I often walk my dog along the dusty paths of Khirbet Madras in the Judean foothills, just south of Beit Shemesh in central Israel. Occasionally, after the rains, an ancient coin—Hasmonean, Roman, Byzantine—will surface, testifying that here stood a small Jewish and then Byzantine town. Archeologists have uncovered the remains of a synagogue and a church. At the center of the ruins are entrances to an underground cave complex, which the Jews had hewn out of the rock 2,000 years ago.
Archaeologists say there are some 450 such cave systems in Israel/Palestine, 350 of them in the Judean hill country, especially in the foothills, at 1,000 to 1,600 feet above sea level, where the rock is soft and easily excavated. During the two Jewish revolts against Rome, in 66-73 and 132-135 A.D., which ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and in much of the population's exile, the Jews used these cave systems to hide from the ravaging Roman legions and, guerrilla style, to attack them from behind.
Dio Cassius, the Roman historian who died in 235, described the second Jewish revolt: "To be sure [the Jews] did not dare try conclusions with the Romans in the open field, but they occupied the advantageous positions in the country and strengthened them with mines and walls, in order that they might have places of refuge whenever they should be hard pressed, and might meet together unobserved under ground; and they pierced these subterranean passages from above at intervals to let in air and light."
There is an eerie parallel here, in terms of modus operandi, with the Hamas battle against the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip in recent weeks. Hamas fighters slipped in and out of concrete tunnel-and-shaft networks, in front of and behind the more or less static Israeli troop concentrations, picking off a soldier here or an armored personnel carrier there, and vanishing quickly underground, only to pop up a few hours later from a new shaft hundreds of yards away.
The tunnels, some extending well into Israel, proved to be effective for substantially harrying the Israel Defense Forces before a ceasefire was agreed on this week and the IDF withdrew from Gaza. Using the tunnels—and armed, by Iran and Syria, with antitank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, explosive devices, mortars, and Kalashnikov assault rifles—the Hamas fighters battled with great courage, and no little Islamist religious fervor, against the much more numerous and powerful Israeli troops.
The Hamas fighters had a major advantage over the Jewish guerrillas of 2,000 years ago: The use of Gaza's civilian population as a vast human shield. And when the IDF, deploying bombs and shells to keep down its casualties, tried to break through the shield, Hamas used the inevitable civilian casualties to splatter TV screens in the West, with great political and propaganda effect.
But there is another significant difference between Hamas and the Jewish rebels. Those long-ago Jews sought to free themselves from the yoke of an all-powerful imperial oppressor; they never aimed at destroying Rome. All they wanted was to be left alone, to be free and to worship their own god as they saw fit. Hamas and their allies in the Palestinian camp seek, as a first stage, liberation from foreign rule or constriction and, as a second stage, to destroy their neighbor, Israel. They also look to the eventual world-wide victory of Islam over infidels.
Hamas's constitution, or charter, written in 1988 and never since rescinded or amended, says: "Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it" (the reference is to the medieval Crusader states). Hamas defines its struggle as "against the Jews," who are "smitten with vileness wheresoever they are found." According to the charter, the prophet Mohammed said: "The Day of Judgment will not come until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say 'O Moslems, O Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.' "
The Israel Defense Forces say that they destroyed 32 Hamas tunnels before the troop withdrawal this week, but they have no way of knowing whether others remain undetected. And Hamas is still in place in Gaza, free to resume its work.