Defense minister: Israel destroyed tunnel near Gaza border crossing
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Defense minister: Israel destroyed tunnel near Gaza border crossing

Avigdor Liberman says recent flareups in north and south prove IDF ‘ready for any scenario, with no warning’

The head of the Southern Gaza Brigade, Col. Kobi Heller, right, and IDF Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir visit the Kerem Shalom Crossing on January 14, 2018, where an alleged Hamas attack tunnel was discovered and destroyed by the military the day before. (Israel Defense Forces)
The head of the Southern Gaza Brigade, Col. Kobi Heller, right, and IDF Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir visit the Kerem Shalom Crossing on January 14, 2018, where an alleged Hamas attack tunnel was discovered and destroyed by the military the day before. (Israel Defense Forces)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday said the Israeli military had destroyed an attack tunnel overnight near the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Israel.

“Last night, we destroyed a terror tunnel near Kerem Shalom,” said Liberman at the weekly Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting in the Knesset.

The army early on Monday said it had attacked “underground infrastructure” in the southern Gaza Strip, without elaborating, hours after a rocket was shot into southern Israel as intense cross-border fighting persisted for a third straight day.

The Palestinian Safa news site reported that heavy damage was caused by 10 airstrikes, but no injuries were reported.

In January, the army briefly shut the Kerem Shalom crossing to “neutralize” an attack tunnel extending beneath it. “The [IDF’s] Southern Command completed the neutralization of the terror tunnel dug under the crossing and thwarted the threat it posed,” the army said in a statement at the time.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at a conference of local governments in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2018. (Jorge Novominsky)

It was not immediately clear whether the underground passage referred to by Liberman was related to that infrastructure. That tunnel spread into both Israeli and Egyptian territory from the southern Gaza city of Rafah. According to the army in January, the 180-meter (590-feet) portion of the tunnel that entered Israel appeared to be designed to be used for Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers. The hundreds of meters of the tunnel that entered the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula could have been used to move fighters or smuggle goods and weapons.

The IDF on Monday declined to comment on the location of the underground infrastructure targeted in the early morning raids, and a Defense Ministry spokesperson said he “cannot elaborate beyond what the minister said.”

Liberman also urged Israelis in the north and south to go about their routine, despite stepped up cross-border tensions at both ends of the country.

The recent flareups, along both the northern and southern borders, prove that the IDF “is ready for scenario, with no warning,” he said Liberman. “You can go on with your routine.”

The IDF said the overnight Gaza raids were in response to a projectile fired at Israel earlier. The rocket, fired late Sunday, reportedly landed in an open area in the Sha’ar Hanegev region bordering the Strip. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the rocket, but Israel maintains a policy of holding Hamas, which rules Gaza, responsible.

“Hamas is responsible for anything that happens in the Strip and whatever comes out of it, both over and underground,” the army said in a statement.

Israeli troops and first responders at the Gaza border following an explosion that targeted an IDF patrol, February 17, 2018 (Hadashot news screenshot)

Israel has been working to thwart tunnels being dug by Hamas and other group under the Strip, some of which cross into Israeli territory and are thought to be planned for use in future attacks. The Defense Ministry is at work on an underground barrier that it says will stop the tunnels from crossing into Israel.

Fighting with Gaza ramped up over the weekend after four soldiers were injured by an explosive device attached to a flag on the border. Later Saturday, a house in the community of Sha’ar Hanegev sustained damage from a rocket fired from Gaza. No injuries were reported.

Israel responded by targeting 18 sites in Gaza, including Hamas posts and one target that the army said was managed by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, thought behind the IED. The targets included observation posts, an attack tunnel and Hamas weapons factories, the army said. Two Palestinians were killed, according to the Hamas-run Gazan health ministry.

Hamas has used tunnels in the past to infiltrate Israeli territory and carry out attacks, including shootings and the kidnapping of an IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was released after five years in captivity in exchange for about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

In December, the army said it destroyed a kilometer-long tunnel that was constructed by the Hamas terrorist group. It began in the Gazan city of Khan Younis and extended “hundreds of meters” inside Israeli territory. It was the second such tunnel security forces had destroyed in six weeks.

Liberman’s comments on Monday about the northern border were in reference to a recent confrontation between Israel, Iran, and the Assad regime on the northern border over a week ago.

On February 10, an Iranian drone, which entered northern Israel from Syria near the Jordan border, was shot down by an Israeli attack helicopter. In response to the drone incursion, Israeli jets attacked the mobile command center from which it was operated, the army said last week.

During the reprisal raid, one of the eight Israeli F-16 fighter jets that took part in the operation was hit by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile and crashed. The Israeli Air Force then conducted a second round of airstrikes, destroying between a third and half of Syria’s air defenses, according to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus.

Joshua Davidovich contributed to this report.

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