Days after a clash on the Gaza border left five IDF soldiers wounded, Israel’s top defense official warned that continued violence from the Strip would bring an aggressive Israeli response.
“Hamas has been deterred and therefore maintains the quiet, but is preparing itself for a renewal of violence,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said on Sunday morning while visiting soldiers who were wounded late Thursday in an explosion on the Gaza border.
The IDF Combat Engineering Corps soldiers were wounded late Thursday, one seriously and another moderately, after an IDF operation to destroy part of a tunnel, east of Khan Younis just inside the Gaza Strip, was targeted by Hamas using an explosive device.
The device detonated as the soldiers were working on the tunnel, which was dug by Hamas and stretched from Gazan territory into Israeli towns.
Four members of Hamas’s armed wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, were killed in the clash, including three of the Islamist group’s tunnel and rocket experts, an Israeli military source said.
Israel allowed Hamas to collect the bodies of two of its gunmen from the tunnel over the weekend. According to reports in the Arabic-language press cited by Channel 2 News, Israel — working through an Egyptian mediator — coordinated with Palestinian sources to have the bodies of two Hamas men recovered.
Israeli officials did not confirm the report.
The wounded IDF soldiers were hospitalized in Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center, where Ya’alon was visiting them Sunday.
“Tunnels are a matter for concern, but the IDF knows how to deal with it,” Ya’alon said. “Quiet will bring quiet,” he promised, “but provocation will bring a suitable response.”
Ya’alon also told an Israel Radio reporter Sunday morning that the apparent uptick in violence from Gaza was not connected to the restart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
One of the soldiers is recovering from burns all over his body. Doctors said Sunday they were also fighting to save the eyesight of the officer who commanded the tunnel operation.
The IDF had braced for the possibility of soldiers being targeted in the operation to destroy the tunnel, including possible kidnap attempts, the military source said. The explosive device, planted by Hamas in the weeks since the tunnel was first detected and uncovered by the IDF, may have been detonated by a drill used in the operation, the source added.
The IDF’s Southern Command chief, Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, who had visited the wounded soldiers on Friday, said the tunnel dug under the border was a terrorist initiative, and that Israeli troops had crossed a short distance into Gaza to eliminate the threat it posed.
The soldiers were wounded within 100 meters of the Kissufim checkpoint between Israel and the Strip, on the Gazan side.
The tunnel — 18 meters underground, 1.7 km long and particularly wide, according to officials – started in Abbasan al-Saghira, a farming village near Khan Younis, and terminated inside Israel, about three kilometers from Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, in the western Negev.
Hamas has ruled Gaza since it forcibly expelled the Palestinian Authority in violent skirmishes in 2006.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.