Part of The Best of 2014

Notes From the Underground

The Long History of Tunnel Warfare

A Palestinian fighter from the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, is seen inside an underground tunnel in Gaza on August 18, 2014. (Courtesy Reuters)

Perhaps the most surprising development of the recent war between Israel and Gaza was the discovery of the sophisticated network of tunnels that Hamas had quietly developed in the preceding years. The dark, low-tech tunnels running underneath Gaza offered a stark juxtaposition to the modern artillery Israel deployed on the surface.

But if the tunnels hinted at an older kind of warfare, that doesn’t mean they should be dismissed as a military curiosity. Compared with the most sophisticated weapons systems in use today, tunnels have withstood the test of time: for centuries, they have allowed military units to approach their enemies undetected and helped weaker combatants turn the battlefield to their advantage. There’s no way to know how long drones or lasers or anti-missile defense systems will last. But as long as there is warfare, tunnels will almost certainly be part of the fight.


Tunnels and caves, tunnels’ geologic predecessor, have a long history in warfare stretching back to biblical times. For at least 3,000 years, embattled populations have used them to hide from, and strike at, stronger enemies. Ironically, this has been especially so in the region where present-day Israel and Palestine are located. Archaeologists have found more than 450 ancient cave systems in the Holy Land, including many that were dug into mountainsides, which the Jews used to launch guerrilla-style attacks on Roman legionnaires during the Great Jewish Revolt from AD 66 to 70. The Romans faced the same tactic around that time in their fight along the Rhine and Danube frontiers in Europe, against Germanic tribes who would dig hidden trenches connected by tunnels and then spring out of the ground to ambush the Roman soldiers.

But the use of tunnels hasn’t been limited to insurgencies. It wasn’t long before the Roman Empire began using them as an offensive weapon in siege warfare. By digging a hidden trench right up to a city’s walls, and then tunneling underneath to undermine the walls and force a breach, the Romans discovered that it was possible to end a siege long before the city’s population was starved into submission by blockade.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the use of tunnels in this manner soon inspired the development of countertunnels. The ancient Roman historian Polybius described a siege in 189 BC at the Greek city of Ambracia, where the Romans began digging a tunnel parallel to the city wall:

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