JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's top general said Tuesday that the military's number one mission for the coming year is to counter the renewed threat posed by militant attack tunnels from Gaza.
Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said Gaza's Hamas rulers have been rebuilding the sophisticated network of underground tunnels that Israel targeted during the 2014 war. He said destroying this network is the military's top priority for 2016, adding that it's not deceived by the current relative calm along the Israel-Gaza border.
"Hamas is diverting great resources to restore what it considers a pattern that allows it to enter Israel discreetly and carry out attacks," Eisenkot said at an event at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, a college north of Tel Aviv. "We have the most advanced abilities in the world and still this is a major challenge."
Israel launched its 2014 offensive in Gaza to stop years of frequent rocket attacks. But as the campaign intensified, and Israel became increasingly adept at shooting down incoming projectiles with its Iron Dome system, the tunnels emerged as an even greater threat. Israel then sent in troops that destroyed more than 30 tunnels Hamas had built to infiltrate and carry out attacks against soldiers and civilians.
More than 2,200 Palestinians, about two-thirds of them civilians, were killed in the 50-day summer war. In Israel, 66 soldiers and seven civilians were killed.
The border area has since remained largely quiet, but Hamas has publicly boasted that it has rebuilt its tunnel network. The Islamic militant group says at least 13 of its men have died over the past month in accidents while working on the tunnels.
Hamas announced the latest death on Tuesday, saying Khan Younis resident Marwan Marouf, 27, died when a tunnel collapsed on him.
Israelis living near the border have also reported hearing tunneling sounds under their homes recently and have been pressing the government to do something about it.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel would retaliate with "greater force" than in 2014 if cross-border tunnels were used to attack Israelis. But he angrily rejected a leaked report Monday from a closed Cabinet meeting in which Naftali Bennett, head of the nationalist Jewish Home party, was said to have suggested a pre-emptive attack against the tunnels. Netanyahu called the leak irresponsible and said he would not divulge any operational plans.
Atai Shelach, a retired colonel and former commander of the elite combat engineering unit in charge of dismantling tunnels, said the tunnels have supplanted rocket fire as the most urgent challenge for Israel to overcome. He said the 2014 war was a "watershed moment" and Israel has since directed considerable attention to the tunnels, but that the threat was likely to persist for decades.
"The underground frontier is the refuge of the weak and allows it to come closer to a superior adversary," he told The Associated Press. "It's no less complicated than the rocket threat and we need a similar type of systematic solution."
He said that another round of fighting with Hamas was "not a question of if, but when."
Concerns over a new front with Gaza come amid five months of near-daily Palestinian assaults, mainly stabbings, against Israeli civilians and security personnel across Israel and the West Bank that have killed 27 Israelis. Some 155 Palestinians, 110 of whom Israel says were attackers, were killed by Israeli fire during that time. The rest died in clashes with Israeli security forces.
Israel says the violence is fueled by a campaign of Palestinian incitement. Palestinians say it stems from frustration over decades of occupation.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu toured a newly built section of a fence Israel is erecting on its eastern frontier with Jordan.
"In the end in Israel, as I see it, there will be a fence like this that surrounds the whole country," he said. "In the environment where we live we must defend ourselves from the predators."