JERUSALEM—Eight Hamas militants were killed in Gaza Tuesday when a tunnel they were digging near the Israeli border collapsed in heavy rains, according to a report on Israel Radio, which cited Palestinian sources.
The incident follows other recent reports of fatal tunnel cave-ins in Gaza, reflecting the intensity of Hamas’ efforts to rebuild the extensive tunnel network destroyed by Israel during the war in Gaza in the summer of 2014. The rains this winter have been particularly heavy in the region. Israeli security officials say that thus far none of the Hamas attack tunnels leading into Israel have been reconstructed. Hamas succeeded during the summer war in penetrating into Israeli territory through several tunnels.
Hamas has been rebuilding its military infrastructure in Gaza, including rockets, which have become difficult, if not impossible, to smuggle in as in the past. In addition to Israel’s naval blockade, Egypt has been flooding tunnels linking its territory in Sinai with the Gaza Strip. These tunnels had been a prime avenue for smuggling into Gaza weaponry, including Iranian-made missiles, as well as commercial goods.
Residents of Israeli villages adjoining the Gaza border reported hearing the sound of digging and hammering in the middle of the night Tuesday. “We started hearing things like concrete cracking,” a resident, Esther Naim, told Israel’s Channel 10. “We heard booms and bangs.” Another resident, Tsila Pitusi, said she thought someone was trying to break into her home.
Meanwhile, an Israeli general said this week that Hamas has been attempting to exploit for intelligence and terrorism purposes many of the Gaza residents who receive Israeli permits to cross the border for hospital care, business transactions or prayer at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque on Fridays. In an interview with the Palestinian newspaper al-Kuds, Major General Yoav Mordechai warned that Israel would have to reexamine its policies regarding such permits if Hamas continues to exploit permit holders. Terming Hamas’ behavior cynical, he said it may lead to “the complete cessation of travel by Gazans from the strip.”
He cited a cancer patient who traveled to Nablus on the West Bank for medical treatment and was asked by Hamas to gather intelligence for it. A Gaza businessman who regularly trades with Israel was detained by Israeli security forces for trying to smuggle forbidden articles into Gaza for Hamas.
“It appears as if Hamas is preparing itself for a military clash and is not interested in serving the public in Gaza,” said the general.
Since the end of the 2014 war, Israel has issued more than 100,000 entry permits to Gaza residents, said Mordechai. He said that Hamas levies taxes on all those crossing the border into Israel, using the money to build up its offensive capabilities rather than for welfare of the strip’s residents. He noted that Gaza’s unemployment rate is more than 40 percent. Mordecai is coordinator of Israeli government activities in the Palestinian territories.