JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday warned Gaza militants against attacks as the Islamic Jihad group vowed revenge for the demolition of one of its attack tunnels that crossed into Israel.
The Iranian-backed group has threatened to carry out attacks after the tunnel was demolished last month, killing a dozen militants. It was a rare flare-up along the tense border, which has remained mostly quiet since a 2014 Israel-Hamas war.
Gunmen from Gaza on several occasions infiltrated Israel through a tunnel network during the fighting that year.
Israel "will respond with a heavy hand to anyone who tries to attack us, or does attack us, from any front," Netanyahu said at a weekly Cabinet meeting. Israel holds Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, responsible for any attacks launched from the territory, he added.
Earlier, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, who heads COGAT, the defense body responsible for Palestinian civilian matters, also issued a warning saying the militants "are playing with fire at the expense of the Gaza residents, Palestinian reconciliation efforts and the stability of the entire region."
Toward the end of the 2014 war, Israel destroyed more than 30 tunnels that Hamas had dug under the border. Gaza militants had used the tunnels to infiltrate Israel and carry out attacks. Although they did not manage to reach civilian areas, the infiltrations by heavily armed Palestinian gunmen caught Israel off guard and terrified the local population.
Since then Israel has made neutralizing the tunnel threat a top priority, and several cross-border tunnels have been discovered and demolished since the war.
Daoud Shehab, an Islamic Jihad spokesman, called the comments by Netanyahu and Mordechai "a declaration of war." He told The Associated Press that his group "made a decision to respond" with "a response that Israel is not used to." He did not elaborate but said it would not be with rocket fire, hinting at possible attacks from the West Bank.
Israel has indicated it will keep the bodies of five of the militants killed in the tunnel until Hamas agrees to return the remains of two soldiers killed in 2014 as well as two live Israeli civilians believed held in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas is trying to reach a reconciliation agreement with the Western-backed Palestinian Authority through Egyptian mediation, and is widely believed to want to preserve the calm for now.
Associated Press writer Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.