Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon have rejected a call by Education Minister Naftali Bennett for a preemptive Israeli move to destroy Hamas’s tunnel network in Gaza, Channel 2 said Monday.
Bennett, the head of the right-wing Jewish Home party and a member of the key decision-making security cabinet, said during a discussion in that forum several weeks ago that Israel should take action against the tunnels before the terror group launches another offensive.
Bennett’s office declined to comment on the report, Channel 2 stated.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office on Monday did not confirm or deny that a discussion on the matter took place, but contained a hint of criticism that the matter was leaked — and insinuated that the leak came from Bennett’s staff. “We do not want to comment on cabinet discussions in general and on operative plans by the IDF in particular. All ministers should act responsibly and not try to gain votes with superficial political briefings, which do not reflect the serious, responsible discussions taking place in the cabinet,” the statement said.
Numerous reports in recent days have indicated that Hamas has reestablished much of its cross-border terror tunnel infrastructure, destroyed by the Israel Defense Forces in the 2014 war. Hamas leaders, who have seen several operatives killed in a series of tunnel collapses in the past month, have bragged that several tunnels now reach into Israel. Israeli residents living close to Gaza have reported hearing digging noises, and the IDF has sent heavy machinery to the border area to search for tunnels.
Last week, IDF Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, refused to say whether Israel was involved in the tunnel collapses when asked about this by the Palestinian Ma’an news agency. “God knows,” he answered. “I would suggest to the residents of the Gaza Strip not to occupy themselves with the tunnels and to get away from them, especially after seeing the results in recent days,” he added.
The views of Ya’alon and Netanyahu on the question of whether to target the tunnels now could easily be gleaned from their public statements of the past few weeks, Channel 2 analyst Udi Segal noted Monday.
In an interview with Israel Radio on February 1, the defense minister said: “I think the tunnel threat is well known to us — no one thought they would stop digging or stop arming themselves.” He said that since the end of Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, the army had been “investing greatly in capabilities that remain secret, in both defense and offense.”
Two weeks ago, Ya’alon ridiculed a similar proposal made by opposition leader and Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog. Ya’alon said at the time that Israel was not planning to initiate a violent confrontation with Hamas, just as it was not planning to initiate an operation to destroy Hezbollah’s arsenal of missiles or Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Bennett has a history of trying to outflank the government on security issues, even though he is a member of the key ministerial forum. Throughout the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict, he urged harsher action against Gaza’s terrorist rulers.
Three weeks ago, Bennett told a conference held by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv that “the main threat to Israel’s security comes not from the north or south, not from the rockets of Hamas and Hezbollah, and not even from Iran. Nor is diplomatic deadlock our main threat, but a deadlock in our thinking.”
A source close to Netanyahu slammed his comments at the time, saying: “It seems there are those who still don’t understand the difference between being a minister in the cabinet and an Internet commenter in the opposition.”
“While the IDF, police and Shin Bet are battling terror every day and in every place, cabinet members are expected to take responsibility and contribute to the shared effort — instead of begging for votes by floating slogans and populistic attacks against a government they themselves sit in,” the source added.
Times of Israel analyst Avi Issacharoff noted at the weekend, in an article assessing Hamas capabilities and intentions: “The prevailing assumption in Gaza and Israel alike is that Hamas does not want an escalation of conflict at present. Still, before the summer 2014 war, there were those in the Hamas military wing who pushed for a ‘preemptive strike’ via the tunnels; the leadership abroad, headed by Khaled Mashaal, stopped them. Mashaal and his colleagues probably lack the authority nowadays to stop the military wing, which has Muhammad Deif at the helm together with Yahya Sinwar, the meteor in Hamas’s skies.”