Israel to reopen Gaza crossing after destroying terror tunnel underneath

Kerem Shalom, closed since Sunday, serves as main entryway for humanitarian aid, commercial goods into the beleaguered coastal enclave

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

Palestinian trucks loaded with supplies enter the southern Gaza Strip from Israel through the Kerem Shalom crossing in Rafah, on November 1, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)
Palestinian trucks loaded with supplies enter the southern Gaza Strip from Israel through the Kerem Shalom crossing in Rafah, on November 1, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces announced it planned to reopen the Kerem Shalom Crossing into the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, days after it found and destroyed an attack tunnel that was dug underneath.

“The [IDF’s] Southern Command completed the neutralization of the terror tunnel dug under the crossing and thwarted the threat it posed,” the army said in a statement on Monday evening.

“With the completion of the process and following an assessment of the situation, it was decided the crossing will reopen,” the military said.

The Kerem Shalom Crossing serves as the main route through which humanitarian aid and commercial goods enter the Gaza Strip. On average, hundreds of tractor-trailers pass through the crossing each day.

Earlier Monday the IDF took top diplomats and officials from international aid organizations on a tour of the crossing to see the tunnel.

“The Kerem Shalom Crossing constitutes a major lifeline to the Gaza Strip, and any attack on it is a terror attack against the residents of the Gaza Strip,” Col. Faris Atill told the visitors, who included representatives of UNWRA, the UN refugee agency for Palestinians, and USAID.

Late Saturday night, Israeli jets and ground forces destroyed the underground passage, which the army said passed underneath the Kerem Shalom Crossing, an IDF installation, and gas and diesel pipelines.

The tunnel spread into both Israeli and Egyptian territory from the southern Gaza city of Rafah. The military said the tunnel was dug by the Hamas terrorist group, which controls the coastal enclave.

An attack tunnel that was bombed by Israeli jets on January 13, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to the army, the 180-meter (590 feet) portion of the tunnel that entered Israel appeared to be designed to be used for attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers. The hundreds of meters of the tunnel that entered the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula could have been used to move fighters or smuggle goods and weapons.

“Any attempt to harm Israeli civilians or violate its sovereignty will be met with force and determination,” the army said in its statement on Monday. “The IDF will continue to thwart any violent attempts made by terror organizations above and below ground, wherever needed.”

On Sunday morning, the Israel Defense Forces announced it had destroyed the border-crossing Hamas tunnel, the third in recent months.

IDF Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, center-right, and the head of the Southern Gaza Brigade, Col. Kobi Heller, far right, visit the Kerem Shalom Crossing on January 14, 2018, where an alleged Hamas attack tunnel was discovered and destroyed by the military the day before. (Israel Defense Forces)

Later that day, the head of the army’s Southern Command said the principal victims of the Hamas attack tunnel bombed by Israel this past weekend were the Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, as the airstrike required Israel to shut down the main crossing for goods into the coastal enclave.

“This terror tunnel, which crossed under the Kerem Shalom Crossing, harms — first and foremost — the residents of the Gaza Strip,” said Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, during a visit to the site where the tunnel entered Israeli territory.

According to IDF figures, in 2017, over half a million tons of food entered the Strip through Kerem Shalom, along with 3.3 million tons of construction equipment and 12,000 tons of agricultural equipment.

Illustrative. Defense Ministry contractors monitor the transfer of supplies and goods into the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom Crossing, on July 19, 2014. (Israel Defense Forces)

It is the second time Kerem Shalom has been closed in under a month.

Israel shut down the crossing on December 14, following multiple rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza, along with Erez Crossing, through which people enter and exit the Strip. Erez reopened a day later, and Kerem Shalom was reopened on December 17.

Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told reporters on Sunday that the discovery and destruction of the tunnel was possible due to a combination of “cutting-edge” technology and intelligence.

It was the third tunnel entering Israeli territory destroyed by the IDF in under three months. On October 30, the army blew up an attack tunnel that belonged to the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group, in the process killing 12 members of the organization, along with two Hamas operatives. On December 10, the military demolished a second tunnel, this one controlled by Hamas.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot made the destruction of Palestinian terror groups’ attack tunnel a top priority for the military, following the 2014 Gaza war, which saw extensive use of tunnels by the Hamas terrorist group.

Over the past year, the army has been constructing the underground barrier around the Gaza Strip meant to block attempts to dig into Israel.

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