IDF chief visits Gaza attack tunnels, amid lingering tensions

After defense minister says period of near-daily rocket fire is over, Eisenkot heads to southern Israel to congratulate his generals

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot on Wednesday toured two of the recently discovered attack tunnels dug by Palestinian terrorist groups from the Gaza Strip into Israel

The visit came amid lingering tensions with the coastal enclave, following a two-week period of near-daily rocket attacks from the Strip.

During Eisenkot’s trip to the area, he met with the head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, Israel’s chief military liaison to the Palestinians, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the head of the Gaza Division, Brig. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, and the commander of the Northern (Gaza) Brigade, Col. Avi Rosenfeld, the army said.

In addition to hearing briefings from the officers and holding a “situational assessment,” Eisenkot also entered what remains of the two tunnels and inspected some of the newly developed military hardware used to locate and map them.

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman declared that there would be no more attacks.

“The ‘drizzle'” — the term used for sporadic rocket attacks — “is not continuing. We’ve already had one day of total quiet,” Liberman said on Tuesday, following a meeting with the heads of mayors and regional council leaders from the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, center, meets with the head of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, right, and Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, reversed, during a visit to southern Israel on December 20, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

On October 30, the Israel Defense Forces blew up one tunnel, which belonged to the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group. The tunnel was started in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis and extended into Israeli territory, ending near Kibbutz Kissufim. In the blast, 12 members of the group were killed, including two senior officers, along with two members of Hamas.

The Islamic Jihad vowed revenge and carried out a mortar attack against an Israeli military position northeast of the Strip exactly one month later. No IDF soldiers were injured, but the shelling caused damage.

On December 10, the IDF destroyed yet another tunnel that began in Khan Younis, this one belonging to Hamas, which reached hundreds of meters inside Israel, the army said. The military used another, secret technique — not explosives — to destroy this second attack tunnel.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, center, visits an attack tunnel dug by a Palestinian terrorist group from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel during a visit to the area on December 20, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The Chief of Staff expressed his great appreciation of the Southern Command’s officers for their operational methods and preventive activity, which combines intelligence, operational and technological capabilities in dealing with the underground threat from the Gaza Strip, which has led to the recent achievements,” the army said in a statement.

In the nearly two months since the army destroyed the Palestinian Islamic Jihad tunnel, there have been heightened tensions and a frequency of rocket attacks that haven’t been seen since before the 2014 Gaza war.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks to reporters about the situation in Gaza in the IDF’s Gaza Division headquarters on December 19, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Liberman on Tuesday described the increased rocket fire as being the “price” Israel had to pay for US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Some two dozen rockets have been fired at Israel by salafist terrorist groups since Trump made his proclamation on December 6. Israel has responded by targeting sites belonging to the Hamas terrorist group, which controls the Gaza Strip, with the hope that Hamas will work to stop the more radical groups.

“We knew that the recognition by the US president would have a price,” Liberman said, adding that the price was worth gaining legitimacy for the city as Israel’s capital.

But he said that this period of near-daily rocket attacks had come to an end.

Liberman credited the military’s “unprecedented preparedness” with being the reason why Hamas ultimately decided to take action in recent days against the groups in the Gaza Strip who have been firing rockets.

“That’s why we’ve seen thousands of salafists getting arrested by Hamas. And, in my view, after the interrogations they’ll go through in Hamas custody, no one will come back to attack, if they come back at all,” the defense minister said, alluding to the terror group’s brutal torture tactics.

Until this point, it has not been clear if Hamas was tacitly supporting the rocket attacks or was simply not actively preventing them for political or strategic reasons.

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