JERUSALEM – For years, opponents of an Israeli blockade of construction materials into Gaza have derided its rationale that the Hamas government uses the material to harden defenses and bolster terror operations.
But on Sunday, Israel released photographs of a mile-long tunnel that ended in a Jewish village, crafted with 500 tons of concrete that Israel had until recently banned from being imported through its border to Gaza.
“What the exposed tunnel illustrated is that something is going wrong with the management of materials entering Gaza under the pretense of building humanitarian projects to meet civilian needs and basic infrastructure,” Israeli Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said.
“Instead of building reservoirs for water or kindergartens, Hamas is investing in tunnels. Something is going wrong in the management of these materials.”
Israel announced Monday that it would bar all building materials from entering the Gaza Strip because of security concerns over Hamas, the U.S. designated terrorist group that controls Gaza, according to an army spokesman.
Israel only lifted its restrictions on the import of construction materials for anything but humanitarian use last month. Due to the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, humanitarian aid organizations were not available to comment on IDF concerns that some of the organizations’ materials are being used to build tunnels to Israel.
A Hamas military spokesman in Gaza, Abu Obeida, was defiant over the tunnel discovery, saying on his official Twitter account that “thousands” more tunnels would be dug out.
Israel believes that only Hamas would have the machinery necessary to build the tunnel, which is five feet high. Lerner said the hundreds of tons of concrete needed to build the tunnel originated either in Israel or Egypt, which, despite its own blockade of Gaza, is a major supplier of goods and services to Gaza.
“It’s obvious that it was built some time ago and that the materials aren’t from what Israel allowed in last month,” Lerner said.
But regardless of their source, Israel is “concerned that that materials supposedly going into Gaza” for humanitarian purposes “is building terrorist infrastructure.”
Israel began to prohibit construction materials from entering Gaza in 2007, after Hamas violently seized control of the territory and began to launch rockets into southern Israel, said Guy Inbar, spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the government agency that oversees the transport of goods into Gaza.
In mid-2010, as the hardships in Gaza mounted, Israel began allowing international organizations like USAID to import materials “for the purpose of building schools, roads, hospitals, clinics and housing units,” Inbar said.
Palestinian terror organizations have used tunnels to smuggle weapons and kidnap Israeli soldiers. The 2006 kidnapping of soldier Gilad Shalit through a tunnel resulted in the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel jails, including some who had committed terror attacks.
Speaking to the BBC, Sami Abu Zuhri, a senior spokesman for Hamas, accused Israel of playing up the security threat “to justify the blockade and the continuous aggression on the Gaza Strip.”