Israel doesn’t seek to use Hamas’ declaration that it’s digging attack tunnels from Gaza into Israel as a pretext to launch a new military operation in the Strip or against the group, say senior Israeli security officials.
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The past few days has seen an escalation in the round of statements between Israeli leaders and senior Hamas officials regarding the tunnels. Last Friday, at the funeral for seven members of the Hamas military wing who died when a tunnel collapsed east of Gaza, Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said the organization is digging tunnels as part of its preparations for a future conflict with Israel.
Haniyeh added that the tunnels are for “the defense of the Palestinian people and the liberation of the holy places.”
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that “if we’re attacked by tunnels in the Gaza Strip, we’ll act very forcefully against Hamas, and with much greater force than was used even during Operation Protective Edge. I hope that won’t be necessary, but our capabilities – both defensive and offensive – are developing quickly and I would not suggest anyone test them.”
Reports on the rebuilding of Hamas’ network of tunnels aroused great concern in Israeli communities along the border with Gaza, as well as fierce criticism by opposition parties.
MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union) said the government should launch an attack on the tunnels and not wait until Hamas used them to attack Israel first. His leader, Zionist Union chairman MK Isaac Herzog, went even further, calling on the government “to stop hesitating and instruct the Israel Defense Forces to bomb the tunnels and destroy this threat.”
Now, though, it appears the security establishment wants to calm things down a little. Security officials confirm that great efforts are being made to find attack tunnels leading from the Gaza Strip into Israel. However, senior officials say that Israel doesn’t want another military confrontation against Hamas – and that it will act only if it sees that Hamas is acting against Israel.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon mentioned Monday, in an interview on Israel Radio, that since the last war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, Hamas has “not fired a single rocket, nor even a single bullet” from the Gaza Strip into Israel. He noted that the few rockets that have been fired were by smaller Palestinian factions.
Israel is concerned by the possibility that this continuous stream of statements could lead to a miscalculation on Hamas’ part: the organization could suspect that Israel is about to attack and, therefore, strikes preemptively to maintain its own element of surprise. In this context, security officials are calling on Knesset members to act responsibly and not issue provocative statements that could mistakenly convey to Hamas that Israel is looking for an excuse to start a new round of fighting.
A representative from the Defense Ministry told members of the State Control Committee this week that it would be some time before technological means to locate tunnels were in place, and that budget talks for such systems were still underway.
The Defense Ministry previously said that the required upgrade of the Gaza Strip border fence, which would include a solution for the tunnels threat, would cost about 2.8 billion shekels ($708 million). Such funding has not been earmarked in the defense budget for the coming years.
The IDF says that any claims of residents from Gaza border communities about noises raising suspicions that tunnels are being dug are thoroughly investigated. It seems some of the residents’ fears stem from the charged atmosphere in the settlements following the 2014 fighting in Gaza.
A claim was even heard of digging sounds being heard in a moshav 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the border. This was checked and found to be baseless.
For the first time since the current terror wave began in the West Bank four months ago, the IDF took the unusual step Monday of imposing a closure on the city of Ramallah. Security officials said this was done for operational reasons, but it seems Israel was also sending a message to the Palestinian Authority. This came after an officer in the PA security services shot and wounded three IDF soldiers on Sunday, at a checkpoint north of Ramallah.
The closure created severe traffic jams in Ramallah all day long, and thousands of Palestinian drivers waited for hours on the roads in and out of the West Bank’s biggest city.
Late last night, it was decided to lift the closures in both Ramallah and the village of Beit Ur al-Tahta, starting this morning. Monday's Ramallah closure was not maintained strictly at all checkpoints, and Palestinian residents said it was clear the IDF soldiers themselves weren’t certain what they should be doing.
Beit Ur al-Tahta, west of Ramallah, had been closed off for about a week. This followed the involvement of a resident in the attack that killed Shlomit Krigman in the nearby settlement of Beit Horon on January 25.