Hamas Denies Report That Gaza Tunnel-builder Is in Israeli Hands

Group says detained man is a private individual; says Israel's declaration that it discovered a tunnel was meant to 'hide the fear that has taken hold' of citizens.

IDF forces working to uncover tunnels leading from the Gaza Strip into Israel, on April 18, 2016.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Hamas has denied that a senior figure in its tunnel-construction unit gave himself up to Israel on Sunday, as was reported on websites identified with the rival Fatah organization.

The denial comes on the heels of publication of the report this week that Israel uncovered a tunnel built by Hamas and leading from the Gaza Strip into southwestern Israel, some two weeks ago.

According to Hamas, the man in question is actually a private individual who went to the Gaza border fence of his own volition and surrendered to Israel Defense Forces soldiers.

For their part, the Fatah sites reported that Sami al-Atawna, a senior member of the Hamas tunnel-digging unit in east Jabalya, fled to Israel. The reports did not say whether Israeli authorities had been able to get him to collaborate with them.

Items of this type, in which Fatah tries to hurt Hamas’ image – and vice versa – are frequently posted to websites affiliated with the two organizations. It is not always clear whether the information is reliable.

Meanwhile, Hamas’ military wing responded publicly for the first time to Israel’s discovery of the tunnel from Gaza, the first such success since 2014, saying: “What Israel uncovered is a drop in the ocean in relation to what the opposition forces have prepared for the defense and liberation of the homeland.”

The Islamist organization added that Israel announced the discovery of the tunnel due to harsh criticism of the government and the army, “in the shadow of the fear in which the residents of the area around the Gaza Strip are living.”

The report, it said, was an attempt “to hide the fear that has taken hold of the establishment and the inhabitants, and an attempt to conceal all the details and facts. The [Hamas] battalions reserve the right to publish all the details that Israel is trying to hide.”

Palestinian sources in southern Gaza reported Monday that after the recent collapse of a tunnel connecting Palestinian and Egyptian Rafah, a few of the diggers and other Hamas men were missing.

The Hamas-affiliated website Arsala said that a senior figure in the Hamas border administration had reported that the subterranean passage, used to smuggle goods from Egypt, collapsed after the Egyptian Army flooded it with sea water. The site said communication was then severed with the 21 laborers who were inside. Other sites said seven laborers were missing.

Hamas and emergency rescue services in the Strip did not officially respond to reports about the incident.

In recent weeks intensive activity by Egyptian forces has been observed in the Egyptian area of Rafah.