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Hamas tunnel may reach into Israel, MK warns

Omer Bar-Lev pans Netanyahu and Ya’alon for failing to act as Hamas rebuilds underground infrastructure for fresh attacks

Illustrative photo of a tunnel opening discovered by the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza, July 20, 2014. (photo credit: IDF)
Illustrative photo of a tunnel opening discovered by the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza, July 20, 2014. (photo credit: IDF)

Gaza terror group Hamas is expanding its network of underground tunnels, including one that may reach into Israeli territory, lawmaker and former IDF commander Omer Bar-Lev said Sunday.

Bar-Lev, a Zionist Union MK who sits on the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon for their indecision and failure to act on thwarting the tunnel threat.

“Hamas has gone back to digging tunnels, and it is likely that at least one of them has even crossed the border fence, which is an affront to the State of Israel’s sovereignty,” Bar-Lev said at the opening session of the Israel Bar Association’s conference in Eilat Sunday night, according to a statement from his office.

Israel fought a 50-day war with Gaza-based fighters in July and August, aimed at stemming rocket fire and destroying a network of tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border fence.

Since a ceasefire was called, army officials and sources inside Gaza have said Hamas has attempted to quickly rehabilitate the military infrastructure damaged during the fighting, including digging new tunnels and developing rockets.

Sources inside Gaza told The Times of Israel in April that Hamas was using heavy machinery and whatever cement it could get its hands on to quickly build new tunnels.

However, security sources said tunnel-diggers have been careful not to cross into Israeli territory, in order to avoid an eruption of hostilities.

Bar-Lev, who headed the elite Sayeret Matkal unit before entering politics, said Netanyahu and Ya’alon should order the tunnels destroyed without waiting.

“We must never go back to the tunnel fiasco that existed just before Operation Protective Edge,” he said. “If I were defense minister, I would order the Israeli army to act this very night to demolish the tunnels that are being rebuilt.”

Earlier this month, Channel 10 news reported the IDF would investigate a possible attack tunnel running below a Gaza border town, following up on ongoing complaints by residents of Kibbutz Nirim that they have been hearing underground construction noises.

The IDF did not immediately respond to a Times of Israel request for comment.

Yesh Atid MK Haim Jelin, a former head of the Eshkol Regional Council bordering Gaza, accused Bar-Lev of fear-mongering along with Netanyahu.

“It’s too bad that Knesset members are prepared to speak without facts and scare citizens, just to get headlines and their picture in the paper,” he said in a statement Monday, calling on Bar-Lev to retract his claim.

Labor MK Omer Bar-Lev at a May session of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Knesset, Tuesday, May 20, 2014 (photo credit: Flash90)
Labor MK Omer Bar-Lev at a May session of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Knesset, Tuesday, May 20, 2014 (photo credit: Flash90)

During his speech, though, Bar-Lev accused Netanyahu of not being tough enough on terror.

“The prime minister’s political and security-related indecision affects the army’s deterrent ability and leaves the fate of the residents of the Gaza border region to the whims of Hamas. This weak, indecisive and ingratiating policy, which is typical of Netanyahu, encourages Hamas and Hezbollah to keep testing us. Israel under Netanyahu has lost its initiative against terrorism,” he said.

“There is moral justification and even an obligation to act preemptively against any tunnel that crosses the border fence,” he added later.

The attack tunnels extending into Israeli territory prompted an Israeli ground invasion into Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, which began in July and lasted for 50 days. Many of the tunnels were used for attacks against Israeli soldiers, with Palestinian fighters making it hundreds of meters into Israel.

According to the IDF, the tunnels were originally constructed for a large coordinated attack against Israeli civilians living in the area, which was only foiled when war broke out.

Israeli officials said they destroyed over 30 tunnels during the summer’s military campaign, which saw over 2,100 people killed in Gaza and tens of thousands more left homeless, according to Palestinian and UN tallies, and 72 people killed in Israel.

Israel says half of the dead were fighters and blames Hamas, which situated much of its attack apparatus in residential areas, for the high death toll among Gazan civilians. During the operation, Gazan fighters carried out several tunnel raids into Israel, killing 11 Israeli soldiers.

Bar-Lev also criticized the fact that no action had been taken to demilitarize the Gaza Strip after Operation Protective Edge and warned another war was inevitable.

Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.

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