The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Paradoxically, the more Israel pummeled Gaza, the vaster and deeper Hamas’ tunneling network became, thanks to cement, the paste that makes concrete possible and which is siphoned from civilian reconstruction. Israel must defeat Hamas and ensure that cement is used to enhance human welfare rather than terrorism.

One of the greatest discoveries behind the dramatic rise in mankind’s standard of living over the past two centuries is cement, especially the Portland variety, which is the paste necessary to make concrete. According to the Wikipedia entry on the topic: “Concrete is the most widely used material in existence and is behind only water as the planet’s most-consumed resource.”

There is a good reason for its ubiquity today the world over: Concrete enabled cheap, durable. large and multi-story building on a scale unimaginable before the commercialization of Portland cement in the mid-19th century.

It also has its drawbacks: concrete production is widely regarded as a major pollutant, responsible for nearly eight percent of global CO2 emissions.

For the past twenty years, but especially during Israel’s war against Hamas following the massacres of October 7, the IDF has found itself face-to-face with the drawbacks of cement – the chief ingredient of the concrete used in the construction of tunnels, both “strategic” (which enable the movement of terrorists, ammunition, commanders, hostages and communication lines from one area to the next) and “tactical,” from which smaller units of terrorists emerge above ground in the attempt to surprise and kill Israeli soldiers over a limited space.

Cement has to be imported to Gaza for two reasons. Gaza has no deposits of limestone upon which cement is based, and even if there were such deposits, the production of cement is very complex and capital-intensive, beyond the capabilities of Gaza’s industrial base. Egypt, which has large deposits of limestone, is a big producer and exporter of cement.

The IDF estimates today that 700 km. of tunnels have been constructed, almost triple the amount estimated at the outset of the war in an area of 360 square km, less than half the area of New York City, and considerably longer than NYC’s rapid transit system (399 km).

Not only has cement allowed the construction of underground tunnels of a magnitude unprecedented in the history of warfare, but it also enabled Hamas to construct tunnels at a depth of 50 meters underground (roughly 20 stories deep), which cannot be destroyed by aerial bombardment.

Basically, the five-month long war so far, Israel’s second longest war to date, is mainly about dealing with the tunnels. The easy and quick part of the war was penetrating Gaza above ground.

In almost all the areas Israel penetrated, Hamas’ efforts to stop the onslaught above ground by deploying large numbers of terrorists, quickly failed. The terrorist organization lacked the capabilities to counter the superb coordination between the Israeli air force, armored forces and ground troops in hitting these terrorist formations.

Hamas’ resort to quick, small attacks out of tunnel shafts has forced the IDF into the painstaking and time-consuming task of discovering the tunnels and the shafts from which the terrorists exit – a task whose importance has been magnified by the search for and attempt to the remaining 134 Israeli hostages held by Hamas.

Cement, then, is the chief Israeli restraint in defeating Hamas and the chief boon of the terrorist organization in surviving.

Clearly, what enabled Hamas to construct this tunnel megalopolis were the vast civilian reconstruction efforts after each of the numerous bouts of warfare between Israel and the terrorist organizations.

Ironically, Israel’s destruction of civilian building sites in its efforts to control Hamas above ground, enabled Hamas and Islamic Jihad to siphon off the cement for civil reconstruction in order to expand its tunneling underground. Ironically, the greater the destruction above ground, the vaster Hamas’ tunnel network below ground.

Israel’s destruction of Gaza’s building infrastructure has never been greater than in this war. The BBC, based on satellite analysis, reports that between 144,000 and 175,000 buildings, between 50% and 61% of Gaza’s buildings, have been damaged or destroyed. The World Bank estimates are even higher with 61 percent of the buildings destroyed or damaged beyond repair.

Even the lower estimate of buildings destroyed in this war to date is nearly sixty per cent higher than the estimated damages inflicted after 2014 Gaza war, Operation Protective Edge, the longest previous conflict prior to the present war. Its aftermath allowed vast civilian reconstruction and at the same time vast terrorist cement tunneling.

 This means that if Israel does not defeat Hamas militarily and politically, including the take-over of the southern area of Rafah and critically the Philadelphi corridor along the Egyptian border to prevent the smuggling of cement from Egypt, not only will it not have achieved its objectives, but its warfare might enable the expansion of Hamas’ tunnels and render the group an even more formidable enemy in the near future if Gaza’s reconstruction takes place under Hamas control.

What happens to Gaza’s cement not only brings home how critical it is to defeat Hamas, but also draws the contours of what “the day after” in Gaza” should truly look like. Israel must not only achieve a monopoly of power over the area but also create a civilian control mechanism to ensure that the cement is used for the right purpose – enhancing the welfare of Gaza’s inhabitants.

After all, cement, despite its ecological drawbacks, has been one of the greatest boons to mankind. Israel must now ensure that this includes Gaza for its own benefit. Only Israeli military and civilian control over Gaza in the near future will achieve these two win-win objectives – solving the tunneling danger and enhancing the welfare of Gaza’s inhabitants.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

Photo: IMAGO / Cover-Images

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