There was no retaliatory rocket fire when 14 Palestinian militants were killed in a tunnel collapse following an Israeli strike, which observers say underlines the seriousness of a recent Fatah-Hamas pact.
The tunnel, stretching into Israeli territory from Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, was excavated by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). But when the IDF demolished the tunnel on Monday, it caused a cave-in that killed 14 members of PIJ and Hamas. Five are still missing.
An IDF spokesman said the deaths were unintentional.
News of the tunnel collapse came as the Palestinian Authority took control of Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt, one of the most significant stages of the reconciliation agreement.
In the past, the deaths of PIJ and Hamas commanders at the hands of Israel’s military would have automatically led to the launch of rockets from Gaza to Israeli targets. The IDF had Iron Dome missile defence batteries deployed in the area in preparation.
But Egypt – which brokered last month’s talks between Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian factions – exerted considerable pressure on Hamas to prevent an escalation. It views the continued ceasefire in Gaza as a central part of its strategy for fighting the ISIS branch in Sinai.
The pressure appeared to have worked, with no Palestinian response to the tunnel’s destruction as the JC went to press on Wednesday.
Hamas’s leadership hopes that progress in the reconciliation with Fatah will be followed by Egyptian agreement to allow freer passage of people and goods through the Rafah crossing, which has been severely limited over the past decade.
Hamas also expects the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to end the financial restrictions on its civil servants.
Israeli security officials say Hamas’s willingness to enforce a ceasefire on Gaza’s borders demonstrates a realisation that it can no longer fund its own resources through the territory’s faltering economy.
The reconciliation agreement does not refer to Hamas’s rocket arsenal in Gaza or to its own extensive networks of tunnels, which were excavated in preparation for a future round of fighting with Israel. However, this week appeared to demonstrate that Iron Dome and Israel’s tunnel surveillance system were blunting those threats.
Hamas’s main interest, for now, is in maintaining what control it still has within Gaza. The group has a new set of leaders: Yihya Sinwar, recently installed as its prime minister; and Saleh Arouri, the new deputy head of its political bureau who was previously “operations chief” for armed attacks in the West Bank.
A senior Israeli intelligence official said both men sat for long periods in Israeli jails and are bitter rivals.
“Right now, they are both focused more on consolidating their own positions than another war with Israel. The Egyptians have given them a chance, so they are not about to ruin it quite yet,” the source said.