Israel-Palestine Conflict Escalates

Published May 15th, 2021 - 08:00 GMT
A Palestinian boy who fled his home due to Israeli air and artillery strikes sits on a mattress outside at a school hosting refugees in Gaza city, on May 14, 2021, as cross-border violence between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants continues in the Gaza Strip
A Palestinian boy who fled his home due to Israeli air and artillery strikes sits on a mattress outside at a school hosting refugees in Gaza city, on May 14, 2021, as cross-border violence between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants continues in the Gaza Strip. MOHAMMED ABED / AFP
Highlights
Hezbollah, a militant group allied with Hamas, denied being responsible for the attack - saying instead that it was carried out by a rogue pro-Palestinian group as a show of solidarity. 

Israeli troops were fighting on three fronts on Friday night into Saturday as West Bank protests saw their first fatalities, the death toll in Gaza rose past 130, and a Hezbollah fighter from Lebanon was shot dead by IDF forces. 

Turmoil from the battle between Israel and Hamas spilled over into the West Bank on Friday, sparking the most widespread Palestinian protests in years as hundreds of young demonstrators in multiple towns clashed with Israeli troops, who shot and killed at least 11 people.  

Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip continued into early Saturday, when an airstrike on a house in Gaza City killed at least seven Palestinians - the highest number of fatalities in a single hit. Hamas militants responded by firing more rockets into Israel as their battle entered a fifth consecutive night.

That strike came a day after a furious overnight barrage of tank fire and airstrikes that wreaked destruction in some towns, killed a family of six in their house and sent thousands fleeing their homes. 

At least 132 people have been killed in Gaza since Monday, including 32 children and 21 women, and 950 others wounded, Palestinian medical officials said. 

In the north of Israel, pro-Palestinian protesters against the Jewish state's assault on the Gaza Strip approached the border from Lebanon on Friday afternoon, amid fears fears of an incursion from Israel's northern neighbour by Iran-backed Hezbollah, Israel's arch-enemy.

There, a young Lebanese man was struck by Israeli fire, and later died of his wounds, after a small group reportedly attempted to cross the border into Israel.

Hezbollah said the man, whom it named as Mohamad Kassem Tahan, died from his wounds. He was a member of the pro-Iranian Shiite militant group who was taking part in a demonstration, the group claimed. 

The 21-year-old protester was one of two men who suffered wounds from Israeli shelling during the protest on the frontier, the official National News Agency said.

Among eight people dead in Israel so far in the conflict were a soldier patrolling the Gaza border and six civilians, including two children, Israeli authorities said. 

Earlier on Friday, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to crush Hamas with unrelenting bombardments amid growing fears of a Lebanese incursion into Israel, with residents in the country's northern region told to stay inside their homes. 

'They attacked our capital, they fired rockets at our cities. They're paying and will continue to pay dearly for that,' Netanyahu said during a video address on Friday. 'It's not over yet,' he warned.

'I said we would exact a very heavy price from Hamas and other terror groups, and we are doing so and will continue to do so with great force,' the Prime Minister said, before detailing Israel's destruction of Hamas tunnels.

'Hamas thought it could hide there, but it cannot,' he said. 'Hamas leaders think they can escape from our grasp. They cannot escape. We can reach them everywhere – all of [Hamas's] people and we will continue to do so.'

Netanyahu's warning came to fruition as Israel intensified bombardment of the Gaza Strip with a furious overnight barrage of tank fire and airstrikes that wreaked destruction in some towns, killed a family of six in their house and sent thousands fleeing their homes.  

Residents of Metulla in Israel's northern district were ordered to stay inside, but the order was reversed after a short period of time when officials were assured that the situation was under control. 

Meanwhile, Israeli military says it has identified three rockets fired from Syria toward Israeli territory on Friday.  

The military said in a statement that one of the rockets landed inside Syria in the evening hours. There was no immediate comment from Damascus. 

In Gaza, the toll from the fighting rose to 122 killed, including 31 children and 20 women, with 900 wounded, according to the Health Ministry.

The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a 6-year-old boy and a soldier.

Thousands of Palestinians grabbed children and belongings and fled their homes on Friday as Israel barraged the northern Gaza Strip with tank fire and airstrikes, killing a family of six in their house and heavily damaging other neighborhoods in what it said was an operation to clear the militant tunnels.

As international efforts at a cease-fire stepped up, Israel appeared to be looking to inflict intensified damage on Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel. 

The Gaza violence increasingly spilled over into turmoil elsewhere.

Across the West Bank, Palestinians held their most widespread protests since 2017, with hundreds in at least nine towns burning tires and throwing stones at Israeli troops. Soldiers opening fire killed six, according to Palestinian health officials, while a seventh Palestinian was killed as he tried to stab an Israeli soldier.

Within Israel, communal violence erupted for a fourth night. Jewish and Arab mobs clashed in the flashpoint town of Lod, even after additional security forces were deployed. 

Israeli police said that nine people were injured during violent unrest surrounding the arrest of a senior Islamist leader in northern Israel - a higher toll than media reports had earlier. 

Israel called up 9,000 reservists Thursday to join its troops massed at the Gaza border, and an army spokesman spoke of a possible ground assault into the densely populated territory, though he gave no timetable. A day later, there was no sign of an incursion.

But before dawn Friday, tanks deployed on the border and warplanes carried out an intense barrage on the northern end of the Gaza Strip.

Houda Ouda said she and her extended family ran frantically into their home in the town of Beit Hanoun, seeking safety as the earth shook for two and half hours in the darkness.

'We even did not dare to look from the window to know what is being hit,' she said. When daylight came, she saw the swath of destruction: streets cratered, buildings crushed or with facades blown off, an olive tree burned bare, dust covering everything.

Rafat Tanani, his pregnant wife and four children, aged 7 and under, were killed after an Israeli warplane reduced their four-story apartment building to rubble in the neighboring town of Beit Lahia, residents said. Four strikes hit the building at 11 p.m., just before the family went to sleep, Rafat's brother Fadi said. The building's owner and his wife also were killed.

'It was a massacre,' said Sadallah Tanani, another relative. 'My feelings are indescribable.'

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the operation involved tank fire and airstrikes, aimed at destroying a tunnel network beneath Gaza City that the military refers to as 'the Metro,' used by militants to evade surveillance and airstrikes.

'As always, the aim is to strike military targets and to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties,' he said. 'Unlike our very elaborate efforts to clear civilian areas before we strike high-rise or large buildings inside Gaza, that wasn't feasible this time.'  

The spiraling violence has raised fears of a new Palestinian 'intifada,' or uprising, at a time when the peace process has been virtually nonexistent for years. The tensions began in east Jerusalem earlier this month, with Palestinian protests against the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and Israeli police measures at Al-Aqsa Mosque, a frequent flashpoint located on a mount in the Old City revered by Muslims and Jews.

Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem late Monday, in an apparent attempt to present itself as the champion of the protesters. In the conflict that spiraled from there, Israel says it wants to inflict as much damage as it can on Hamas' military infrastructure in Gaza.

An Egyptian intelligence official said Israel had turned down an Egyptian proposal for a one-year cease-fire that Hamas had accepted. The official, who was close to Egypt's talks with both sides, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal negotiations.

On Friday, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Israel-Palestinian affairs, Hady Amr, arrived in Israel as part of an attempt by Washington to de-escalate the conflict.

U.S. President Joe Biden gave a show of support to Netanyahu in a call a day earlier, saying 'there has not been a significant overreaction' in Israel's response to Hamas rockets. He said the aim is to get a 'significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks.'

Hamas has fired some 2,000 rockets toward Israel since Monday, according to the Israeli military. Most have been intercepted by anti-missile defenses, but they have brought life to a standstill in southern Israeli cities, caused disruptions at airports and have set off air raid sirens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. 

When the sun rose Friday, residents streamed out of the area in pickup trucks, on donkeys and on foot, taking pillows, blankets, pots and pans and bread. Thousands took shelter inside 16 schools run by the United Nations relief agency UNWRA, agency spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna said.

Mohammed Ghabayen, who took refuge in a school with his family, said his children had eaten nothing since the day before, and they had no mattresses to sleep on. 'And this is in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis,' he said. 'We don't know whether to take precautions for the coronavirus or the rockets or what to do exactly.'

Israeli military officials cheered the operation as a successful blow against the tunnel network. Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said 160 warplanes operated in a 'synchronized manner' for about 40 minutes as part of the operation.

He said the military aims to minimize collateral damage in striking military targets. But measures the military takes in other strikes, such as warning shots to get civilians to leave, were not 'feasible this time.'  

On Thursday night, the Israel Defence Forces managed to trick Hamas into believing a ground invasion was underway and then obliterated their tunnel network knowing militants would be hiding underground waiting to ambush tanks and soldiers, reports in Israel claim. 

There was confusion when the IDF said shortly after midnight that ground forces were 'attacking in Gaza', and later suggested that boots were on the ground.  A spokesman later retracted that statement - saying that military operations were conducted along the border, but no Israeli troops had crossed it. 

However, the announcement was apparently a well-planned ploy to get Hamas to send its fighters into its underground tunnel system beneath Gaza City, before bombarding the area, in the hope of eliminating large numbers of militants in one fell swoop. 

Soldiers and tanks with drones equipped with night vision lay in wait for survivors as they surfaced, hitting them with aerial and ground fire. Snipers and missile units were also waiting for them on the ground as the IDF said it had carried out a 'complex' operation to destroy Hamas tunnels underneath Gaza City, which the military refers to as 'the Metro'. 

Neither Israel nor Hamas has yet announced how much of the network was destroyed overnight, but initial estimates said a large number of fighters were buried as the IDF collapsed the tunnel system on their heads, Israel National News reported.  

In response, Hamas fired 220 rockets from Gaza at cities in Israel overnight, the IDF said, and was joined by three rockets fired from Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon - though all of them fell short. 

Attacks continued this morning, with Israeli jets striking what the IDF called underground rocket sites in Gaza City and Hamas watchtowers. Meanwhile sirens sounded on the Israeli side of the border as Hamas attacked with suicide drones, while several Israeli troops were injured in a knife attack near the West Bank city of Ofra.

Elsewhere, more street clashes took place overnight in the mixed Israeli-Arab city of Lod, with a synagogue burned to the ground. A 19-year-old IDF solider was also badly beaten in the Tel Aviv suburb of Jaffa and a Jewish family were attacked inside their car in Umm al-Fahm.

Far-right Jewish groups were also calling for attacks on Arabs and their businesses in the cities of Be'er Sheva and Ramle, according to Israeli news site Ynet

Despite the rapidly escalating violence and amid calls for urgent deescalation from world leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed today that there would be no let-up in attacks.

'I said we would extract a very heavy price from Hamas. We are doing that, and we will continue to do that with heavy force,' he said. 

The Israeli Defence Forces said that 160 aircraft flying simultaneously conducted a 40-minute attack on a network of tunnels dug by the Hamas, with 450 missiles dropped on 150 targets in northern Gaza.

After the air strikes were launched, some 500 artillery shells — some flares and some explosive — along with 50 tank shells were fired in a follow-up attack. 

More airstrikes took place this morning, with the IDF saying it is targeting underground rocket launchers and Hamas observation posts. 

The IDF also said 220 rockets were fired by Hamas in response to the overnight attacks, with targets including the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheba and Yavne.

Two women, aged 50 and 80, died overnight from injuries sustained while trying to take shelter from rockets, Israeli media reported. A 60-year-old man was also seriously hurt after a rocket struck Ashkelon.  

Rocket sirens continued to sound in Ashkelon and other cities near the Gaza strip this morning, with the IDF saying more than 2,000 rockets have now been fired in less than five days. 

Three rockets were also fired from southern Lebanon towards northern Israel, Israeli security forces said, but were not heading towards populated areas and fell short into the Mediterranean off Israel's north coast.

Hezbollah, a militant group allied with Hamas, denied being responsible for the attack - saying instead that it was carried out by a rogue pro-Palestinian group as a show of solidarity. 

Fears of an all-out war escalated in the early hours of Friday morning as the military said just after midnight that air and ground forces were 'attacking' the Hamas-run enclave. Rocket barrages from Gaza swiftly followed.

IDF spokesmen then appeared to confirm to multiple journalists that boots were on the ground in Gaza, before an urgent clarification was issued saying that no troops had crossed the border and apologising for the earlier mistake which was blamed on 'internal communication issues'.

Residents in northern Gaza, near the Israeli frontier, said they had seen no sign of Israeli ground forces inside the enclave but reported heavy artillery fire and dozens of air strikes. 

Hamas military spokesman Abu Obeida said the group was not afraid of a ground invasion, saying the move would be a chance 'to increase our catch' of dead or captive soldiers. 

Attempts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis have so far floundered, with Israel refusing calls for a ceasefire put forward by an Egyptian delegation which had travelled to the country to try and negotiate. The delegation has now returned to Cairo, Russian news agency TASS reported today.

French President Emmanuel Macron, tweeting in French, English, Hebrew and Arabic, joined calls for calm, saying the 'spiral of violence must stop'.

Meanwhile Germany's Angela Merkel struck a different tone, describing rocket attacks from Gaza as 'terrorism' and saying her government supports 'Israel's right to self-defence against these attacks'. 

Mr Merkel also hit out at protesters who she said had burned Israeli flags outside synagogues, adding: 'Anyone who attacks a synagogue or defiles Jewish symbols shows that for them it is not about criticizing a state or the policies of a government, but about aggression and hate towards a religion and the people who belong to it.'

The United Nations Security Council has confirmed that it will convene to discuss the rapidly worsening situation, but will not meet until Sunday. 

Palestinians living outside Gaza City, near the northern and eastern frontiers with Israel, fled the intense artillery bombardment Friday.

Families arrived at the U.N.-run schools in the city in pick-up trucks, on donkeys and by foot, hauling pillows and pans, blankets and bread.

'We were planning to leave our homes at night, but Israeli jets bombarded us so we had to wait until the morning,' said Hedaia Maarouf, who fled with her extended family of 19 people, including 13 children. 

'We were terrified for our children, who were screaming and shaking.'

In the northern Gaza Strip, Rafat Tanani, his pregnant wife and four children were killed after an Israeli warplane reduced a building to rubble, residents said. 

'It was a massacre,' said Sadallah Tanani, a relative. 'My feelings are indescribable.'

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said tanks stationed near the border fired 50 rounds. 

It was part of a large operation that also involved airstrikes and was aimed at destroying tunnels beneath Gaza City used by militants to evade surveillance and airstrikes, which the military refers to as 'the Metro.' 

'As always, the aim is to strike military targets and to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties,' he said. 

'Unlike our very elaborate efforts to clear civilian areas before we strike high-rise or large buildings inside Gaza, that wasn't feasible this time.'

The strikes came after Egyptian mediators rushed to Israel for cease-fire talks that showed no signs of progress. Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations were leading the truce efforts.

The fighting broke out late Monday when Hamas fired a long-range rocket at Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests there against the policing of a flashpoint holy site and efforts by Jewish settlers to evict dozens of Palestinian families from their homes.

Since then, Israel has attacked hundreds of targets in Gaza, causing earth-shaking explosions across densely populated areas. 

Of the 1,800 rockets Gaza militants have fired, more than 400 fell short or misfired, according to the military.

The rockets have brought life in parts of southern Israel to a standstill, and several barrages have targeted the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, some 70 kilometers (45 miles) away from Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue the operation, saying in a video statement that Israel would 'extract a very heavy price from Hamas.'

In Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden said he spoke with Netanyahu about calming the fighting but also backed the Israeli leader by saying 'there has not been a significant overreaction.'

He said the goal now is to 'get to a point where there is a significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks.' He called the effort 'a work in progress.'

Israel has come under heavy international criticism for civilian casualties during three previous wars in Gaza, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians. 

It says Hamas is responsible for endangering civilians by placing military infrastructure in civilian areas and launching rockets from them.

Hamas showed no signs of backing down. It fired its most powerful rocket, the Ayyash, nearly 200 kilometers (120 miles) into southern Israel on Thursday.        

The rocket landed in the open desert but briefly disrupted flight traffic at the southern Ramon airport. Hamas has also launched two drones that Israel said it quickly shot down.

Hamas military spokesman Abu Obeida said the group was not afraid of a ground invasion, which would be a chance 'to increase our catch' of Israeli soldiers.

The current eruption of violence began a month ago in Jerusalem. A focal point of clashes was Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, built on a hilltop compound that is revered by Jews and Muslims. 

Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians want east Jerusalem, which includes sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, to be the capital of their future state.

The violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem and other mixed cities across Israel has meanwhile added a new layer of volatility to the conflict not seen in more than two decades.

The violence continued overnight into Friday. A Jewish man was shot and seriously wounded in Lod, the epicenter of the troubles, and Israeli media said a second Jewish man was shot. 

In the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Jaffa, an Israeli soldier was attacked by a group of Arabs and hospitalized in serious condition.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said some 750 suspects have been arrested since the communal violence began earlier this week. 

He said police had clashed overnight with individuals in Lod and Tel Aviv who hurled rocks and firebombs at them.

The fighting deepened a political crisis that has sent Israel careening through four inconclusive elections in just two years. After March elections, Netanyahu failed to form a government coalition. Now his political rivals have three weeks to try to do so.

Those efforts have been greatly complicated by the fighting. His opponents include a broad range of parties that have little in common. They would need the support of an Arab party, whose leader has said he cannot negotiate while Israel is fighting in Gaza.

Meanwhile the U.N. Security Council will publicly discuss the worsening violence between Israel and Palestinian militants on Sunday, diplomats said, reaching a compromise over U.S. objections to a meeting on Friday.

Diplomats said the United States, a close ally of Israel, had initially suggested a virtual public meeting could be held on Tuesday.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday he hoped waiting a few days would allow for 'diplomacy to have some effect and to see if indeed we get a real de-escalation,' adding that Washington was 'open to and supportive of a discussion, an open discussion, at the United Nations.'

Hostilities entered their fifth day overnight, with no sign of abating. Israel fired artillery and mounted more air strikes against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip amid constant rocket fire deep into Israel's commercial centre.

The 15-member council has met privately twice this week about the worst hostilities in the region in years, but has so far been unable to agree on a public statement, diplomats said.

Such statements are agreed to by consensus, and the United States did not believe it would be helpful, they said.

All council members also have to agree to a meeting under rules guiding the body's virtual operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the US State Department has urged citizens to 'reconsider travel to Israel' due to the recent surge in violence.

The travel advisory level, which had been lowered in recent weeks due to improvement in the country's Covid-19 situation, was stepped up to Level 3, out of a maximum of four.

'Reconsider travel to Israel due to armed conflict and civil unrest,' the department said in a statement.

'Rockets continue to impact the Gaza periphery and areas across Southern and Central Israel, including Jerusalem,' it said. 'There has been a marked increase in protests and violence throughout Israel.' 

China on Friday accused the United States of 'ignoring the suffering' of muslims, after Washington blocked a scheduled UN Security Council meeting aimed at addressing an intensifying conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The US, Israel's diplomatic shield at the UN, blocked an originally scheduled Friday session despite the deepening bloodshed - but eventually agreed to move it to Sunday, diplomats said.

As the crisis has unfurled, China has taken up the Palestinian cause at the Security Council, a venue where it frequently plays its veto card to block motions against its allies.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters the US had single handedly obstructed the Security Council from speaking out on the crisis, 'standing on the opposite side of the international community'.

'What we can feel is that the US keeps saying that it cares about the human rights of Muslims... but it was ignoring the suffering of the Palestinian people,' Hua added.

She contrasted America's reluctance at the Security Council with calls by the US, Britain and Germany for China to end repression of its Uyghur Muslim minority - an incendiary issue in US-China relations.

'The US should realise that the lives of Palestinian Muslims are equally precious,' she said.

The US, Israel's key ally, has defended the Jewish state's deadly offensive, which comes in response to rocket fire from the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas which controls the Gaza Strip.

But President Joe Biden's administration has also voiced alarm over civilian casualties and earlier pushed Israel to hold off on evictions of Palestinians in Jerusalem, the immediate trigger for the flare-up.

Hua said Friday that efforts should be made to lower temperatures and prevent the crisis from escalating.

She restated that China will push the Security Council to take action soon, as well as reiterate its firm support for a two-state solution.

Security Council sessions, held by videoconference due to the pandemic, require support of all 15 members.

Israel claims to have obliterated much of Hamas's network of tunnels in the Gaza Strip in a massive bombardment overnight Thursday.

Helicopters, jets, gun boats and artillery pounded northern and eastern parts of Gaza with more than 1,000 bombs and shells as part of a 'complex' operation to destroy Hamas tunnels underneath Gaza City. 

In an apparent trick, the IDF said shortly after midnight that ground forces were 'attacking in Gaza', but a spokesman later retracted that statement, saying no Israeli troops had crossed the border.

However, the announcement was a well-planned ploy to get Hamas to send its fighters into its underground tunnel system beneath Gaza City, before bombarding the area, in the hope of eliminating large numbers of the organisation's operatives in one foul swoop, reports in Israel claim. 

The IDF has long been trying to destroy the network of Hamas tunnels - established after the Islamist organisation took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 - because they reach into Israeli territory and are a launch point for the many of the group's attacks.  

Tunnels were among Hamas's most effective tools during the 2014 war with Israel, with militants using them to move weapons, enter the Jewish state, ambush IDF soldiers, and at times even return to Gaza through the underground passages.      

The first Hamas tunnels were built in 2007 between the Gaza Strip and Egypt and were designed for smuggling consumer goods to bypass the Israeli blockade. 

However, some rudimentary networks existed in Gaza as early as 2002. One was used to bomb an Israeli outpost within the Strip in 2004. A second tunnel bomb attack on an Israeli outpost took place in December 2004, killing five IDF soldiers. 

The first cross-border raid by Hamas took place in 2006, when the group kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, holding him captive for more than five years. 

By 2013, the network had definitively pivoted away from the Egyptian border and towards Israel and there were at least three tunnels under the Israel-Gaza border, two of which were packed with explosives. 

The underground network now branches dozens of kilometres through the Gaza Strip reaching the towns of Khan Younis, Jabalia, and the Shati refugee camp. They also stretch into Israel. 

The tunnels are used by Hamas and other Islamist groups in Gaza, including the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine. 

The groups use the network to hide rockets and other munitions, facilitate communication within their organisations, conceal militants, and launch attacks. 

Israel has long struggled to wipeout the system, despite top of the range military and intelligence equipment.

This is primarily because the tunnels, which are believed to have cost between $30 million (£21.3 million) and $90 million (£63.9 million) to build, are extremely difficult to detect from the air. 

Some of the three dozen tunnels built since the end of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict are estimated to have cost $3 million ($2.13 million). 

The tunnels are reinforced with concrete to protect them from airstrikes and from caving in. 

Footage from inside the tunnels shows a sweaty and cramped environment, not tall enough for fighters to stand up straight.  

Hamas first used the tunnels to launch an attack on Israel in July 2014, when 13 fighters used the network to surface near a kibbutz. 

At the time, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya said the tunnels represented 'a new strategy in confronting the occupation and in the conflict with the enemy from underground and from above the ground'. 

Tensions between Israel and Gaza had been intensifying since June 2014, when three teens were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas, allegedly without the knowledge of the organisation's leadership.  

Rockets fired by Hamas into Israeli territory and by the IDF into the Gaza Strip then formally sparked the seven-week conflict in July 2014.  

One of the primary Israeli objectives of the war, known as Operation Protective Edge, was to destroy Hamas's network of tunnels.  

The IDF reported it had 'neutralised' 32 tunnels along the Israel-Gaza border during the conflict, including 14 which crossed into Israel. 

The devastating 2014 conflict killed 2,251 Palestinians, while more than 10,000 were wounded and 100,000 were left homeless. 

On the Israeli side, 74 people were killed, all but six of them soldiers.

Though Israel said it levelled 32 tunnels during the conflict, many have been rebuilt by Hamas who continue to use the underground network. 

Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza say tunnels are needed for defence. 

In 2015, the Islamist group started using heavy machinery, including bulldozers and tractors, as well as engineering tools to accelerate construction of the tunnels. 

The reconstruction was largely funded by Iran, the Sunday Telegraph reported at the time citing intelligence sources. The Islamic Republic also provided rockets and missiles to replenish Hamas's arsenal.  

Several tunnels then collapsed or were destroyed by the Egyptian Army in in 2016 and 2017, killing at least 54 Hamas members. 

In 2018, the IDF announced it had found and destroyed the longest and deepest tunnel ever dug by Palestinian Islamists Hamas. 

The tunnel, which Israel says would have 'cost millions to build', allegedly began below the Gaza Strip and went on for 'several kilometres', well into Israeli territory.

Israel says the Hamas tunnel came from the northern area of Jabaliya, was being dug in the direction of the Nahal Oz community in Israel, and was connected to several others within Gaza. 

The IDF said it was made it inoperable by filling it with material days after it was discovered.   

Israel has since turned to more creative means of finding and destroying Hamas's tunnels in Gaza - building a massive underground slurry wall along the Strip to stop militants constructing 'attack' tunnels. 

Construction on the three billion shekel project (£640 million) started in mid-2017 and finished in March 2021.

The concrete wall, which is accompanied by motion sensors designed to detect tunnel digging, is about eight metres high and spans 41 miles along the Israel-Gaza border.   

The barrier was built on Israeli territory, east of the existing border fence, near the town of Sderot, off the northern Gaza Strip, and the Nahal Oz area near Gaza City.

It also includes an offshore barrier intended to stop sea-based commando attacks. 

In October 2020, motion sensors on the wall detected a tunnel from the southern Gazan city of Khan Younis that ran several dozen metres into Israeli territory.  

This article has been adapted from its original source.


© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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