Senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar said Wednesday that the Islamist group’s attack tunnels in the Gaza Strip had already reached into Israeli territory, as the terrorist organization buried two fighters killed in a tunnel collapse.
“The tunnels reach deep into the territory occupied in 1948,” said the Hamas official during the funeral for one of the fighters. “The [tunnels] reach [further] than 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.
Israel Defense Forces officials and southern residents have expressed concern in recent days that Hamas is rebuilding a series of subterranean passages, used for attacking Israel, which were destroyed during the 2014 war between Israel and Gazan fighters.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to critics charging his government was failing to deal with newly dug tunnels under the Israel-Hamas frontier, threatening to blow up the underground passages if need be.
“We are working methodically and calmly against all threats, including threats from Hamas, both with defensive and offensive measures. And of course, 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.
During that war, Israeli troops uncovered and destroyed dozens of tunnels, but only after Netanyahu approved a ground invasion of the Strip amid heavy pressure from coalition allies to expand what had — to that point — been an air campaign.
Hamas built dozens of tunnels into Israel, many of which were used to carry out attacks against soldiers during the 2014 war.
Last week, a senior defense official said Hamas’s military wing had rehabilitated itself and was ready for a fresh round of hostilities with Israel. Other military leaders have said intensive tunnel rebuilding is underway.
Over the weekend, residents of areas near the Gaza Strip complained that tunnel digging into Israel from the Hamas-run territory has come so close to their homes that it has caused their floors to shake.
The tunnel collapse in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday was the second such incident since last week
The Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip said the two men killed in Tuesday night’s tunnel collapse belonged to its armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Hundreds of men, many armed and wearing balaclavas, took part in the funeral.
Ismail Haniyah, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, called the two men “martyrs” and praised “those who work silently underground for us to live in dignity on earth.”
A tunnel collapse caused by bad weather on January 26 killed seven Al-Qassam fighters.