November 27, 2023
THE RECENT ESCALATION OF VIOLENCE between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has once again brought to light the real and present threat posed by the militant group’s extensive network of underground tunnels and bunkers. These tunnels, which the Israelis call the ‘metro’, are used to smuggle weapons, launch attacks and hide from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). To counter this challenge, the IDF relies on one of its most elite and secretive outfits—the Yahalom (‘Diamond’) Unit.
The Yahalom Unit is a special operations engineering unit of the Israeli Combat Engineering Corps that specializes in ferreting out and destroying Hamas tunnel networks. The unit was established in 1995 and has been involved in several mission-critical operations against the militant group, such as ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in the 2014 Gaza War and ‘Operation Guardian of the Walls’ in 2023.
The Yahalom Unit consists of several sub-units, each with a different role and expertise. One of the sub-units is Yael, which is a commando demolition unit that conducts long-range sabotage, counter-terror and maritime engineering missions. Another sub-unit is SAP, which is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit that handles nuclear, biological and chemical threats, bomb disposal and landmine and missile warhead removal.
A third sub-unit is the Samur, which is a commando sub-unit formed in 2004 that operates under the Hebrew acronym for ‘weasel’. Samur derives its initials from Slikim (caches) and Minharot (caves, or tunnels). Samur soldiers are trained to find, enter, clear and destroy the tunnels and hidden weapons caches that Hamas uses to smuggle weapons, launch attacks and hide from the IDF.
The Yahalom Unit is considered one of the most elite and secretive units in the IDF and works closely with other special force units, such as Sayeret Matkal and Shayetet 13. The unit uses advanced methods and tools for demolition and EOD. Some of them are up-armoured IDF Caterpillar D9 bulldozer, remote-controlled Raam HaShachar (‘Morning Thunder’) version of the D9 an armoured Excavator with drills, while most of the other tools that Yahalom has developed are classified to make it more difficult for enemies to develop counter-measures. The unit also trains other engineering corps soldiers and special units in these skills.
The Yahalom Unit faces a formidable adversary in Hamas, which has invested heavily in building and expanding its tunnel network over the years. According to some estimates, the network spans over 500 kilometres (310 miles) and reaches depths of up to 70 metres (230 feet). Some of the tunnels are reinforced with concrete and equipped with oxygen tanks, water pipes, electricity lights and even air-conditioners. The network also has a periphery of shallower tunnels and a core of deeper tunnels, where Hamas stores its weapons, missiles and some of the approximately 240 Israeli captives that it took.
The tunnels allow Hamas to move its fighters and assets across the strip without being detected by the IDF's aerial and ground surveillance. The tunnels also enable Hamas to launch surprise attacks on Israeli troops and civilians, such as the one that killed six IDF soldiers near the border in 2014. Moreover, the tunnels provide Hamas with a strategic advantage in case of a ground invasion by the IDF, as they can ambush, harass, and evade the Israeli forces.
The IDF has developed various ways to locate and destroy the Hamas terror tunnels, such as using sensors, robots, dogs, drones and remote-controlled units. The IDF also employs a massive drill machine called the ‘snake head’ that can dig through the soil and create underground explosions. However, these methods are not foolproof, as Hamas can conceal its tunnels with camouflage, booby traps and decoys. The IDF also faces the risk of collateral damage, as some of the tunnels run under civilian buildings and infrastructure.
The most effective way to deal with the tunnels, according to the IDF, is to send in the Yahalom Unit’s Samur soldiers, also known as ‘weasels of war’. These soldiers are specially trained and equipped to operate in the dark, narrow and treacherous underground environment. They use night-vision goggles, thermal cameras and silenced weapons to navigate and neutralize the tunnels. They also carry explosives, breaching tools and medical kits to deal with any obstacles or injuries.
The Samur soldiers have been praised by the IDF for their bravery and professionalism in carrying out their missions. They have also been credited with saving lives and preventing attacks by Hamas. For instance, in 2014, the Samur soldiers discovered and destroyed a tunnel that was about to be used by Hamas to carry out a massive attack on a nearby kibbutz. In 2023, the Samur soldiers uncovered and demolished several tunnels and hideouts used by Hamas, including one that was located inside Gaza’s largest hospital, al-Shifa.
The Yahalom Unit’s Samur soldiers are not only fighting a physical war, but also a psychological one. They have to cope with the stress, fear and uncertainty of operating in enemy territory, where they can face ambushes, booby traps and hostages. They also have to deal with the moral dilemma of harming civilians or damaging infrastructure that may be connected to the tunnels. Samur soldiers undergo rigorous training in handling explosives, combat engineering and counter-terrorism, besides counselling to prepare them for these challenges.
The Yahalom Unit’s role in the recent conflict with Hamas has once again highlighted the importance and complexity of the tunnel warfare in the Gaza Strip. The unit has demonstrated its skills and capabilities in finding and destroying the Hamas tunnels, but also faced significant difficulties and dangers. The tunnel warfare is likely to continue as long as Hamas remains in control of Gaza and maintains its hostility towards Israel. The Yahalom Unit, especially its Samur soldiers, will remain on the frontlines of this underground battle as the ‘weasels of war’.