The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday announced it destroyed a sophisticated Hamas attack tunnel, leading from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, over the weekend.
The tunnel was the “longest and deepest” underground passage discovered in Israel thus far, according to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
It passed under the border in an area where Palestinian protesters have recently clashed with security forces, the army said, and was ready for use.
A military spokesman said the tunnel was dug by the Hamas terrorist group and was connected to a “kilometers-long” network of other passages under the Gaza Strip.
The tunnel reached “tens of meters” into Israeli territory in the area of the northern Gaza Strip, close to the Israeli community of Nahal Oz, the army said. It was constructed after the 50-day 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas, according to the IDF.
It was detected using new technologies and methods that the IDF has deployed against the terror tunnel threat and was disarmed over the weekend, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said.
“This was clearly a terror tunnel that connected to other tunnels in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “It extended into Israel and violated Israeli sovereignty.”
Security forces had been monitoring this tunnel network, which had been under construction for years, the spokesman said. The decision was taken to destroy the tunnel once it crossed into Israeli territory, he added.
Palestinian tunnel diggers were working their way up to the surface to construct an exit within Israeli territory when the army decided to act.
The tunnel was sealed up rather then being bombed, and the sealing material was estimated to extend deep into the underground network on the Gaza side, rendering sections of connecting tunnels useless, the spokesman said.
He did not say if there were any Palestinian injuries during the process to seal the tunnel.
It was the fifth tunnel extending into Israel from Gaza that the IDF has destroyed in recent months, he noted.
“The IDF doesn’t seek an escalation. We are defending our borders,” Conricus said. “We will not tolerate or allow Hamas to turn the border area into an active combat zone.”
In a post to his Twitter feed, Liberman lauded the destruction of the tunnel and warned Palestinians in Gaza that Hamas was wasting their aid money on pointless tunneling operations.
“We open the week with an impressive intelligence and operational achievement, with the destruction of another terror tunnel, the longest and deepest discovered so far,” Liberman said.
“A tunnel in which millions of dollars were invested, money that instead of relieving the strain on residents, was buried in the sand. Residents of Gaza, Hamas is burning your money on tunnels to nowhere. We will get our hands on all of them,” said Liberman.
In July 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in response to rocket fire from Gaza. During the 50-day campaign, the IDF destroyed some 14 tunnels that entered Israeli territory, along with 18 internal tunnels, and depleted Hamas’s weapons stores.
The IDF spokesman noted that Hamas was using recent border protests by Palestinian as cover for infiltration attempts and that some of the rioting at the border was very close to the area where the tunnel crossed into Israel.
“The violent disturbances are a cover for terror attempts above and below ground,” he said.
The tunnel destruction came amid tensions along the security fence in recent weeks — with the Palestinians holding mass marches near the border, and in some cases rioting, for the last three consecutive weekends. Israel says the violence is being orchestrated by Hamas, which it accuses of trying to carry out border attacks under the cover of large protests.
On Friday, at least 10,000 Gazans took part in large-scale demonstrations, with the Israeli military saying protesters hurled an explosive device and firebombs at Israeli troops deployed at the border, as well as making “several attempts” to damage the fence between Israel and Gaza, and cross over into Israeli territory. A week earlier, about 20,000 Palestinians took part in the demonstrations, with the previous week attracting an estimated 30,000.
More than 30 Palestinians have been killed in the clashes over the part three weeks, according to Hamas-run health authorities. Hamas has acknowledged that several of those killed were its members, and Israel has identified other fatalities as members of terrorist groups.
The protests are part of what Hamas said will be several weeks of “March of Return” demonstrations, which Hamas leaders say ultimately aim to see the removal of the border and the liberation of Palestine.