Hamas officials said Wednesday night that Israeli troops operating within the Gaza Strip had begun pulling out of the territory in a bid to restore calm.
It was the first statement indicating that the IDF had in fact been operating beyond the border fence over the past hours, as several exchanges of fire were reported between the sides throughout the day.
It was not clear whether mortar shells and other attack on troops earlier in the day had targeted soldiers on the Israeli or Gazan side of the border.
The IDF would not comment on the matter, saying only that its forces had come under fire “during operational activities adjacent to the security fence.” Earlier reports stated that troops were searching for attack tunnels leading into Israel.
Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk claimed Egypt had mediated an agreement that the Israeli military would move out of Gazan territory and Palestinian factions would halt their fire at IDF troops.
The Israeli Air Force struck four Hamas targets in northern Gaza early Thursday, hours after bombing five targets near the southern Gaza city of Rafah, in what it said was a response to mortar fire from the terror group at IDF troops on the border. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
IDF Spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said in a statement that Israel “will continue to operate in order to protect the civilians of Israel from all Hamas terrorist threats above and beneath ground.”
“Our efforts to destroy the #Hamas terror tunnel network, a grave violation of Israel’s sovereignty, will not cease or be deterred.”
The air strikes struck targets around Gaza’s derelict international airport and in nearby farming areas, without causing casualties, said the interior ministry for the Hamas-run Strip.
Just before the strikes were launched, Israeli officials warned Hamas to cease firing mortars at its troops on the Gaza border, or face a strong military response.
The officials conveyed the message to the Palestinian Islamist terror group through intermediaries, the Walla news website reported.
“We responded firmly, and we also conveyed stern messages to them,” senior defense officials told Israel’s Ynet news.
Hamas said in a statement that Israel bore “full responsibility” for the escalation in hostilities.
Israel’s warning came following six instances of mortar-fire at Israeli troops in the past day, including five mortars fired at Israeli troops operating to locate tunnels in the border area. The soldiers responded with tank fire, with at least one shell reportedly striking a power station in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shejaiya. Another report said a shell struck a house in Gaza City as well.
Earlier in the day, following the initial exchanges of fire, Hamas evacuated schools and headquarters in Gaza City.
The IDF also banned farmers from working along the border following Wednesday’s incidents.
The military said Wednesday that it was operating to locate Hamas attack tunnels burrowed beneath the border with southern Israel. Last month the IDF located and destroyed a tunnel discovered near the Kerem Shalom Crossing.
The IDF believes the recent attacks on troops on the border — including gunfire at engineering corps machinery operating near the fence — mark a bid by Hamas to prevent the army from locating and destroying tunnels the group has dug since summer 2014.
Israel’s Channel 10 indicated that the new flare-up at the border may have begun because Israel discovered “a tunnel or something.” Hamas has been digging attack tunnels toward, and possibly into Israel, rehabilitating and expanding the attack tunnel network destroyed by Israel in the 2014 war.
Israel is determined to keep hunting down all the Hamas tunnels, and Hamas has the dilemma now of using them to attack Israel or risk Israel finding them, the TV report said. It added that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently that Israel had used new technology to uncover the Hamas tunnel dug into Israel last month, and that Hamas is worried that Israeli technology might indeed render its prized tunnel network vulnerable.
Two weeks ago, in a Times of Israel analysis piece, Avi Issacharoff highlighted the dilemmas as follows: “Israel faces no simple dilemma in grappling with the tunnel problem because, plainly, tackling the tunnels at root requires activity on the Palestinian side of the Gaza border and perhaps a wider solution regarding Hamas.
For Hamas, the dilemmas are just beginning. What will it do if it establishes that the various hints in the Israeli media about improved technology enabling tunnel detection turn out to be true, and its network of tunnels is known to Israel? Will it maintain its current policy of restraint, keeping things quiet? Or, to the contrary, might it move into accelerated action because it fears that this prized strategic asset, this network of terror tunnels, may be about to topple domino-style — exposed and destroyed by Israel?”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.