The discovery of a tunnel leading from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory suggests Israel has failed to deter the terror group Hamas, lawmaker Naftali Bennett charged Monday.
In a thinly veiled attack on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Bennett, head of the right-wing Jewish Home party, said in a statement that in the years since Israel’s summer 2014 war with Hamas in the Strip, “Hamas has not been deterred from reinventing itself, as we have consistently warned.”
During and after the 2014 war, Bennett repeatedly clashed with Ya’alon and publicly criticized the government’s containment policy in respect to the tunnels emanating from the Strip.
“Hamas has defined as a national project the resumption of digging terror tunnels that penetrate deep into Israel territory. That’s a top national goal for them, and it’s time we internalized it,” he said Monday, warning that Israel must not rely on Hamas having been “so-called deterred.”
Construction Minister Yoav Galant, a former head of the IDF’s Southern Command, warned that Israel should be prepared for another wide-scale conflict with Hamas in Gaza “anytime from the summer onward.”
Reacting to the discovery of the Hamas tunnel, Galant said: “Hamas is digging the tunnels to use them. They are using the temporary quiet to strengthen and rearm, while holding captive a public in Gaza that can do nothing.”
Defense minister Moshe Ya’alon said that Israel would continue to search for tunnels in various ways because it could not assume that Hamas would “draw conclusions” from the collapse of tunnels and the deaths of diggers over recent months, in addition to the latest exposure of the tunnel into Israel, and halt its tunnel program.
“We do not seek confrontation,” he said in a video statement, but Hamas will be dealt “a very hard blow” if it tries to challenge Israel or disrupt the lives of Israeli citizens living near the Strip.
The tunnel is the first to be discovered inside Israeli territory since the end of the war in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014. During that operation, dubbed Operation Protective Edge in Israel, at least 34 tunnels were discovered and destroyed by Israeli forces.
Defense officials estimate that most of the tunnel was dug before the 2014 war, Army Radio reported Monday.
Though the tunnel had been found just over one week ago, news of its discovery was forbidden from publication by the military censor.
Amid fast-rising tensions along the border with Gaza, Israel earlier in the week carried out its largest civilian drill near the Palestinian enclave since its 2014 war with Hamas, Channel 2 reported.
Medics, the fire department and civilian response teams simulated a Hamas incursion into Israeli territory, including an attack on an Israeli kibbutz near the border and the taking of hostages by terrorists. The exercise, which was held at Kibbutz Erez, included troops overpowering the terrorists in the community’s dining hall.
On Thursday, a senior IDF officer told reporters that Hamas now has some 5,000 fighters in its special forces and has also filled out its middle and upper ranks, with 25 battalion and brigade commanders, the official said.
During the 2014 conflict, 72 Israelis and one Thai worker were killed as a result of Hamas attacks, while over 2,000 Gazans were killed in the fighting. The exact number of dead remains contentious, though the UN puts the figure at 2,251, some 35 percent of them combatants. Israel says the percentage is higher.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.