Israel said weighing barrier to block IS tunnels from Sinai
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Israel said weighing barrier to block IS tunnels from Sinai

IDF reportedly considers extending underground wall being built around Gaza Strip to avert jihadist threat from peninsula

This February 10, 2016, file photo shows IDF soldiers keeping watch as a machine drills holes in the ground on the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip as they search for tunnels used by Palestinian terrorists planning to attack Israel. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)
This February 10, 2016, file photo shows IDF soldiers keeping watch as a machine drills holes in the ground on the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip as they search for tunnels used by Palestinian terrorists planning to attack Israel. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

Israel is reportedly considering building an underground barrier along its Egyptian border to prevent the Islamic State terror group in Sinai from digging cross-border attack tunnels into Israel.

The army is weighing up whether to extend the barrier currently being constructed around the Gaza Strip southward to protect the Israeli towns in the Eshkol region, the Ynet news website reported on Friday.

Despite having focused the vast majority of its efforts on waging a bloody insurgency against the Egyptian army in recent years, IS in Sinai has long used saber-rattling and small scale attacks against Israel to boost its credentials. Jihadists have fired rockets at Israel, and in February the Egyptian army destroyed six tunnels which ran between Gaza and Sinai.

“We constantly warn of our concern from the growing threat on the Egyptian border at every opportunity,” said Eshkol Regional Council head Gadi Yarkoni. “Therefore this process is essential and necessary to guarantee maximum security for the exposed residents affected by the war going on in Egypt. The threat of tunnels is a strategic threat to the area and therefore to the entire State of Israel.”

The cost of the barrier currently being constructed around the Gaza Strip is NIS 3.4 billion ($940 million) and it is expected to be completed within a year and a half.

An Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula holds Egyptian Coptic Christians hostage. (Screen capture/YouTube)
An Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula holds Egyptian Coptic Christians hostage. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Under the new plan, the subterranean barrier would initially be extended one kilometer to the south of the Gaza Strip, with the possibility of ultimately building a three-kilometer underground wall along the border, the report said.

The total length of the border between Israel and Sinai is 245 kilometers (152 miles) and is protected by a fence which was completed in 2013.

In February, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman brushed off the threat from Sinai following rocket attacks from the peninsula. He said that while IS in Sinai is “annoying” and “hindering,” it does not possess the means to pose a serious threat to Israel’s security.

“If you are talking about Hamas and Hezbollah then [IS’s Sinai force] is not even a terror group,” he told Army Radio, describing the group’s capabilities as “random [amateurs] who decide to build themselves an army.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 11, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 11, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

The Sinai-based group was formerly known as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis — meaning “Supporters of Jerusalem” — before switching its allegiance from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State in 2014 and changing its name to Sinai Province, highlighting the importance the terror group places on railing against Israel as part of its propaganda efforts.

Last September, a senior Israeli Southern Command official said that the structure around the Strip is to include a wall deep below the ground as well as a fence above ground. Some parts of the roughly 60-kilometer (40-mile) border will also be flooded.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity under military briefing regulations, said the goal is to turn the underground network into a “death trap” for Hamas.

During the 2014 war in the Strip, Hamas terrorists managed on several occasions to make their way into Israel through a tunnel network.

Israel destroyed some 32 tunnels during that conflict. The official said the military is investing great efforts to stop the threat.

In 2016, the IDF uncovered two tunnels that crossed into Israeli territory from Gaza, the first such discoveries since the end of the 2014 conflict.

Alexander Fulbright contributed to this report.

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