Despite tunnel bluster, Hamas insists it doesn’t want war

Senior official in terror organization dismisses recent statements lauding new attack tunnels, says calming message sent to Jerusalem via diplomatic backchannels

Hamas fighters attend a funeral procession in Gaza City on January 29, 2016, for seven members of the terror group killed when an attack tunnel into Israel collapsed. (AFP/Mohammed Abed)
Hamas fighters attend a funeral procession in Gaza City on January 29, 2016, for seven members of the terror group killed when an attack tunnel into Israel collapsed. (AFP/Mohammed Abed)

Hamas does not want war and is committed to maintaining the fragile ceasefire with Israel, a senior Hamas official told The Times of Israel, seeking to dial back rising tensions over reports of tunnel building in the Gaza Strip.

Despite Hamas’s recent pronouncements that its tunnels reach into Israeli territory and it is working to launch “high-quality” terror attacks against Israelis from the West Bank, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity: “Our stance is clear: we don’t want an escalation [of violence] and we don’t want war.”

“We have no intention at this time or in the future to begin a war, and from our perspective that option is not on the table,” the official said, urging Israel to respond with restraint to the recent Hamas rhetoric.

The official said Hamas had sent the same calming message to Israel through Turkish and Qatari mediators.

Officials from the terror group have also asked UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nikolay Mladenov to deliver the organization’s message to Israeli leaders.

“We told all those parties, in the clearest possible way: we’re not interested in war. We’re interested in tahdiya [temporary calm] and quiet,” the official said.

Asked about the recent comments by the deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau and former Gaza-based prime minister Ismail Haniyeh that tunnels were being dug and new rockets tested, the senior official said these comments were made in the context of a funeral for seven members of Hamas’s military arm, and did not reflect the group’s immediate intentions.

“Haniyeh has also said more than once that he isn’t interested in an escalation in violence,” he said.

The official noted that Hamas has demonstrated it can prevent attacks on Israel from its soil, evidenced by the relatively small number of rockets launched from the Gaza Strip.

“It’s true that there is [rocket] fire occasionally, but it’s very limited, and in general we have control over the situation,” the official said.

The organization was “worried,” he confirmed, “about Israel’s intentions, and our feeling is that things can change at a moment’s notice in the current reality vis-à-vis Israel, because [Israel’s] view [of the situation] is liable to change at any time.”

“We’re saying in the most explicit way possible, we’re preparing and ready to defend ourselves, we have the ability to continue fighting, should fighting begin, and we will show determination. If Israel is planning to take steps against the Gaza Strip, this will carry a heavy price.”

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to hit Gaza harder than during the 2014 war with Gaza-based fighters, amid mounting public pressure over reports of increased tunnel building out of Gaza.

“In the event we are attacked from tunnels in the Gaza Strip, we will act very forcefully against Hamas, and with much more force than Operation Protective Edge,” Netanyahu told a conference of Israeli diplomats, referring to the 50-day war in the Gaza Strip in 2014.

IDF officials and southern residents have expressed concern in recent days that Hamas is rebuilding the subterranean passages, used for attacking Israel, which were destroyed during the 2014 war. Some residents have reported hearing digging sounds, but IDF checks have turned up no actual tunnels.

Still, Hamas officials have hinted that tunnel building is moving forward.

On Wednesday, senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar said the group’s attack tunnels already reach into Israeli territory.

“The tunnels reach deep into the territory occupied in 1948,” said the Hamas official during the funeral for one of the fighters. “They reach beyond Gaza.”

Later, however, al-Zahar toned down the rhetoric, and seemed to deny his earlier statements.

“The resistance tunnels are defensive tunnels for the protection of our people in the face of any Israeli aggression,” he said.

The last week has seen at least three separate tunnel collapses in the Gaza Strip, according to Palestinian reports, killing several diggers.

On Wednesday, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, refused to say whether Israel was involved in the cave ins.

“God only knows,” he said when asked about it by the Palestinian Ma’an news agency.

On Friday, Hamas leader Haniyeh told an audience of thousands in Gaza that Hamas “heroes” were tirelessly digging tunnels designed for use in attacks on Israel, as the group buried seven excavators killed last week when the tunnel they were working on collapsed due to heavy rains and floods.

“Some believe that the calm, when the noise of the cannons fall silent, is intended for rest. But the [Izz ad-Din] al-Qassam Brigades continue with their campaign through preparation and training,” said Haniyeh, referring to the Hamas military wing. The resistance, he said, is permanently in a state of continuous preparation.

“East of Gaza City, heroes are digging through rock and building tunnels, and to the west they are experimenting with rockets every day. The resistance continues on its path of liberation of the land,” Haniyeh said during the funerals at the Great Omari Mosque in Gaza City.

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