Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh on Tuesday said the terror group intends to respond with violence to the deaths of seven Gaza terrorists Monday after Israel blew up an attack tunnel that stretched into Israeli territory, 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 the funeral for those who died in the tunnel, which was built and controlled by the PIJ terror group. PIJ possesses the second-largest military in Gaza after Hamas.
Five of the dead belonged to PIJ, two of whom were senior leaders, while two members of Hamas’s military wing were also killed during a rescue operation in the exploded tunnel, according to the group.
While Haniyeh vowed to attack Israel, he stressed that Hamas’s immediate response would be to quicken his party’s reconciliation efforts with the Fatah party, which controls the Palestinian Authority.
Earlier this month, the two factions signed an agreement in Cairo allowing for the PA to resume control of Gaza — which Hamas seized in a near civil war with Fatah in 2007 — by December 1.
“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.
Above: A funeral procession for terror group members killed in the tunnel explosion.
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 has accused Israel of stirring up chaos in Gaza through the demolition of the tunnel in order to foil the ongoing reconciliation talks.
So has Fatah. Fatah spokesperson and vice chairman of the party’s revolutionary council Fayez Abu Eita echoed Hamas, charging that the detonation of the tunnel by the Israeli army 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.
Senior Islamic Jihad leader Khaled al-Batash on Monday vowed that “all our options are open” for a response, but added his group “will take all considerations into account.”
Palestinian and Israeli reports have said Egyptian officials were in contact with Hamas late Monday urging the terror group to show restraint and allow the reconciliation process to continue.
Israel deployed its Iron Dome anti-missile system in the area and declared the border region a closed military zone in preparation for possible retaliation.
“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.
“We are not interested in an escalation, but we are ready for all scenarios,” he said.
Both the IDF and Hamas say most of the deaths from the detonation of the tunnel were caused by inhalation, though an IDF spokesperson said it was dust or smoke while Hamas has claimed the tunnel was filled with poisonous gas.
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.
Despite an assassination attempt on Hamas’s internal security chief Tawfiq Abu Naim on Friday, blamed variously on Israel and the Islamic State jihadist group, 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 is one of the most delicate issues facing the reconciliation process.
Abbas wants the handover to be comprehensive and include all security institutions, but Hamas’s 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 demanded that the group recognize Israel.
Judah Ari Gross and AFP contributed to this report.