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Hamas leaders confessed on Monday that they had been planning to kidnap Israelis using a recently discovered tunnel system burrowed deep beneath the Israeli-Gaza border, according to reports.
The admission that Hamas is still seeking to kidnap and ransom Israelis has renewed concerns that a new round of violent demonstrations known as an intifada could sweep the region and jeopardize nascent peace talks.
Israeli authorities revealed last week that they had discovered a complex 1.5-mile tunnel system running from the Gaza Strip into a nearby Israeli kibbutz.
Hamas officials came clean about the tunnel on Monday when a senior leader admitted that the terror group was planning to abduct Israelis and ransom them to secure the release of imprisoned Palestinian terrorists.
“This tunnel was made by the hand of the fighters of (Izzadine) al-Qassam and they will not sleep in their efforts to hit the occupation and kidnap soldiers,” Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida was reported as saying on al-Aqsa radio, a Hamas-owned station.
“Kidnapping soldiers is the only way to succeed against the (Israeli) occupation,” Obeida was quoted as saying by the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency.
The Hamas leader vowed to continue efforts to spark violence and kidnap Israelis.
“We are working on the ground and under the ground to release the prisoners,” Obeida said.
Hamas secured the release of more than 1,000 prisoners in 2011 under a deal that bought freedom for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Middle East experts said Hamas’ admission is another sign that the group is not backing down from its violent agenda as U.S. officials attempt to foster a peace deal.
“They continue to call for renewed violence; whether an intifada or another campaign, they continue to call for it against Israel,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Treasury Department. “So this is consistent with that.”
“We’ve been looking at the prospect of a third intifada for a long time,” said Schanzer, a Middle East expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
Hamas has found itself in a difficult financial and political situation since the Egyptian military assumed control of the porous border region along the Sinai and Philadelphia Corridor.
The Egyptian military has sealed off many of the tunnels used to import illicit goods and weapons, leading Hamas to rely more greatly on Israel.
“They [Hamas] are in a lot of trouble right now financially and logistically,” Schanzer said. “They’ve had to rely on Israel for the goods that they need to cross the border. Ironically, the Israelis were their last friends.”
While news of the tunnel’s existence was made public just last week, Israeli defense officials knew of its existence for quite some time, according to Schanzer.
Israel allowed Hamas to continue building the tunnel in order to drain its resources and time.
“This was an expensive and time consuming endeavor, and the Israelis allowed them to do it right up until the end, making it something that kept Hamas busy and burned resources,” Schanzer said.
Meanwhile, violence in the Palestinian-controlled areas has increased in the past weeks.
Israeli soldiers on Thursday thwarted a terror attack on one of its military bases.
The Israeli Defense Forces also discovered an “explosive device positioned against soldiers in the southern Gaza Strip” on Monday, according to Ma’an.
The uptick in violence has been accompanied by various instances of incitement in official Palestinian outlets.
A Palestinian Authority-backed youth magazine recently “published a list of ten short wisdom sayings that it claimed were said by Hitler,” according to Palestinian Media Watch (PMW).
The goal of publishing such quotes “is to present Hitler as a sharp-witted and wise person,” according to PMW.