Palestinian militant groups have vowed to respond to an Israeli attack on a militant tunnel that killed seven people and injured nine more in the most dramatic ratcheting of tensions between the Gaza Strip and Israel since 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.
The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said that Monday night’s rare strikes on the border, which has remained tense but quiet since the last war, had targeted an “active tunnel” which had reached Israeli territory.
It is believed to have been operated by the Islamic Jihad Movement, five members of which were among those killed and injured in the attack, according to Gaza’s health ministry. The two others who died were part of Hamas’ Izz Eddine al-Qassam Brigades. At least one senior commander is believed to be among the dead.
“We affirm our right to respond to the aggression of the occupation today,” the Islamic Jihad Movement said in a statement overnight.
Hamas, the militant organisation which rules the Strip, said in a Twitter post that the attack constitutes a “a new war against Gaza people“.
Egyptian mediators are reported to be working to calm the situation, but Israel is on high alert in case of a retaliatory attack.
While the IDF did not elaborate on how the tunnel was destroyed, Palestinian news agency Wafa reported five missiles hit the tunnel east of the town of Khan Younis, two kilometres (1.2 miles) away from the border wall.
Israeli military spokesperson Ronen Manelis said that the tunnel had been under surveillance for some time and was destroyed in a defensive operation.
He added that the strike had not intended to cause fatalities, and most of those killed had died because of smoke inhalation when they tried to enter the tunnel to rescue people after the attack.
In the last round of fighting in 2014, Hamas used a large tunnel network to try and facilitate attacks on Israel, although none of the incursions managed to reach civilian areas.
Destroying the underground system has since become a top priority for the IDF.
“Those who try to harm us, we harm them,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement, praising the state-of-the-art technology being used to target tunnels. “Today we detected a tunnel and destroyed it and we will continue to do so.”
The Palestinian Authority’s Fatah, in the West Bank, called for a dialogue with its Gaza rivals to discuss responses to the Israeli strike.
The two parties announced earlier this month they had struck a reconciliation deal creating a unity government to once again administer both the West Bank and Gaza after the rift caused by Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007.
As such, the timing of the strike may put pressure on the agreement, widely viewed as the biggest step forward for internal Palestinian relations in a decade.
The coastal enclave has since been subject to both an Israeli blockade and Fatah strangulation of electricity and other resources, crippling its economy and leaving much of the territory’s population of 1.8 million dependent on aid.