Hamas man's arrest revealed hours after Israel finds 2nd Gaza attack tunnel

Israel arrested Hamas tunnel expert, Shin Bet reveals

Mahmoud Atawnah, nabbed last month, provided trove of info on Hamas tunnel activities, including routes, use of private homes

Hamas operative Mahmoud Atawnah, picked up by Israeli security forces last month, in a photo released on May 5, 2016. (Shin Bet)
Hamas operative Mahmoud Atawnah, picked up by Israeli security forces last month, in a photo released on May 5, 2016. (Shin Bet)

Israeli authorities arrested a Hamas member last month who provided a trove of information about the Gaza-based terror group’s tunnel activities, the Shin Bet security agency revealed on Thursday.

Mahmoud Atawnah, 29, from the city of Jabalia in the Palestinian enclave, was arrested at the beginning of April after crossing the border fence into Israel armed with two knives, the Shin Bet said in a statement, adding that he disclosed during interrogation that he intended to kill the first Israeli — soldier or civilian — he encountered.

As a member of Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Atawnah provided the Shin Bet with information on tunnel routes in northern Gaza, the group’s use of private homes and institutions to hide tunnel entries and transfer weapons, and details about the materials Hamas uses in excavations.

The security agency further said Atawneh described a sophisticated network of tunnels which includes break rooms, showers and dining tables, and divulged a number of names of Hamas members who fought alongside him in the northern branch of the eastern brigade in Hamas’s armed wing.

Atawneh also housed a large stash of weapons in his home in Jabalia, in particular IEDs, rifles and suicide belts meant for distribution ahead of an operation.

The Shin Bet said Thursday that Atawneh was one of a number of Hamas members currently being interrogated by the security agency.

An indictment was filed against Atawneh in the Beer Sheba District Court.

News of the arrest came hours after the Israeli military announced it found a second tunnel in as many months emerging from southern Gaza into Israeli territory.

The tunnel, which is slated to be destroyed in the coming days, is 28 meters deep and was located just a few kilometers from where another tunnel was located and destroyed last month, the army said.

The exact location of both tunnels has been kept under wraps by the IDF censor.

The revelation of the second tunnel came amid a series of cross-border exchanges this week.

Israeli troops who were fired upon in several separate incidents since Tuesday were working to uncover the tunnel and other cross-border passageways, the army confirmed in a statement.

“The IDF considers above and below-ground terror activity a violation of the State of Israel’s sovereignty and a threat to its citizens and deems Hamas solely responsible,” a spokesperson said. “It is our job to locate and destroy them.”

While the tunnel was found about 100 meters inside Gaza, it extended into Israel, a spokesperson said, though he did not detail how far into Israeli territory it went.

He added the tunnel was found using a combination of technology, intelligence and engineering.

The statement was the first Israeli confirmation that troops had been operating on the Gazan side of the border fence.

The attacks on the troops led to Israeli reprisal shelling and a series of airstrikes Wednesday night and Thursday morning, injuring four people in Gaza, according to Palestinian sources.

There were no injuries reported on the Israeli side after the shelling.

Palestinian sources said earlier Thursday that Israeli troops had pulled back from areas along the Gaza border in the northern Strip, but had continued to work around Rafah, where the tunnel was discovered.

A Hamas official said late Wednesday that the pullout was part of an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire deal.

It was not clear whether the 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.

The IDF said in a statement after carrying out a first sortie of airstrikes near Rafah that it would continue to operate to thwart threats above and below ground.

On April 19, the IDF said it had found a concrete-lined tunnel some two kilometers long adjacent to the southern Gaza Strip.

A tunnel reaching from Gaza into Israel, seen in a photo released by the IDF on April 18, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A tunnel reaching from Gaza into Israel, seen in a photo released by the IDF on April 18, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The army accused Hamas, the de facto ruler in Gaza, of being behind the tunnel’s construction and maintained it was dug “in order to carry out attacks against civilians,” a spokesperson said, though he would not discuss the specific intelligence that led to that finding.

That tunnel was first discovered inside Israeli territory since the end of the war in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014. During that operation, dubbed in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, at least 34 tunnels were discovered and destroyed by Israeli forces, many of them leading into Israeli territory.

A number of tunnels were successfully used by Hamas fighters to infiltrate Israel and carry out deadly attacks on troops during the 2014 conflict.

Officials later said the tunnel may have been dug before the war and recently reinforced.

Following the 50-day conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in summer 2014, Israel invested an estimated NIS 1 billion (approximately $250 million) in developing a detection system to locate such tunnels.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the initial discovery that Israel’s tunnel detection system was the first of its kind in the world, calling the find a “world breakthrough.”

The army reportedly used such a system to discover the tunnel, though IDF officials stressed that technology was not the only aspect of the discovery operation, which also included extensive intelligence gathering and boots on the ground.

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