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Palestinian militants' advantage in Gaza?

The key there is a system of trap-doors and tunnels.

By Don Duncan / March 20, 2009

Nahr alBared, Lebanon

The humanitarian focus in Gaza will soon begin to shift, thanks to the more than $4 billion in pledges that were made by international donors at the Sharm el-Sheik conference this month.

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Among the emergency relief workers, the humanitarian workers, and medics flooding the strip, there will be some unexpected people trawling through the rubble before reconstruction starts.

A small army of architects and urban planners working with the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, are poised to make a bee-line to the half-standing buildings that remain in the strip. In the broken remnants of Gaza, they say, lie the clues as to what shape Israeli military practice is likely to take in the future.

One of the few tactical advantages Palestinian militants have in the face of Israel's military might is an intimate knowledge and command of their own architecture and urban space. The maze-like streets, alleys, and thickly packed, high-rise buildings of the Palestinian refugee camps have played to the favor of militants in the camps in times of conflict.

This was made clear most recently in in 2007, when a small group of Islamic militants infiltrated the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon and used it as a base. Holed up there, the militants manipulated the architecture to their military advantage, much as Palestinian militants traditionally have. The Lebanese military was unable to negotiate the camp and it took more than three months of heavy shelling to topple the militant group that was estimated to number under 1,000.

"The [Palestinian] camp is an urban neighborhood but it is also a single building – it is contiguous," says Eyal Weizman, an Israeli architect, academic, and author of "Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation." He goes on to say, "This contiguity of the structure allows a certain movement across it that is not possible in other urban environments."

When under attack, many Palestinian camps across the Middle East can deploy a system of trap doors, hallways, rooftops, and holes through walls, connecting apartments and buildings. The camp's militants use this system to command full control of the camp from the inside, and advantage over the aggressor outside.

When the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) infiltrated the Palestinian refugee camp at Jenin in the West Bank in 2002 by breaking through walls and proceeding to dominate the camp internally, it was clear it had been taking notes.