In the worst fighting in almost two years between Israel and Gaza Strip militants, repeated salvos of Palestinian mortar fire were met Friday by Israeli airstrikes deep in the coastal enclave as an escalation between the two sides reached a third worrisome day.
Both Israel and the Palestinian Islamist terror movement Hamas have said they want to maintain an Egyptian-brokered truce that ended 50 days of war in the summer of 2014 – an inconclusive fight that claimed the lives of 71 Israelis.
As each day passes, anxieties grow that a deadly rocket from Gaza could set the stage for a fourth war against Hamas.
The current round of fighting in Gaza began earlier this week when Israeli troops found illegal tunnels dug by Hamas along the Israeli periphery.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Friday that his Gaza government does not want war but will fight Israeli “incursions” into the Gaza Strip. Haniyeh said the Israeli troops had penetrated a few hundred yards into Gaza in multiple locations.
Using information that Israeli intelligence officers say they gleaned from a Hamas operative arrested last month, Israeli sappers and engineers, protected by ground troops and tanks, have been searching the border perimeter for attack tunnels since Tuesday.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said his troops will not be deterred by Hamas threats and will continue their search “until we find and expose every last tunnel.”
While Israeli troops have repeatedly ventured into the Gaza buffer zone over the past two years, their presence now has spurred them to action.
“The peace and quiet of the last two years has been a mirage, as both sides have spent the time preparing for the next war, when they should have spent the time securing a more lasting peace,” said Daniel Nisman, a security analyst for the Levantine Group.
Analysts call the Hamas mortar fire and Israeli airstrikes “rocket language,” meaning that is how Hamas, branded a terrorist group, and Israel talk to each other.
“Hamas can’t look gutless,” Nisman said. “They’re a resistance movement. That’s their whole point.”
Over the past three days, Israel says that Hamas has launched 12 salvos of mortar rounds against its forces operating along the perimeter fence.
Gaza terror militias allied with Hamas, such as Islamic Jihad, are also alleged to have fired mortars.
Israel has responded to the harassing mortar fire with tank fire and F-16 airstrikes against multiple targets.
The terror wing of Hamas said two tunnels that the Israeli forces have found over the past three weeks were old excavations used during the 2014 war. Hamas claimed the Israeli government was looking for “false victories” and spreading lies to improve its image at home and abroad.
The Israel military says the tunnels were newly dug and designed for assault.
“Hamas’s diabolical plan to infiltrate into Israeli communities must be stopped,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · William Booth