Israel’s military was racing to destroy the remaining underground tunnels that cross into Gaza, as Egypt urged Hamas not to respond with force.
Another tunnel — the fourth in two months — was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike near the southern town of Rafah over the weekend.
The IDF’s Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkott had originally directed the army to complete the elimination of the tunnels by the end of 2018, but military sources now say the operational timetable has been shortened and the last remaining routes are to be destroyed by September.
A new underground detection system is being deployed by Israel around Gaza. Officials believe that although it is still incomplete, most of the remaining tunnels have already been detected.
Saturday night’s bombing struck a 1.6 kilometre tunnel that was a kilometre inside Gaza and 500 metres beneath Israeli territory — with its exit a short distance across the border in Egypt.
This could indicate that the tunnel was to be used both to attack targets in Israel and for smuggling people and arms between Gaza and Egypt.
Its route took it beneath the Kerem Shalom border crossing terminal, the main gateway for shipments into Gaza and the location of the gas and diesel pipelines that serve the territory’s energy needs.
The discovery of the exit inside Egyptian territory is a major embarrassment for Hamas.The group has spent the past three years trying to rebuild its ties with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, agreeing both to sever ties with the ISIS branch operating in Sinai and to sign a rapprochement deal with the Palestinian Authority, which is dominated by the rival Fatah faction.
This weekend’s tunnel strikes leave Hamas in a dilemma. They have invested tens of millions of dollars excavating tunnels under the border, planning to use them for surprise attacks on Israel in a future round of warfare.
However, they are reluctant to launch another war and jeopardise their tenuous hold over Gaza and their relationship with Egypt.
In recent months, they have tried to prevent other Palestinian factions, including Islamic Jihad, from firing rockets on Israel and provoking an escalation.
But Israeli intelligence has warned that more hard-line commanders could use the remaining tunnels to snatch Israeli hostages to be traded for Palestinian prisoners before the last tunnels are destroyed by Israel.
Most Hamas tunnels were used to bring arms into Gaza from Sinai, but were destroyed by the Egyptian army’s large-scale engineering work over the last four years.