Israel and Hamas try to cool tensions after Gaza flare-up

Tank and mortar fire exchanged after Israel’s discovery of cross-border tunnel

An Israeli soldier walks on his tank along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on Friday. Three days of mortar and tank fire between Israel and Palestinian militants, as well as Israeli air strikes, have raised concerns of a new conflict in the Hamas-run territory. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

An Israeli soldier walks on his tank along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on Friday. Three days of mortar and tank fire between Israel and Palestinian militants, as well as Israeli air strikes, have raised concerns of a new conflict in the Hamas-run territory. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

 

Israel and Hamas are scrambling to defuse tension after the most serious cross-border flare-up since the Gaza war of 2014.

A Palestinian woman was killed and another injured from Israeli tank fire in the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis after at least 16 mortar shells were fired at Israeli forces along the border over the last couple of days. Israeli aircraft launched four separate strikes.

Sparking the latest escalation was Israel’s discovery of a Hamas cross-border tunnel on Thursday – the second tunnel extending under the border to be located and destroyed in the last few weeks.

Mediators from Egypt, Qatar and Turkey were reportedly involved in efforts to restore quiet as Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu convened an emergency security cabinet meeting to discuss the violence. Mohammed Amadi, a Qatari official tasked with overseeing Gaza rehabilitation, said that indirect talks between Israel and Hamas aimed at restoring the ceasefire were progressing in a positive direction.

Hamas Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh said that his organisation is not seeking war with Israel but will not tolerate its troops entering the Palestinian territory.

“We are not calling for a new war, but we will not under any circumstance accept these incursions,” he said in a prayer sermon in the Gaza Strip.

He said Hamas would not accept Israel’s self-imposed 300-metre buffer zone on the Gaza side of the border, where the Israeli army reserves the right to operate.

“We sent multiple messages that the resistance will not allow the Israeli occupation army to impose new rules within the borders of the Gaza Strip,” Mr Haniyeh said.

Israeli defence minister Moshe Ya’alon vowed that troops will continue to operate along the border to uncover Hamas tunnels.

“Over the last two days, Hamas has been trying to sabotage army activity along the border fence, which included the uncovering of another attack tunnel that violates our sovereignty and extends into our territory. We will not be deterred by Hamas threats, and we will continue our operations until we find and expose the last of the tunnels.”

Israeli army spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner said the tunnel was about 30 metres below the surface. Hamas claimed the tunnel was an old one that had been used two years ago.

In 2014, Israel and Gaza gunmen fought a 50-day war during which Hamas fighters used tunnels to infiltrate Israeli territory on four occasions, killing 12 soldiers, while Israeli troops destroyed more than 30 tunnels.

Since then Israel has invested huge resources into combatting the tunnel threat and last month Mr Netanyahu announced “a special technological breakthrough” that enables Israel to locate tunnels and potentially neutralise Hamas’s most important strategic weapon.