Senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Khaled al-Batsh said Tuesday that the attack tunnel stretching from Gaza into Israeli territory that was blown up by the IDF the previous day had been built by his group for the purpose of kidnapping Israeli soldiers.
“The purpose of the tunnel was kidnapping soldiers in order to free prisoners [from Israeli prisons],” Batsh said, speaking at a funeral in Gaza for five PIJ terrorists — including two senior commanders — and two terrorists from Hamas’s armed wing who were killed as a result of the tunnel’s destruction.
“Islamic Jihad will not allow the occupation to impose new rules of engagement on us,” he added.
The PIJ leader said his group would dig another tunnel at a later date in order to abduct soldiers to trade for prisoners in Israel.
Hamas, the terror group that controls the Gaza Strip, has kidnapped Israeli soldiers in the past in order to use them as bargaining chips for prisoner swaps. Kidnapping soldiers, the group has said, is one of its main priorities.
Most recently in 2011, Gilad Shalit was released by Hamas in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.
“The explosion took place inside Israeli territory. The majority of the dead were operatives who entered the tunnel after it was blown up and died in the Gaza Strip, and not as a [direct] result of the explosion,” said IDF spokesperson Avichay Adraee of the operation to destroy the tunnel.
“We are not interested in an escalation, but we are ready for all scenarios,” he said.
The two deceased members of Hamas’s military died in rescue efforts, the group said.
Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh threatened a violent retaliation to the destruction of the tunnel, but suggested the response would be delayed as Palestinian factions work toward reconciliation.
“I assure the leadership of [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad: blood for blood, destruction for destruction,” said Haniyeh, speaking at a Tuesday funeral for those killed in the tunnel.
“The response to this massacre is to move forward toward the restoration of national unity because the enemy knows that our strength is in our unity and no people under occupation can win if they are not united,” Haniyeh said.
Hamas’s deputy leader in Gaza, Khalil Hayya, also speaking at the funeral, stressed the terror group would wait for a strategic time to respond.
“We are a prudent resistance that knows how to manage its conflict with the enemy. [We] know how to avenge and to strike in the specific place and time that will hurt the enemy,” he said.
Hamas accused Israel of stirring up chaos in Gaza through the demolition of the tunnel in order to foil its ongoing reconciliation talks with the Fatah party, which controls parts of the West Bank.
Fatah spokesperson and vice chairman of the party’s revolutionary council Fayez Abu Eita echoed Hamas, charging that the detonation of the tunnel was aimed at disrupting the unity talks.
“This crime comes in the context of [sowing confusion] and creating tension in order to thwart Palestinian national reconciliation,” Abu Eita said in a statement carried in the official PA news outlet Wafa on Monday night.
IDF spokesman Ronen Manelis on Monday night said it was a defensive operation in Israeli territory aimed at putting the tunnel out of commission. He said most of the fatalities were from smoke inhalation and other secondary aspects of the blast. Hamas claimed the tunnel was filled with poisonous gas.
The IDF said the tunnel was discovered inside Israeli territory near the Gaza Strip and is believed to have been dug after 2014. It ran from the Gazan city of Khan Younis, crossed under the border for dozens of meters, and approached Kibbutz Kissufim.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Monday no Israelis were endangered by the tunnel. An IDF spokesperson said that while the underground passage extended under Israeli territory, there was no tunnel opening on the Israeli side, according to the Ynet news website.
Hamas is thought to be holding three Israeli civilians — Avraham Abera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed and Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima — who are all believed to have entered the Gaza Strip of their own accord. The terror group has also been holding the bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul since the two were killed in the Gaza Strip during the 2014 war there.
Repeated attempts by Israel to negotiate a prisoner swap with Hamas to free Israelis currently imprisoned in Gaza have failed.
Judah Ari Gross and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.