The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced this week the discovery of an underground tunnel in Khan Younis, Gaza, that Hamas militants had allegedly used to hold about 20 hostages in “inhumane conditions.”
Tunnel Housed Make-Shift Prison Cells
The tunnel, measuring about 0.8 kilometers long, contained a series of underground rooms that had been set up as prison cells to hold hostages, according to the IDF. Photos released by the military show sparse rooms with only mattresses or cushions on the ground. Some rooms had chairs and tables. Metal bars sealed off small spaces that may have been used as cages.
“It was clearly a hostage situation, as the people held in the tunnel were not free to leave,” said IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht.
Drawings made by children were found on the walls, suggesting that minors were among the hostages. The IDF estimates children as young as 5 years old were held captive.
“The images reveal the inhospitable conditions hostages were subjected to, which included cramped quarters lacking ventilation and light,” Hecht said.
At Least 20 Hostages Held
Military officials say at least 20 hostages were held prisoner inside the tunnel complex based on items found at the scene such as plates of food, water bottles, and bedding. However, the number may have been higher.
“The fact that we found over 20 mattresses does not mean that there were necessarily only 20 people held hostage in the tunnel,” Hecht said. “It is certainly possible there were more.”
Authorities have not disclosed the identities, nationalities, or occupations of the hostages. It remains unclear why they were taken prisoner or what militant group beyond Hamas was responsible. IDF investigations are ongoing.
Hamas Tunnel Network Larger Than Expected
The tunnel discovery comes amid the IDF’s “Operation Breaking Dawn” launched last year to counter militant threats in Gaza. What was expected to be a limited mission has revealed that Hamas has a much more extensive tunnel network underneath Gaza than previously thought.
“Our current estimate is that there are hundreds more kilometers of tunnels out there,” Hecht revealed. “Tens of thousands of man-hours have gone into building this network.”
|Estimated tunnel length
|Number of access shafts
| Hundreds of kilometers | Over 5,700 across Gaza
In addition to the prison tunnel found recently, the IDF has uncovered and destroyed over 15 major tunnels – some running kilometers in length – over the past 9 months of operations.
Experts say the sophisticated network has essentially turned Gaza into an “underground fortress” for militants. Tunnels provide cover for Hamas to move weapons and conduct operations, while also limiting the IDF’s ability to detect and target the group’s leaders.
Destroying the tunnels has proven challenging, requiring specially trained units and ground operations that carry risks. As Colonel Grisha Yurkovich of the IDF’s Southern Command said: “This war will continue underground for a long time still.”
Israel Considering Long-Term Operations
The IDF estimates that it could take years to fully map and neutralize Hamas’ tunnel network in Gaza. As such, Israel is reportedly considering an extended campaign against Hamas.
Sources say military leadership has proposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a plan to conduct targeted operations stretching into 2025 or beyond. The goal would be to gradually degrade Hamas’ capabilities over time rather than attempt a rapid take-down that could lead to an all-out war.
Operations would include:
- Ongoing air strikes against suspected tunnel locations and Hamas bases
- Small, specialized ground unit raids into Gaza
- Expanded demolition of tunnel entry points detected near the border
- tighter restrictions on goods allowed into Gaza to prevent materials from being diverted for tunnel construction
Critics argue such a prolonged engagement could bolster Hamas’ standing and recruitment without fully stopping the group. However, Netanyahu appears inclined to approve the recommendation rather than return to the status quo with Gaza after previous large-scale conflicts in 2009, 2012 and 2021.
“If we simply exited Gaza now, we’d likely be back in full-scale war in less than 2 years given Hamas’ track record” said Netanyahu. “We must stay the course – for the safety of Israeli citizens.”
International Community Calls for Restraint
The UN, Arab League, and other entities have called on both sides to avoid civilian casualties and new escalations of violence following the tunnel discovery.
Egyptian mediators continue work on arranging an unofficial “ceasefire light” agreement between Israel and Palestinian militant groups in Gaza. The long term informal truces have reduced conflicts in the past. However, talks are said to be stalled as Hamas pushes for the full lifting of Gaza’s blockade as a condition while Israel wants demilitarization commitments.
The US expressed support for Israel’s security needs but discouraged the prospect of extended military operations. “We hope a proportional, limited resolution to the tensions can be found soon,” said Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.
With over 15 Palestinians killed and new rocket fire emerging from Gaza, the risk remains of the months-long shadow war spilling over into a major new battle attracting wider regional involvement. All sides are hoping skilled diplomacy can avoid such an outcome even as military activities continue.
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