JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military has discovered an underground tunnel dug out from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip into Israel, the army said Sunday, adding it believes militants had intended to use the tunnel to attack or kidnap Israelis.
In response, the military froze the transfer of all construction materials to the Palestinian territory, the army said. A Hamas military spokesman in Gaza, Abu Obeida, was defiant over the tunnel discovery, saying on his official Twitter account that “thousands” more tunnels would be dug out.
Hamas has dug tunnels into Israel in the past. In 2006, Hamas-allied militants sneaked into Israel through one such tunnel, kidnapped a soldier, Gilad Schalit, and held him hostage in Gaza for five years.
According to the Israeli military, the latest tunnel is 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) long and appears to have been recently dug and in use until its discovery last week.
A tunnel opening was found near a kibbutz along the Israel-Gaza border, and the military speculated that Hamas may have been planning an attack on a kindergarten there.
The military said it waited a week to publicize the discovery because a search for explosives was underway. The army said an elite engineering corps was sent into the tunnel, but would not say whether explosives were found.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the tunnel’s discovery and said Israel’s resolute policy toward the Gaza Strip, including last year’s military offensive, has led to the “quietest year in more than a decade” along the Israel-Gaza border.
Army spokesman Maj. Guy Inbar said the halt on all construction material to Gaza, announced Sunday, was enacted due to security considerations and was not meant as a punishing measure.
For years, Israel prevented the transfer of construction materials into Gaza because it said militants could use the materials to build crude rockets and explosives for attacks against Israel.
But in recent years, Israel began allowing some of those materials in and in 2010, started allowing the delivery of building materials for internationally funded projects.
Last month, Israel also started allowing construction materials into the Palestinian territory for the private sector. With the exception of a small pilot project early this year, it was the first deliveries of such goods for Gaza’s private sector since 2007.
Apart from Israel, the Gaza Strip also borders Egypt. The Palestinians have dug a network of tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt section of the border to smuggle in supplies like fuel, building materials and food. Hamas has also used the tunnels to smuggle in weaponry.
For years, the tunnels with Egypt have been a lifeline for Gaza, home to some 1.7 million Palestinians. After Hamas took over the territory in 2007, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza. Israel has eased the blockade in recent years, but still restricts the imports of some goods.
Since the summer, Egypt’s military has tried to destroy or seal off most of the tunnels after it accused Hamas of fomenting unrest in Egypt. The move followed the popularly-backed coup that ousted Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi, from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group, a parent organization of Hamas.