Hamas announces live-fire military exercise in Gaza amid heightened tensions

Hamas announces live-fire military exercise in Gaza amid heightened tensions

Terror group says gunshots, explosions will be heard throughout Sunday’s ‘defensive’ drill; Israeli army boosting troops ahead of planned mass protests on Passover Eve

A member of Hamas's armed wing during a funeral of in the central Gaza Strip on March 22, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)
A member of Hamas's armed wing during a funeral of in the central Gaza Strip on March 22, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

Hamas on Saturday said it would hold a pre-planned military exercise in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, as Israel boosts its forces along the border ahead of a planned mass march on Passover eve.

The terror organization said explosions and sounds of gunfire were expected to be heard during the drill.

The group’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, stressed that the exercise was “defensive” only.

Hadashot news reported Saturday that the Israeli military was completing preparations for a planned Palestinian “day of rage” on Passover Eve this coming Friday, when thousands of Palestinians in the Strip are expected to try to storm fences marking the borders with Israel.

Palestinian youngsters hide and hold flags as they demonstrate near Khan Yunis by the border fence between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip, on March 16, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

The coming days will see a significant boost in forces situated along the Gaza border. The cabinet will focus on the expected protests during its weekly meeting Sunday.

The TV report said the IDF has briefed local council heads adjacent to Gaza ahead of the anticipated tensions in the coming days.

On Passover Eve, March 30, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs throughout Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza will mark Land Day, commemorating an Israeli decision in 1976 to expropriate land in the Galilee — a move that sparked widespread riots that resulted in the death of six Arab Israeli citizens.

Palestinian groups are planning a “Mass March of Return,” which they hope will see tens of thousands of participants surging toward border fences.

The military is said to be seeking to strike a balance between preventing anyone from breaching the fences while also averting fatalities, to prevent escalation.

Tensions between Israel and terror groups in the Palestinian enclave have risen in recent weeks after a number of bombs exploded near IDF patrols along the border, sparking reprisal attacks.

Last Sunday Israel destroyed two tunnels in Gaza. Hamas claimed Israel had merely struck an old tunnel that hadn’t been used for years.

According to IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus, the cross-border passage destroyed Sunday was an “old tunnel” that was built before the 2014 Gaza war and partially destroyed during the conflict. He said Hamas was trying to “revive” the passage by connecting an intact portion that penetrated Israeli territory to a new tunnel.

The other target, which was destroyed by Israeli fighter jets around midnight on Saturday, was a “subterranean complex” in the central Gaza Strip, according to Conricus.

A Palestinian man checks the site of an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on March 18, 2018. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Earlier Sunday, Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum responded to the IDF strikes in Gaza by blaming Israel for the escalation of tensions.

“If the Israeli enemy thinks this escalation will break the will of the Palestinian people and achieve its goals, it is deluding itself and misunderstanding our people’s nature.”

Additionally, he said, Israel would “bear the consequences for the continued escalation and loss of life.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the international community that its aid money to the Gaza Strip was being used by terror groups to build tunnels for attacking Israel.

“It is time for the international community to recognize that the Gaza aid money is being buried underground,” he added, addressing recent attempts at the UN to raise funds for Gaza, which is facing a severe humanitarian crisis.

The comment came as donor countries and others have worked to raise money for the beleaguered Strip, which UN officials say is facing a crippling shortage of clean water among other ills.

“Our policy is to take determined action against any attempt to harm us and to systematically eliminate the terror tunnel infrastructure, and we shall continue to do so,” Netanyahu said.

Since October 30, Israel has destroyed four border-crossing tunnels that entered Israeli territory from Gaza, three of them belonging to Hamas and the fourth to the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group. In addition, several tunnels  located inside the coastal enclave have also been targeted using a newly developed system that allows Israel to hit them from the air.

Israeli officials have for years warned that Hamas and other groups were trying to rebuild the tunnel infrastructure, which were used extensively during the 2014 war in attacks on soldiers. Israelis fear the tunnels could be used to carry out attacks on communities or army posts near the border.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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