Israeli schools in the southern region bordering the Gaza Strip were set to open Tuesday with students kept in protected areas amid heightened tensions between Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups over the destruction of an attack tunnel by Israeli forces.
Israeli farmers were also being kept away from the volatile enclave over fears of retaliation, according to local municipal directives issued Monday night.
At least seven Palestinians were killed and another 12 injured on Monday when the Israeli army blew up an attack tunnel stretching from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said, in the deadliest incident in the coastal enclave since the 2014 Gaza war.
“The explosion took place inside Israeli territory. The majority of the dead were activists that entered the tunnel after it was exploded and died in the Gaza Strip, and not as a result of the explosion,” said an IDF spokesperson Avichay Adraee.
Military spokesman Ronen Manelis said it was a defensive operation in Israeli territory aimed at putting the tunnel out of order. He said most of the fatalities were from smoke and the operation was not intended to kill any of the terrorists who died in Gaza.
The Eshkol Regional Council said farmers would be kept away from fields bordering Gaza on Tuesday. Schools will open, but students will not be permitted to play outdoors during recess, the council said.
Israel deployed its Iron Dome rocket interceptors in the area and declared a closed military zone near the Gaza border in case the Palestinians tried to respond with rocket fire.
“We are not interested in an escalation but we are ready for all scenarios” IDF spokesperson Adraee said on Monday.
Media reports said Islamic Jihad wanted an immediate coordinated military response, while Hamas was urging caution and coordination with Egypt in order not to jeopardize the fragile Palestinian unity deal that is supposed to be implemented over upcoming weeks.
The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said four of the dead were Islamic Jihad members, including two senior commanders, Arafat Abu Murshad, the Islamic Jihad’s central Gaza commander and his deputy Hassan Abu Hassanein. The other three others were named as Ahmad Khalil Abu Armana, 25, Omar Nasar al-Fallit, 27, and Jihad Abdullah al-Samiri, 32.
Two Hamas members, Musbah Shabir, 30 and Mujahid Mohammed Marwan Algha, were also killed during the rescue operation, Hamas said.
“This is a massacre,” said senior Islamic Jihad leader Khaled al-Batash. “All our options are open. We will take all considerations into account, but we will not allow the enemy to set the rules of engagement.”
“The Zionist terror government must realize that we will not hesitate to protect our people and our land,” Islamic Jihad spokesman Dawood Shehab said on Twitter, adding that the terror group “is considering all of its options,” including the “option of responding to this aggression.”
Islamic Jihad is the second-largest terror group in Gaza after Hamas.
The IDF said the terror tunnel was discovered inside Israeli territory near the Gaza Strip and is believed to have been dug after 2014. The tunnel was being built by the Islamic Jihad terror group. It ran from the Gazan city of Khan Younis, crossed under the border for dozens of meters, and approached Kibbutz Kissufim.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Monday no Israelis were endangered by the tunnel. An IDF spokesperson said while the underground passage extended under Israeli territory, there was no tunnel opening on the Israeli side, according to the Ynet news website.
Agencies contributed to this report.