Israel-Gaza tensions boil after tunnel strike kills Islamic Jihad commander
MENAHEM KAHANA (AFP)
Tensions continued to boil along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, with the Israel Defense Force (IDF) warning civilians in the area to keep away from the frontier after terrorist groups in the Palestinian enclave threatened retaliation following the destruction of an attack tunnel by Israeli forces on Monday.
At least seven Palestinians were killed -- including a senior Islamic Jihad commander and his deputy -- after Israel blew up a tunnel stretching from the Khan Yunis area in central Gaza into Israeli territory.
Two members of Hamas' military wing were also killed during rescue efforts, in what was the deadliest incident in the Strip since the 50-day war fought with Israel in 2014.
The border region was declared a closed military zone and Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system was deployed to the area amid threats from Islamic Jihad that it could retaliate.
Local municipal directives issued by the army on Monday night instructed schools in the region to keep pupils in protected areas indoors, and instructed farmers to kept away from the border area.
Islamic Jihad had said Monday that the group was "weighing their options" and "will not lose their right to react" against the "Zionist terrorist government", while the Popular Resistance Committee in Gaza said that Israel's attack "was a crime and resistance forces reserve the right to use any means necessary to respond."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday his country would "not tolerate any attacks on our sovereignty, on our people, on our land, whether from the air, from the sea, from the ground, or below the ground," he said.
"We attack those who seek to attack us."
The deceased Palestinians were being buried Tuesday in their respective neighborhoods in the Gaza Strip. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya appeared at a funeral in central Gaza attended by a few thousand people, witnesses said, while senior Hamas figure Khalil al-Hayya spoke at one in the southern part of the Strip.
"(Hamas) knows how to manage the conflict with the enemy and how to get revenge and strike at the time and place that hurts the enemy," Hayya said, according to a statement.
- First test of unity -
The operation comes at a sensitive time, with rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas pursuing a reconciliation accord aimed at ending their 10-year rift.
Hamas is due to hand over control of the enclave's borders to the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday under the deal mediated by Egypt and signed on October 12.
It is due to return the Gaza Strip to full PA control by December 1.
Israel has said it will reject any unity government that includes Hamas if the Islamist group does not disarm and recognize the country, among other demands.
Both Haniya and Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah spoke of ensuring the reconciliation pact remains on track.
"The response to this massacre... is to move forward towards the restoration of national unity because the enemy realises our strength is our unity," Haniya said.
Senior PA official Mustafa Barghouti accused Israel of trying to disrupt the reconciliation bid.
Hamas on Monday called the Israeli operation against the tunnel "a desperate attempt to sabotage efforts to restore Palestinian unity and maintain the state of division."
Fatah spokesperson and vice-chairman of the party’s revolutionary council Fayez Abu Eita said in a statement carried by the official PA news outlet Wafa that the measure was meant to "[sow confusion and creating tension in the atmosphere in order to thwart the Palestinian national reconciliation."
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qassemi condemned "bloodthirsty" Israel accusing it of "trying to bend the will of the oppressed people of the occupied territories to guarantee its security by killing Palestinian youths," according to Iran's Tasnim news agency.
The Israeli army said in a statement that the tunnel was discovered on the Israeli side of the Gaza border fence using new advanced detection technologies and was subsequently "neutralized."
The military said that the tunnel had been under surveillance for some time and that it was under active construction, indicating it was not left over from the vast tunnel network operated by the Hamas terrorist group during its last war with Israel.
The IDF said that the tunnel's opening was at least two kilometers away from the closest Israeli community of Kissufim, and did not pose a threat to residents.
It was not immediately confirmed whether or not the tunnel belonged to Hamas, the ruling authority in the Gaza Strip, but Israel said it nevertheless holds the Islamist movement responsible for all such activity from the Palestinian enclave.
The army has been seeking to build an underground wall surrounding Gaza that would block such tunnels, among other methods it has been developing.
Israeli leaders have been keen to show they are addressing the threat of tunnels from the Gaza Strip.
A state inquiry in February accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top army brass of being unprepared for the tunnels used by Hamas during the 2014 conflict.
During the 2014 war, 32 tunnels were discovered, including 14 that extended into Israel, according to a UN report on the conflict.
(Staff with AFP)
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