Netanyahu warns donors to Gaza their aid money is being ‘buried’ in tunnels

PM implies international community is funding Hamas structures; ministers accuse terror group of misusing resources instead of solving humanitarian crisis

A Palestinian man checks the site of an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on March 18, 2018. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)
A Palestinian man checks the site of an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on March 18, 2018. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the international community that its aid money to the Gaza Strip was being used by terror groups to build tunnels for attacking Israel, hours after the military said it had destroyed two such passages.

“It is time for the international community to recognize that the Gaza aid money is being buried underground,” he added, addressing recent attempts at the UN to raise funds for Gaza, which is facing a severe humanitarian crisis.

The comment came as donor countries and others have worked to raise money for the beleaguered Strip, which UN officials say is facing a crippling shortage of clean water among other ills.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset in Jerusalem, on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Sunday’s tunnel demolitions took place as tensions between Israel and terror groups in the Palestinian enclave have risen in recent weeks after a number of bombs exploded near IDF patrols along the border, sparking reprisal attacks.

“Our policy is to take determined action against any attempt to harm us and to systematically eliminate the terror tunnel infrastructure, and we shall continue to do so,” Netanyahu said.

According to IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus, the cross-border passage destroyed Sunday was an “old tunnel” that was built before the 2014 Gaza war and partially destroyed during the conflict. He said Hamas was trying to “revive” the passage by connecting an intact portion that penetrated Israeli territory to a new tunnel.

The other target, which was destroyed by Israeli fighter jets around midnight on Saturday, was a “subterranean complex” in the central Gaza Strip, according to Conricus.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman ascribed the army’s destruction of the tunnels to “high quality intelligence and breakthrough technology.”

“Whoever thought they could attack us from underground has come up against an iron wall,” he said, referring to an Israeli wall being built underneath the border to thwart tunnel-building. “Hamas invested billions in its tunnel project and now they’re drowning in the sand. I recommend that Hamas invest its money in the welfare of the citizens of Gaza because by the end of the year its tunnel project will be destroyed.”

Intelligence Minister Israel Katz congratulated the army for its “successful operation,” and echoed the accusation against Hamas by saying the terror group was using its resources for “hate and death rather than for its own people’s well-being.”

Deputy Minister Michael Oren (Kulanu) slammed Hamas for “using its money to build tunnels at the expense of Gaza residents while the humanitarian situation worsens.”

But Oren also cautioned that Israel shouldn’t be dragged into an all-out war with Hamas. He argued that would be playing to the hands of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, both weakening his political rivals and delegitimizing Israel in the eyes of the international community.

A destroyed Palestinian Islamic Jihad tunnel, leading from Gaza into Israel, near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Kissufim. (Jack Guez/AFP/POOL)

Since October 30, Israel has destroyed four border-crossing tunnels that entered Israeli territory from Gaza, three of them belonging to Hamas and the fourth to the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group. In addition, several tunnels  located inside the coastal enclave have also been targeted using a newly developed system that allows Israel to hit them from the air.

Army officials have said that they expect to find and destroy more tunnels as construction of the barrier continues.

Sunday’s border-crossing tunnel was first discovered by the Israel Defense Forces in July 2014 and was partially destroyed during the war, Conricus told reporters.

However, since the 2014 campaign, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, Hamas has been trying to reconnect what remained of the tunnel to a new passage being dug in southern Gaza, he said.

Conricus said the army had been monitoring the group’s attempts to rebuild the tunnel for several weeks, but that Hamas had likely been working on the site for far longer.

He said the connection point between the old and new tunnels was located some 200 meters from the border.

The spokesperson added that the army used a new technique to destroy the tunnel that would prevent Hamas from being able to use it again, but would not elaborate on its nature.

Conricus said he could not describe the underground infrastructure destroyed in central Gaza, beyond saying that it was used by the Hamas terrorist group for “military purposes.”

According to the spokesperson, the destruction of this “subterranean complex” was in response to the bombing that took place on the border fence that was meant to injure Israeli soldiers, but failed to do so.

Israeli officials have for years warned that Hamas and other groups were trying to rebuild the tunnel infrastructure, which were used extensively during the 2014 war in attacks on soldiers. Israelis fear the tunnels could be used to carry out attacks on communities or army posts near the border.

A video by Hamas published recently showed the group displaying what it said was renewed tunnel building. It was not clear if the tunnel in the video was among those destroyed Sunday.

On Saturday, after the bomb planted near the Israel-Gaza border exploded, causing no casualties, Israeli tanks also destroyed a Hamas post in the area in response to the bombing.

The IDF said there were no troops near the bomb when it detonated, the latest in a series of attempted bomb attacks on Israeli troops.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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