer of people a crime against humanity. The US is not party to that agreement.
Why would Israel ask 1 million people to move overnight? To understand this and the war ahead, it is essential to understand how Hamas operates inside Gaza.
The Gaza below Gaza:
You’ve likely heard about the tunnels Hamas uses to move weapons and people underground, covertly, evading Israeli detection. These tunnels aren’t simply narrow holes in the dirt. Soldiers call them the “Gaza Metro.” Think of them more as a second city underground.
According to video evidence and firsthand accounts by soldiers and others, the tunnels are lined with cement and big enough to stand up and move around in. Underground warfare expert Dr. Daphné Richemond-Barak says they are “equipped with electricity, lighting and rail tracks,” and designed “for a longer, sustained presence… The leaders are hiding there, they have command-and-control centers.” Some Palestinians say the tunnels are also used to move medicine, food and fuel into and through the city. Hamas claims there are over 300 miles of tunnels under the buildings you see on Gaza’s surface. Some video here.
When Israel and the US say that Hamas uses its civilians as human shields – that’s partly because they locate weapons depots, offices for Hamas leaders, and other crucial infrastructure underground at the location of civilian buildings, all connected by a labyrinth of tunnels. Search the word “tunnel” in this NATO document and you’ll see among the locations: residential houses, UN schools. Israelis say in the past Hamas located its command center under Gaza City’s hospital as well.
Note: when Hamas came to power in 2007, Israel imposed a blockade that included many goods — barring import of things like cement and pipes or anything that could have dual civilian-military use. They say Hamas uses the materials to build these tunnels, make weapons, and enrich its leaders. Gaza gets other construction materials, food and medical supplies both through Egypt and — prior to this attack — through Israel. Israel turned off that spigot after Hamas’ massacre. (We can cover this in more detail in a future newsletter.)
What’s coming next?
Now the IDF’s stated goal is to “wipe Hamas off the face of the earth.” That means they will target the organization – including terrorists in the military wing and politicians (many are believed to have fled Gaza, leaving civilians to pay the price for their actions). It also means the IDF seeks to take out Hamas’ physical operations centers, Hamas’ weapons factories and storage in the tunnels under Gaza. Destroying the tunnels means destroying what lies on top of them as well, pulverizing buildings. And there’s no way to protect civilians who would remain.
Realities for the Palestinian civilians:
I want to pause to acknowledge the following. In an effort to punish Hamas and damage Hamas infrastructure before soldiers enter, Israel dropped 6,000 bombs in one week. The impact:
The Gaza Ministry of Health reports over 1,900 Palestinians have been killed in the past week in Gaza, including 614 children and 370 women.
7,696 Gazans have been wounded.
Over 423,000 Gazans have been displaced in the past week.
And the UN says at least 12 of its workers have been killed in Gaza since Saturday.
Hamas set things up this way. They knew Israel would respond with ferocious force, putting Palestinian civilians in grave danger. This is another way Hamas uses civilians as a human shield.
Why move 1 million people?
Destroying the tunnels means leveling parts of Gaza. It’s impossible to imagine civilians enduring the bombardment to come. Plus, when the IDF arrives, no one wants civilians caught in the crossfire. Except, apparently, Hamas, who called on Gazans not to leave.
Why did Israel give them 24 hours?
Many reasons – that could include psychological warfare against Hamas.
As I mentioned earlier, Gaza has a land border with Egypt. It’s called the Rafah Crossing. There is intense international pressure on Egypt to open a humanitarian corridor and welcome Palestinian civilians into Egypt where they can wait out the battle free from bombings and gunfire. In this version of events, other Arab nations could also offer them sanctuary, setting up refugee camps in multiple locations.
The Rafah crossing has been damaged by the bombing campaign, but Egypt’s foreign ministry says the crossing is still open. By making such a sweeping demand and putting a ticking clock on it – Israel is ratcheting up pressure on Egypt and its allies to relent and accept Palestinians. For Israel it is crucial to minimize civilian death. The only way that happens in a campaign to pulverize Hamas and its tunnels is if civilians leave the warzone. As a practical matter, that requires other countries to let them in.
Would Egypt and Palestinians agree?
No. Not so far. Arab states say Palestinians must stay on their land. Palestinians compare a humanitarian corridor to “a second Nakba,” displacing them from their homes again. This goes to the very root of the conflict.
Also, Egypt doesn’t want a new refugee crisis in its borders, nor do many other Arab nations. Hosting refugees is expensive, and hosting this many without time to vet them could also be destabilizing and dangerous. Hamas is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the adversary to Egypt’s sitting government. How could Egypt ensure Hamas doesn’t enter with refugees? Some analysts say Egypt “would never risk its sovereign territory being compromised in such a way.”
A no-win situation:
From the Israeli perspective, this is an impossible situation. Asking Palestinian civilians to evacuate threatens to repeat the root trauma of the conflict and further antagonize the Arab world. But, as the Israeli ambassador to the UN said, “It’s the only way to survive. And the civilized world should understand we are fighting not only for Israel but against a jihadist genocidal organization exactly like ISIS.”
Underground urban warfare:
Many of Israel’s soldiers are preparing for underground warfare. It will be brutal. With limited visibility, in tight quarters, with very little communication with the surface or access to escape routes, combatants are vulnerable to “biological and chemical hazards, smoke inhalation, blast injury, booby-traps, infectious diseases, as well as brain injury and hearing loss,” according to a recent paper by Richemond-Barak published in the journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Hamas is expecting them. Who knows what they have planned?
So you see everything here is contingent.
Military analysts uniformly predict that this will not be a quick battle. There is no simple path to security. There are no easy choices.
Here are some of today’s other headlines:
GOP Speaker Updates: House Republicans chose Jim Jordan as their nominee for House Speaker today after their previous choice, Steve Scalise, dropped out of the running. Jordan is a far-right ally of Donald Trump. It’s unclear whether Jordan will have enough votes to win the speakership – CNN is reporting Jordan is currently 55 votes short. Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy says he thinks Jordan will get enough votes to win on the first ballot – but it isn’t clear why he’s so confident.
“Day of Rage” Impacts: Many Jewish schools in the US and abroad were closed today out of an abundance of caution after former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal called for an international “day of rage.” Numerous demonstrations erupted globally protesting Israel’s military response to the Hamas massacre. Many of the protesters are standing for the freedom of the Palestinian people and against the horrors of war. But in many cases, protesters’ language is not just pro-Palestinian freedom but antisemitic. Some of the phrases they are chanting call for the extermination of Jews. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations were banned in France, Germany, and Hungary. Counterprotests are active too, and US college campuses are rocked by the highly-charged and growing divide, and many Jewish students are expressing deep fears over the language of violence.
Perspective: In the face of war, it is helpful to remember that the goal, eventually, is peace. We wanted to end with some words that pull us toward that North star. Here is Lucille Clifton’s poem, “blessing the boats” (click the link.) And this teaching from Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh: “Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women.”
Additional reporting by Thalia Halloran.
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