Hamas vowed Monday to pay Israel back for what it says are the deaths of seven of its fighters in an Israeli airstrike Sunday night. The Hamas response came quickly, firing more than 30 rockets at Israeli cities and towns Monday morning from inside Gaza, the Palestinian territory controlled by a Hamas-run government.
But military sources in Israel denied that an airstrike killed the militants. Instead, according to an Israeli source quoted in the leading Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post, the Hamas fighters perished in a tunnel dug by Hamas into Israel to allow terrorists to sneak from Gaza past Israeli borders.
“This was designed to enable a significant terror attack,” said the source, identified by the Post as a senior member of the Israel military. “In recent days, we have operated in this area, and we will continue to act against the threat of tunnels in the coming days.”
Israel discovered the infiltration tunnel a few days ago, the source said, adding that the Hamas militants died when explosives they had planted in the tunnel blew up sooner than scheduled.
According to a report in The New York Times, even Hamas itself was not sure at first whether the militants died in the tunnel as the result of an accidental explosion or because of an Israel airstrike. But Hamas soon settled on its official line blaming Israel, and threatening that “the Zionist enemy will pay a heavy price.”
Israel killed two other Hamas militants in separate airstrikes, saying that the fighters who died were directly responsible for rocket strikes into Israel.
Hamas attempted to make good on its threat of revenge with some it most far-reaching rocket strikes into Israeli territory so far in the recent conflict. One deadly rocket reportedly struck Beersheba, an Israeli city of nearly 200,000 in the southern part of the country, about 25 miles from the border between Israel and Gaza.
At a high-level meeting in Israel Monday following the Hamas rocket attacks, the country’s top security officials decided against a full-scale military incursion into Gaza to stop the rockets, but warned the Israel Defense Forces to get ready for a major crackdown on Hamas.
In response, the IDF has called up 1,500 military reservists to active duty, as the Israeli military prepares to hit Hamas with increasing force in the coming hours and days.
“The blows will be harder,” a senior Israel military official said to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. “Each succeeding day will be harder for Hamas. We will escalate the attacks to make it clear to them that it is in their interest to stop the rocket fire. We do not want to engage in a large-scale ground operation in Gaza, but we are prepared to broaden the operation in case the rocket fire does not stop.”
The escalating armed conflict was sparked by the kidnap-murders of three Israeli teenagers in June, a crime that Israel blames on Hamas.