By Jamal Doumani
Palestinians are an ancient people. They thus do not need to wait around for the emergence in their midst of some military genius to edify them on the efficacy of tunnels in guerrilla warfare. The knowledge of it is encoded in their historical archetype, stored there in their DNA, as it were.
When you’re under siege, and facing an enemy possessed of a formidable arsenal of weapons, you dig tunnels and confront him where he least expects to see you. You confront him on your home-ground when he invades your territory and chase after him on his own at a time of your own choosing.
Gaza, the most well-known open-air prisons in the world, is no different. Its defenders, fearless guerrilla fighters one and all, realize that, since they are blockaded by land, sea and air, sieges are by definition a violent test of ingenuity between a well-armed, technologically advanced besieger and the besieged, in this case citizen soldiers dependent on the weapon of the weak — imagination and guile. The use of tunnels, as one means of confronting your enemy, is not of course new in history. Tunnels were used by the defenders of Tyre as far back as 332 BC when Alexander the Great put the coastal town in the south of modern-day Lebanon under siege, and as recently in history as 1941 when the German army surrounded Leningrad and never let go for 872 long, agonizing, cruel days.
Even the Roman Legions, entering a country to conquer, or a province to subdue, soon learned to fear tunnels and guerrilla fighters hiding in them, who often ambushed mighty Rome’s marching columns and inflicted high casualties on them, or abducted individual soldiers, later to trade them for ransom or to exchange for their own prisoners. You can’t defeat a people engaged in this kind of warfare by a mere coup de main, in this case a military invasion, as Israel’s army is foolishly — and murderously —- doing today in Gaza.
Another ancient people, who confronted their enemy in modern times, were the Vietnamese, who as guerrilla fighters relied on an extensive network of tunnels to wreak heavy casualties on the enemy. Built over two decades (often with mere shovels and bare hands), beginning in the 1940s, the tunnels provided shelter and a base of operations for the Viet Minh, later the Viet Cong, “peasants in black pajamas,” as they were contemptuously dismissed by American soldiers, who wore not boots but so-called Ho Chi Minh sandals, flip-flops with tire cut-out soles, and fought against Japanese, then French and finally American invaders, invaders who brought with them a vastly superior military arsenal to the battlefield, but were still defeated.
As Tom Marigold and Penycote, two BBC journalists, wrote in their much acclaimed book, The Tunnels of Cu Chi: “The tunnels were a powerful universal testament to the strength of the human will against overwhelming odds.” And, one may add, an enduring tribute to the human in our humanity, its will-to-meaning, to integrity, to freedom.
And the tunnels in South Vietnam were not just concentrated in Cu Chi, a region 40 miles north of Saigon, but were a seemingly endless, ingeniously disguised fortifications reaching from the outskirts of the Vietnamese capital to the Cambodian border, linking hamlets, villages and various Viet Cong support lines. Some reached well into enemy territory, including the heart of well-guarded American military bases. (Since the liberation of Vietnam and the reunification of the country’s northern and southern halves, the central government has preserved the Cu Chi tunnels as part as of a war memorial theme park.)
Israel today wants to destroy Gaza’s tunnels, but it is not prepared to send its soldiers to do the job, preferring instead to do it from the air and from a distance. Israeli soldiers, of course, are not brave enough — when did they ever evince bravery in combat? — to go after Hamas guerrillas in their tunnels, face to face, in hand to hand combat. They opt for the safety of their American-supplied Apache helicopters hovering in the air above or to hide deep inside their seemingly impregnable Merkava tanks.
The duel between Palestinians and the Israeli entity in Palestine has been long and grim. It is a duel between apartheid and a native people gasping for breath as they endure unspeakable suffering, but a native people nevertheless imbued with the richness and zest of national struggle. And the terminus of such a struggle is always pre-ordained. It is determined by historical imperatives beyond anyone’s ability to deflect. Participants in the forward march of history, which is what Palestinians are today, always triumph over those propelled by the hysteria of calculated bestiality. And if what Israel is inflicting on the people of Gaza today is not calculated bestiality, then someone, somewhere along the line, has polluted, or at best subverted, our moral lexicon. And,yes, there is always a light at the end of the tunnels.