Five additional Islamic Jihad men were declared dead from a recent IDF strike on a tunnel the militants were building to cross into Israel, Islamic Jihad's miltiary arm announced Friday.
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This brings the number of those killed in the tunnel collapse to 12. Thirteen men were also injured when the tunnel caved in on their men, Al Aqsa Brigades said in their statement.
The five were members of two of Islamic Jihad's elite military forces, the logistics unit and the tunneling unit. Among the others whose deaths were already announced was a commander and his deputy.
“We announce that the brigades have lost five more heroic fighters who worked for years digging freedom tunnels as part of a massive effort,” the statement said. “The five men fell as a result of the criminal strike on Monday evening this week, and they joined the soil that has previously embraced dozens of the dead, their fathers and grandfathers, who fought for the freedom of the Palestinian people,” the statement said.
The statement said the Israeli strike would not impact their ongoing struggle against Israel, including tunneling which is intended to which they consider a deterrent strategy and key to the release of Palestinian prisoners.
An Islamic Jihad operative in Gaza told Haaretz that the statement was released before the five bodies were found. They did this, he said to send an explicit message to Israel that they reject Israeli attempts to broker a deal in which Palestinian search and rescue teams would be allowed to approach the border fence in exchange for the release of information about the bodies of missing Israeli soldiers being held in the Gaza Strip.
A senior Islamic Jihad official, Khaled al-Batash, said last week in interviews with Gaza media outlets and the tunnel that was attacked was intended for operational action to gain the release of Palestinian prisoners, and hinted that the plan was to abduct Israeli civilians or soldiers, with the likely goal of using them as a bargaining chip to win the release of their men behind held in Israel.
According to search and rescue officials in Gaza, some of the injured and dead are senior Islamic Jihad commanders who arrived at the scene shortly after the strike to help extricate their comrades. According to them, they were killed in the second wave of the IDF strike.
But the Israeli army has said that the Palestinians were not killed intentionally by the IDF, but rather from smoke inhalation when they tried to enter the tunnel to recuse those stranded inside.
Islamic Jihad has said they were reserving the right to strike back in revenge, but the IDF has said it was not interested in an escalation along its southern border with Gaza.
Israel is not alone in hoping to avoid a new flare—up on a border that has been mostly quiet since the 2014 Gaza War between Israel and Hamas.
Egypt too is concerend a new wave of violence would destroy the reconcilliation agreement reached between Hamas and Fatah to form a Palestinian unity government after ten years of de—facto cold war between the rival Palsetinian factions.