Israeli jets destroy tunnel near Egypt-Gaza border


GAZA: The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said on Sunday it had destroyed a border-crossing Hamas attack tunnel – the third in recent months – that penetrated hundreds of meters into both Israeli and Egyptian territory from the Gaza Strip, in an airstrike on Saturday night.

Israel National News reported that IDF’s spokesperson Ronen Manelis says that the tunnel was located several days ago.

Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman said in a statement, last night, Israel military carried out an operation over a violation of Israeli sovereignty. “The demolition of the attack tunnel system is an important factor in the policy of systematically harming Hamas’ strategic ability, he added.

“We understand this tunnel belongs to Hamas,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told reporters early Sunday morning, saying the military believed the terror group saw it as a “significant asset.”

Residents in Gaza said Israeli jets bombed an area east of the southern town of Rafah, by the Egyptian and Israeli borders, late on Saturday night. Israel confirmed the attack immediately after but gave no details until Sunday.

The tunnel, which was constructed in Gaza, began in the city of Rafah and crossed into Israel under the Kerem Shalom Crossing, through which hundreds of trucks ordinarily cross into the coastal enclave each day, he added.

Conricus further claimed that the assessment came from the fact that the tunnel ran underneath the Gaza crossing, which was kept closed on Sunday, as well as below the gas and diesel pipelines into the Strip and a nearby IDF post.

“This is a severe breach of Israel’s sovereignty, a serious threat to Israeli civilians and a threat to the humanitarian efforts that Israel allows for the people in the Gaza Strip,” the military said in a statement.

Hamas did not comment.

Conricus said the tunnel destroyed Saturday was dug by key operatives of Hamas and was 1.5 km long (about one mile), penetrating 180 kilometres under the Kerem Shalom border crossing into Israel and into Egypt.

“It is definitely a possibility that an attack was imminent,” Conricus said, but would not elaborate further.

Kerem Shalom, the main passage point for goods entering Gaza, was shut down on Saturday, before the Israeli attack.

Escalation could easily occur, even though both sides have signalled they do not want that to happen.

During the last Gaza war, in 2014, Hamas fighters used dozens of tunnels to blindside Israel’s superior forces and threaten civilian communities near the frontier.

The Israeli military said it has destroyed three such tunnels in the past two months, but that it was not seeking escalation.

According to the Times of Israel, over the past year, the army has been constructing an underground barrier around the Gaza Strip that is meant to block attempts to dig into Israel. Meanwhile, the military officials have noted that more tunnels will likely be destroyed in coming months as the barrier nears completion, TOI added.

Official Palestinian media said that “infrastructure” was farmland in the southern Gaza Strip, prompting many to assume that it was, in fact, a tunnel beneath the field, though not necessarily one that crossed into Israeli territory.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the tunnel was a “major terrorist infrastructure belonging to Hamas in the Gaza Strip”. “Hamas must understand that we will not allow these attacks to continue and that we will respond with even greater force,” he told reporters before boarding a flight to India.

The army also denied the claim made by Hamas late Saturday night that the Israeli jets had targeted a smuggling tunnel between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, TOI reported.

In addition, they said Israel has been constructing a sensor-equipped underground wall along the 60-km (36-mile) Gaza border, aiming to complete the $1.1 billion project by mid-2019.

Media asked if the tunnel could have functioned as both a smuggling and attack tunnel, the army spokesperson responded, “It could have, but we deal with the infrastructure.”

Conricus said as the tunnel entered Egyptian territory; the army was in contact with Cairo about its destruction but would not elaborate on the extent of the cooperation.

The strike came shortly after the military announced it would not be opening the Kerem Shalom Crossing into the Gaza Strip on Sunday, following a “situational assessment.”

It is the second time Kerem Shalom has been closed in under a month.

Israel shut down the crossing on December 14 following multiple rockets and mortar attacks from Gaza, along with Erez Crossing, through which people enter and exit the Strip. Erez reopened a day later, and Kerem Shalom was reopened on December 17.

On Friday, approximately 1,000 Palestinians took part in violent demonstrations in four separate locations along the security fence surrounding Gaza, rolling burning tires and throwing rocks at the barrier and the soldiers on the other side, according to the Israel Defense Forces.