Visiting bombed tunnel site, IDF general says main victims are Gaza residents

Visiting bombed tunnel site, IDF general says main victims are Gaza residents

Southern Command head says army 'determined' to destroy all underground terror infrastructure, after striking alleged Hamas cross-border passageway

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The head of the army’s Southern Command on Sunday said the principal victims of the Hamas attack tunnel bombed by Israel this 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 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.

On Sunday morning, the Israel Defense Forces announced it had destroyed a border-crossing Hamas attack tunnel, the third in recent months, that penetrated hundreds of meters into both Israeli and Egyptian territory from the Gaza Strip, in an airstrike on Saturday night.

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)

Zamir indicated that the army will destroy more such tunnels in the coming months, as the Defense Ministry completes the construction of a barrier around the Gaza Strip designed to prevent underground penetration into Israeli territory.

“We are determined to continue to thwart terror tunnels and to act in order to bring security to the residents of the area around Gaza and the State of Israel,” the general said.

During his visit, Zamir also met with the head of the local regional council, Gadi Yarkoni, in order to update him on the security situation in the area, the army said.

Late Saturday night, the military announced it would not be opening the Kerem Shalom Crossing, which ordinarily sees hundreds of trucks transporting goods into the Gaza Strip each day and acts as a major source of humanitarian aid to the beleaguered coastal enclave, which is subject to a blockade by both Israel and Egypt.

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.

UN trucks carrying building materials for projects funded by UNRWA arrive in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip after crossing the Israeli Kerem Shalom crossing on December 10, 2013. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

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 tunnel belonged to the Hamas terrorist group, which rules the Strip.

He added that the military believed the terror group saw it as a “significant asset,” due to the fact that it ran underneath the Kerem Shalom crossing, as well as below the gas and diesel pipelines into the Strip and a nearby IDF post.

“This is a severe breach of Israel’s sovereignty, a serious threat to Israeli civilians and a threat to the humanitarian efforts that Israel allows for the people in the Gaza Strip,” the military said in a statement.

The army spokesperson credited the discovery and destruction of the tunnel 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.

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

Conricus’s comments marked the first time an army official has publicly acknowledged that the military has the capability to successfully strike tunnels from the air, though others have alluded to it in the past.

Last week, the IDF also struck what many assumed to be a tunnel in the Gaza Strip, following a series of mortar attacks.

In its statement at the time, the army referred to the target of the attack on January 4 as “significant terror infrastructure.”

According to official Palestinian media, that “infrastructure” was farmland in the southern Gaza Strip, prompting many to assume that it was, in fact, a tunnel beneath the field, though not necessarily one that crossed into Israeli territory.

IDF Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, center, the head of the Southern Gaza Brigade, Col. Kobi Heller,left, and the head of the local regional council, Gadi Yarkoni, right, meet near 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)

According to Conricus, the tunnel destroyed early Sunday was dug in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, some 900 meters from Israel, and extended 180 meters into Israeli territory.

On the other end, it also extended hundreds of meters into Egypt, which could have allowed fighters in Gaza to attack Israeli positions from the Sinai Peninsula, he said.

Asked if the tunnel could have functioned as both a smuggling and attack tunnel, the army spokesperson responded, “It could have, but we deal with the infrastructure.”

On Friday, approximately 1,000 Palestinians took part in violent demonstrations in four locations along the security fence surrounding Gaza, rolling burning tires and throwing rocks at the barrier and the soldiers on the other side, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

In response, “troops fired live rounds selectively toward three main instigators, who posed a threat to IDF soldiers and the security fence,” the army said.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said dozens of Palestinians were injured by live fire, rubber bullets and tear gas during the riots.

On Saturday, the Defense Ministry’s chief liaison to the Palestinians warned residents of the Gaza Strip that the Hamas terror organization was using them in its quest for violence against Israel.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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