Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah on Monday accused Israel of trying to foil ongoing unity efforts between them after the Israeli army blew up an attack tunnel stretching from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, killing at least seven people inside.
The IDF on Monday said it “neutralized a terror tunnel” that was discovered inside Israeli territory near the Gaza Strip and is believed to have been dug after 2014. The tunnel was being built by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group.
The blast killed at least five members of Islamic Jihad’s military wing, including a senior commander and his deputy, and two members of Hamas’s military wing died in rescue efforts. At least 12 others were injured, Gaza’s health ministry said.
The IDF said the tunnel was “detonated from within Israel, adjacent to the security fence.” It was not immediately clear where the deceased members of the terror groups were when the tunnel was detonated, though many reports said the Islamic Jihad terrorists were inside, and the two Hamas fatalities died of gas inhalation when coming to their rescue.
In a statement, Hamas called the Israeli measure “a desperate attempt to sabotage efforts to restore Palestinian unity and maintain the state of division.”
Earlier this month, the two factions signed an agreement in Cairo allowing for the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority to resume control of Gaza — which Hamas seized in a near civil war with Fatah in 2007 — by December 1.
Fatah spokesperson and vice-chairman of the party’s revolutionary council Fayez Abu Eita echoed Hamas’s sentiment that the move by the Israeli army to detonate the tunnel in Gaza was aimed at disrupting the unity talks.
“This crime comes in the context of [sowing confusion] and creating tension in the atmosphere in order to thwart the Palestinian national reconciliation,” he said, in a statement carried in the official PA news outlet Wafa.
Abu Eita said that despite the incident, the Palestinians would push ahead with the unity plan.
“The one who is most harmed by Palestinian national reconciliation is the occupation. The implementation of the reconciliation agreement is the optimal response to this crime,” he said.
The incident raised tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, with both Hamas and Islamic Jihad vowing revenge.
Israel deployed its Iron Dome anti-missile system in the area and declared the border region a closed military zone.
“The explosion took place inside Israeli territory. The majority of the dead were activists that entered the tunnel after it was exploded and died in the Gaza Strip, and not as a result of the explosion,” said IDF spokesperson Avichay Adraee.
“We are not interested in an escalation, but we are ready for all scenarios,” he said.
The IDF said the tunnel ran from the Gazan city of Khan Younis, crossed under the border, and approached the Israeli community of Kibbutz Kissufim.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman hailed the IDF for destroying the attack tunnel, with the two leaders attributing its discovery to Israel’s new “breakthrough technology.”
The prime minister said Israel holds Hamas responsible for all military action against Israel emanating from the Gaza Strip and “whoever hurts us, we hurt them.”
Despite an assassination attempt on Hamas’s internal security chief Tawfiq Abu Naim on Friday, blamed variously on Israel and on Islamic State, the terror group said it will continue to abide by the Cairo agreement and hand over control of Gaza’s border crossing to the PA on Wednesday.
The fate of the Hamas security forces after it transfers power to the PA in the territory is one of the most delicate issues facing the reconciliation process.
Abbas wants the handover to be comprehensive and include all security institutions, but the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has said “no one” can force his group to disarm.
Israel and the United States have meanwhile said that Hamas must disarm as part of any unity government.
They have also said it must recognize Israel.
The Abbas-led Palestine Liberation Organisation has recognized Israel, but Hamas, an Islamist terror group which openly seeks to destroy Israel. has not. Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2008.
Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.