Now that Gaza’s perimeter is completely sealed – by fences on land and the Israeli navy at sea – the axis of conflict has turned 90 degrees. Each new Israeli bombing campaign – in 2008-9, 2012, 2014 and May 2021 – has pushed Palestinian resistance deeper underground, to extend and fortify its elaborate system of tunnels. The deaths of more than five thousand Palestinians and the damage or destruction of nearly a quarter of the buildings in the strip have come mainly from the air, but it is through their control of what lies underground that Palestinians have managed to continue their resistance.
Gaza’s first tunnels were dug in 1982, to connect one part of Rafah to the other after the city was divided as part of Israel’s retreat from Sinai after its peace accord with Egypt. A decade later, with the launch of the Oslo process, Israel started isolating the strip. This continued during the years of the Second Intifada, between 2000 and 2005, and Gaza was blockaded completely in 2007 after Hamas took power. The tunnel system enabled the flow of essential supplies – food, medicine and other goods – into the strip, as well as weapons from Egypt. In 20o4, a tunnel dug under a military base enabled Palestinians to place explosives and blow up the base. In 2006, Palestinian fighters spirited away the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit through a tunnel and took him to Gaza. Under the deal for his release in 2011 Israel freed more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners.
After the 2013 coup, the Egyptian military, under the self-proclaimed president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, started demolishing the tunnels that led to Egypt, effectively joining Israel’s blockade. Tunnelling was therefore redirected towards the border zone with Israel. In 2014, two separate groups of Palestinian fighters crossed the border. One raided a military base on the Israeli side of the fence. After Israel invaded Gaza that same year, the IDF reported that it had ‘neutralised’ more than thirty tunnels, but it suffered heavy casualties and two more soldiers were taken underground. They are presumed dead, and negotiations are under way for the return of their bodies.
It is this subterranean infrastructure that has enabled the armed resistance to continue firing rockets into Israel. Under the command of Muhammad Deif, Hamas’s most effective military leader in recent years, the underground system has been further expanded into a dense web of tunnels running thirty metres below Gaza City and the border areas. The Israeli army calls it ‘the metro’. Geology is on the side of the tunnellers. Gaza’s subsoil is mostly dry sandstone, relatively easy to dig through. With spades or, increasingly, pneumatic drills, teams of diggers working round the clock in twelve-hour shifts can excavate and reinforce fifteen metres of tunnel a day. Underground traffic regulations have become necessary to avoid collisions between digging teams. The system is like air traffic control: satellite positioning is used to regulate movement in three-dimensional space. The Gaza Strip is internationally defined as an ‘occupied territory’ but the area under its surface appears to be a liberated zone.
The Israeli army has sunk concrete walls around the strip’s perimeter, and uses underground sensors to detect tunnelling work. The current Israeli chief of general staff, Aviv Kochavi, known for his ‘out of the box thinking’, has long been determined to put an end to the tunnelling. This year’s flare-up of protests in East Jerusalem and the West Bank provided him with an opportunity. On 13 May, Israel deployed the majority of its air force – 160 jets, including F-16 and F-35 warplanes – to circle at different altitudes near the coast of Gaza. Simultaneously, armoured regiments were moved close to the Gaza fences, leading many to believe that they were about to invade. Shortly after midnight, on the 14th, a military spokesperson told foreign reporters, wrongly, that a ground invasion had begun.
This was a tactical deception. The aim was to encourage Hamas fighters to take up their battle positions in the tunnels. Then the planes would drop their bunker-buster bombs all at once, eliminating Hamas’s only real strategic advantage and turning the tunnel network into a deathtrap. Kochavi’s plan, called Lightning Strike, had been some years in the making. The army estimated that it would bury between six hundred and a thousand Hamas fighters – a substantial part of Gaza’s fighting force – including senior officers, perhaps even Deif himself.
The planes dropped the bombs from high altitude, to allow them to gain enough velocity to penetrate deep into the ground. But to reach the tunnels, the bombs had first to pass through Gaza’s dense civilian neighbourhoods. The bomb’s fuse is activated on impact with the surface – a building, a road or an open area. A few milliseconds of programmed delay allow the fast-falling bomb to pierce the surface and plant itself deep in the ground, before the massive payload – one tonne of explosives, the biggest bombs in the air force’s arsenal, according to the Israeli press – detonates and sends shockwaves through the earth. In just over half an hour Israel’s planes dropped 450 such bombs – one every five seconds – into Gaza’s subsoil. This was the land-based equivalent of anti-submarine depth charges.
Buildings in Gaza’s commercial district and border areas collapsed, burying families and destroying roads and infrastructure. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights 39 Palestinians were killed that night, including 14 children. Fearing a ground invasion, families in the border area fled into the inferno in the city centre. A Palestinian woman who identified herself only as Maryam said she felt as if ‘the entirety of Gaza was shaking … as if everything turns inside out, whatever is inside the earth is kicked out. Like an ongoing earthquake.’ Shockwaves were also reported in nearby Jewish settlements.
When the earth settled, the morning after the attack, some in the Israeli press hailed the operation as a masterstroke and Kochavi as a ‘genius’ – the best warlord the Jewish people had had since Bar Kokhba. The latter led a briefly successful rebellion against imperial Rome in 132 ad, the former is the de facto sovereign of a stateless population of nearly five million people governed under a complex form of legal and spatial apartheid. While he was still just a candidate for the army’s top job, Kochavi was compared to another supposedly ‘brilliant’ Israeli soldier, Ehud Barak, and there was speculation that, like Barak, he would convert his military credentials and go into politics. Netanyahu was not in favour of this. Kochavi’s appointment was eventually confirmed by the then minister of defence, the ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman. To cheers from the right, he began his three-year tenure as chief of general staff at the start of 2019 (his term has been extended by a year), with a promise to make the army more lethal, as if harmlessness was its big problem. He started talking about ‘swift victories’ and protesting at limits the government imposed on the use of force, as if these were serious restrictions.
It wasn’t until August, three months after the attack, that the army finally admitted that Kochavi’s plan had failed. Either because it had seen through the deception, or because it had reinforced its tunnels well, Hamas sustained only a handful of casualties on the night the earth shook. It retained its fighting power and its capacity to fire rockets into Israeli territory. Hamas’s resistance ignited protests in Palestinian cities such as Jaffa and Lod in Israel proper, and created solidarity between Palestinians separated into different zones by Israeli control. Against Kochavi’s narrative of ‘swift victory’, Palestinians offered the long war, in which the very fact that resistance still exists is a victory.
Kochavi and I have history. Fourteen years ago, in my book Hollow Land, I wrote about a raid he led in April 2002, while commander of the paratroopers brigade, into the city of Nablus and a refugee camp, Balata, on its outskirts. I was interested in the way some in the army discussed the raid using terms from critical theory, postcolonial and urban studies, and in particular applied concepts associated with Deleuze and Guattari. Kochavi was significant here, as one of Israel’s self-styled soldiers/poets/philosophers, a role occupied in the 1960s by Moshe Dayan. He claimed that at one point he had considered studying architecture (as I did), though in the end he chose philosophy.
When the Hebrew-language journal Theory and Criticism – one of the few academic platforms in Israel that allowed the questioning of Zionism, and a frequent target for the Israeli right – agreed to publish part of my text, the editor in chief, without my knowledge, took the unprecedented step of sending a copy to the army’s spokesperson, to give Kochavi the right of reply. The editor later explained that this was only fair, since, untypically for the journal, Kochavi was named in the article. (Kochavi’s sister, a leading postcolonial scholar, also happened to be on its editorial board.) The response was a letter from Kochavi’s private lawyer threatening libel action. I saw this as an opportunity. If the case went to court, I would be able to defend my findings and bring them to the attention of a large audience. Most important, I would get the chance to question Kochavi. But the journal couldn’t afford to take the risk. The editors asked me to alter the text; I refused and pulled the piece.
Kochavi’s lawyers contested some allegations, peripheral to the main argument about the strange combination of philosophy and war. They couldn’t challenge Kochavi’s words, since they were taken from a filmed interview I had conducted with him. I quoted him describing his raid as ‘inverse geometry’. His soldiers, I explained, had kept off the streets and moved from one building to the next by punching holes through party walls. By these means they had been able to cross the old city of Nablus and the Balata refugee camp through what were essentially overground tunnels carved out of the dense urban fabric. Deception was used as a tactic here too. ‘We completely isolate the camp in daylight,’ Kochavi’s operational order read, ‘creating the impression of a forthcoming systematic siege.’ He wanted the resistance to take up defensive positions. Then his soldiers would ‘apply a fractal manoeuvre, swarming simultaneously from every direction … Our movement through the buildings pushes [the insurgents] into the streets and alleys, where we hunt them down.’ When they asked to surrender he refused. Seventy Palestinians died. The manoeuvre was aimed not at occupying the city but at killing people and then withdrawing. I called this a necro-economy.
In the interview, filmed in his office in a military base near Tel Aviv, Kochavi described the theory behind his raid in quite astounding language:
This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, but not in an unlimited fashion – after all, it must be bound by physics, as it contains buildings and alleys. The question is, how do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret it as a place, like every architect and every town planner does, to walk through, or do you interpret it as a place forbidden to walk through? This depends only on interpretation. We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. Not only do I not want to fall into his traps, I want to surprise him.
This is the essence of war. I need to win. I need to emerge from an unexpected place. And this is what we tried to do. This is why we opted for the method of walking through walls … Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing. We were thus moving from the interior of [Palestinian] homes to their exterior in unexpected ways and in places we were not anticipated, arriving from behind and hitting the enemy that awaited us behind a corner … Because it was the first time that this method was tested [on such a scale], during the operation itself we were learning how to adjust ourselves to the relevant urban space, and similarly how to adjust the relevant urban space to our needs … We took this micro-tactical practice and turned it into a method, and thanks to this method, we were able to interpret the whole space differently … I said to my troops: ‘Comrades! This is not a matter of your choice! There is no other way of moving! If until now you were used to moving along roads and sidewalks, forget it! From now on we all walk through walls!’
A Palestinian woman called Aisha described the experience of such raid:
Imagine it – you’re sitting in your living room that you know so well, this is the room where the family watches TV together after the evening meal … And, suddenly, that wall disappears with a deafening roar, the room fills with dust and debris and through the wall pours one soldier after the other, screaming orders. You have no idea if they’re after you, if they’ve come to take over your home, or if your house just lies on their route to somewhere else. The children are screaming, panicking … Is it possible to even begin to imagine the horror experienced by a five-year-old child as four, six, eight, twelve soldiers, their faces painted black, submachine guns pointed, antennas protruding from their backpacks, making them look like giant alien bugs, blast their way through that wall?’
Aisha pointed to another wall in her home with a built-in bookcase: ‘And this is where they left. They blew up the wall and continued to our neighbour’s house.’
It is an Orientalist trope that colonising officers admire the areas they rule. Kochavi liked Nablus. He once said it was the prettiest city in the West Bank. Though less devastating than the raid on Jenin a few days earlier, the destruction in Nablus was not insignificant. A survey conducted by the Palestinian architect Nurhan Abujidi showed that more than half the buildings in its casbah had holes punched through them. Some historic buildings were destroyed, among them the 18th-century Ottoman caravanserai of al-Wakalh al-Farroukkyyeh, and the Nablusi and the Cana’an soap factories.
One of the officers who participated in the attack on Nablus was Shalev Hulio, who later set up the NSO Group, whose Pegasus spyware has been used by repressive governments from Saudi Arabia through Mexico to India to hack the smartphones of journalists and political activists. (Following extensive reporting of NSO’s activities in newspapers around the world, as well as by the organisation I lead, Forensic Architecture, the company seems to be on the brink.) With Pegasus, hacking through walls has shifted from the physical to the digital domain – firewalls rather than load-bearing walls. This is even more invasive of our privacy, since the information held on our smartphones reveals far more about us than the contents of our homes.
Kochavi’s references to the reinterpretation of space show the influence of poststructuralist theory. He didn’t say so in our interview, but his mentor – retired Brigadier General Dr Shimon Naveh, director of the Operational Theory Research Institute at Israel’s National Defence College – has always been clear about the roots of Kochavi’s approach. OTRI’s curriculum included canonical works of theory. Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus provided terms that military theorists found useful: ‘rhizomes’, ‘smooth space’ and, of course, ‘war machines’. Guy Debord’s concepts of the dérive (passing through the city as if it was a ‘borderless’ place) and détournement (adapting buildings for new purposes) were applied to ways of thinking about the military use of domestic structures. The ‘building cuts’ of the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark were juxtaposed for OTRI students with images of holes cut through Palestinian walls. The list also included more recent writings on urbanism and architecture. ‘Derrida may be a little too opaque for our crowd,’ Naveh told me. ‘We share more with architects; we combine theory and practice. We can read, but we know as well how to build and destroy, and sometimes kill.’
The use of philosophy to inform strategy has existed in other armies too, of course. That Israeli military theorists have turned to urban studies isn’t really so strange. Western armies, which through the Cold War tended to think in terms of open battlefields, were unprepared for dealing with physically, socially, politically and technologically complex urban environments. In Israel, however, the proximity between the military and the academic domain has allowed tactics inspired by the radical theoretical left to make their way into the arsenal of a colonialist project of the extreme right. Naveh has a PhD from King’s College London; his wife, Hannah Naveh, is a theorist and the former dean of the faculty of arts at Tel Aviv University. In Israel, where military thinking is inescapable and the army is never far from everyday life, such connections are not unusual.
Israel’s techniques of urban warfare aren’t particularly novel. The defenders of the Paris Commune, much like those of the casbah of Algiers, or of Beirut, Jenin and Nablus, navigated the city in small, loosely co-ordinated groups, moving through openings and tunnels between homes, basements and courtyards, using secret passageways and trapdoors. In his Instructions pour une prise d’armes, published in 1868, Louis-Auguste Blanqui wrote that the protection of self-governing urban enclaves depended in equal measure on the barricade and the mousehole. Whether directly or indirectly, OTRI’s theoretical sources were inspired by the practices and theories of liberation struggles. Through theory, the army has learned from its enemies, mimicking and adapting their methods. It is through theory that the army identifies – perhaps overidentifies – with the resistance it sets out to repress. It’s Israel’s paradox: despite the state’s complete local and regional domination, it still imagines itself to be fighting a guerrilla war against more powerful enemies and existential threats.
It’s worth recognising, too, that ‘swarming’ and ‘walking through walls’ may have been successful against poorly armed, untrained young Palestinian guerrillas in a small refugee camp under total siege, but when the same Israeli units faced the stronger, better armed and better trained Hizbullah fighters in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, things were very different. In operational instructions that were later widely mocked, Gal Hirsch, another OTRI graduate, ordered his soldiers to generate ‘systemic-spatial deconstruction of the enemy infrastructure’. His subordinate officers had no idea what they were supposed to do. Meanwhile, Hizbullah fighters, themselves navigating through holes in the buildings they were defending, caused heavy Israeli casualties.
Much of the enthusiasm for theory evaporated after the 2006 Lebanon war. Many of those associated with OTRI left the army. Kochavi avoided the cull, since he was in Gaza at the time. He moved quickly through the ranks, but never stopped deploying his favourite buzzwords: ‘deception’, ‘unpredictability’, ‘trickery’, ‘lethality’, ‘multidimensionality’. He saw his larger project as being to develop what he called a ‘multidimensional operational doctrine’. He established a unit known as Ghosts, designed to conduct urban warfare in densely populated civilian areas. He envisioned lots of small fighting units, each with its own intelligence capacity and air power thanks to light tactical drones. These units were trained in simulated 3D environments.
Even at this late stage in his career, Kochavi sometimes speaks to his subordinates about contemporary art and culture. I wonder what Roger Waters, a prominent pro-Palestine activist and BDS supporter, would say if he knew that Kochavi likes to use the cover image of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon to explain that units should move like refracted beams passing through a crystal. However much theory he may have read, for Kochavi the Palestinian city is not a lived environment, a colonised society struggling for liberation, but a complex geometrical system that requires endless interpretation, and reinterpretation, in order for the problem it presents to be solved. He always claimed to think outside the box. With his retirement approaching, it’s now clear that he never escaped its confines.