Military officials say they have discovered one of the largest ever underground passages meant to transport militants from Gaza into Israel
The Israeli army claimed it had discovered a highly sophisticated “terror” tunnel leading from Gaza into southern Israel on Friday, raising the possibility of further military operations against the coastal enclave just a week after an outbreak of violent clashes.
Military officials said the tunnel – dug more than 65 feet underground at its deepest point – was the largest and most advanced ever found and designed to smuggle Palestinian militants into Israel to carry out attacks against civilians or kidnap soldiers.
It was the fourth such tunnel to be found in the past 18 months following the discovery of three underground conduits in 2013, according to the Israeli military, which issued pictures and video footage to illustrate its latest find.
Two decades ago Israel erected a large steel and concrete barrier along its entire border with Gaza.
The discovery of the tunnel came a week after the most severe clashes between Israel and militant groups in the tiny coastal strip in 16 months. A wave of rocket attacks launched by Islamic Jihad and other groups into Israel was met by a series of Israeli strikes on militant targets before a reported ceasefire – said to have been brokered by Egypt – restored calm.
“This advanced tunnel was intended to post a direct link and threat to Israeli territory, and enable Hamas terrorists to reach and harm Israeli civilians,” said Lt Colonel Peter Lerner, spokesman for the Israeli army. “Tunnels such as this are built to assist terrorists in the execution of terror attacks. In the past Gaza terrorists have utilized such tunnels to Israel for infiltration, detonation and abduction of Israeli citizens. ”
The claim was pre-empted by Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza, which staged a press conference on Thursday evening even before the official Israeli announcement to insist that the tunnel – first discovered on Tuesday – was an old structure that had recently been restored after sustaining storm damage.
“This tunnel is not new, but one that Israel had already unveiled in the past and our people worked to rebuild after a recent collapse due to extreme weather conditions.” said Abu Obeida, spokesman for the Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades, Hamas’ military wing.
“The occupation is hysterical and confused in the face of the resistance army’s tunnels, but we’re ready for any scenario and we’ll teach the enemy a harsh lesson.”
The army declined to reveal the tunnel’s exact location while its full dimensions were being assessed. The three tunnels discovered last year originated near the town of Khan Younis in southern Gaza. One of them, unveiled last October, was 1.1 miles long and stretched 328 yards into Israeli territory.
Generators, electrical drills, security kit and concrete reinforcing materials were found in the vicinity of the latest tunnel, the army said. Officials say it had been built over several months and had been worked on until very recently. One military source said the tunnelers had been disturbed in the middle of their work and said the tunnel’s detection was a major blow against Hamas, Haaretz reported on its website.
“It’s a very high-quality tunnel and much thought went into it,” the source said. “This sort of tunnel is built for a large operation – a kidnapping or something similar.”
Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier, was held in Gaza for five years after militants kidnapped him after burrowing their way into Israel through a tunnel in 2006. Two other soldiers were shot dead in the incident.