Liberman: Hamas has ‘far fewer’ than 15 tunnels into Israel
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Liberman: Hamas has ‘far fewer’ than 15 tunnels into Israel

Defense minister's comments contradict February report on extent of Gaza-based terror group's cross-border network

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman visits the Tel Hashomer IDF base, where he spoke to new army recruits, on March 19, 2017. (Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman visits the Tel Hashomer IDF base, where he spoke to new army recruits, on March 19, 2017. (Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Sunday dismissed a recent report saying there are 15 Hamas attack tunnels reaching into Israel from the Gaza Strip.

“There are not 15 tunnels that cross into Israel,” he said in a Q&A session on Facebook Live. “If there are any tunnels at all, there are far, far fewer.”

Liberman’s comments contradicted a February report by Channel 2, which quoted unnamed sources in the high-level security cabinet as saying that Hamas, the Gaza-based terror group, has at least 15 tunnels that extend into Israeli territory.

The report came just days before the release of the State Comptroller report on the 2014 Gaza war, which was highly critical of the army’s failures to prepare adequately for the threat of Hamas tunnels, and also chastised the political leadership for improperly managing the war effort.

IDF infantrymen congregating around a tunnel entrance in Gaza, July 24, 2014. (Courtesy IDF Flickr)
IDF infantrymen congregating around a tunnel entrance in Gaza, July 24, 2014. (Courtesy IDF Flickr)

Israel’s 50-day campaign against Hamas in Gaza, known in Israel as Operative Protective Edge, began as a predominantly aerial campaign in response to repeated rocket attacks from the Strip, similar to the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense. But after Hamas made use of its tunnel network to carry out attacks inside Israel, the focus shifted to tackling the subterranean threat.

Although some 34 tunnels were destroyed during the campaign, Hamas has reportedly invested considerable resources rehabilitating its network of attack tunnels over the past few years. The IDF has also sought to improve its ability to counter the threat since the 2014 conflict.

Last week, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said that while the tunnels were a serious concern, they were not a “strategic or existential threat.”

Eisenkot also confirmed for the first time that Israel was destroying the tunnel system running under the Strip using bombs fired from the air.

“Every missile or shell fired was at a valuable target, at underground targets,” he said. “We have developed a capability that allows us to strike them.”

Liberman said Sunday that since he became defense minister in June 2016, “there is a completely different policy toward Hamas and the Gaza Strip,” although he did not elaborate on how Israel’s approach to the enclave had changed.

Some analysts have pointed to a so-called “Liberman doctrine” in Israeli forces stepping up retaliatory sorties against the Strip following rocket attacks.

Yahya Sinwar (R) the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and senior Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh attend the funeral of Hamas official Mazen Faqha in Gaza city on March 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)
Yahya Sinwar (R) the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and senior Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh attend the funeral of Hamas official Mazen Faqha in Gaza city on March 25, 2017. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

The comment also came two days after senior Hamas terrorist Mazen Faqha was mysteriously assassinated near his home in Gaza. Hamas has blamed Israel, but Jerusalem has not claimed responsibility.

Asked about senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh — whom he once promised to kill within 48 hours upon becoming defense minister — Liberman said that “the wise thing is to act responsibly.

“Speak with me about Haniyeh at the end of my tenure as defense minister,” he said.

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