The Israeli army said on Monday it had discovered and blocked a tunnel leading out of the Gaza Strip that had been dug by the beseiged Palestinian enclave’s Hamas rulers.

Israel says the militant group aims to use so-called ‘attack tunnels’ to infiltrate fighters and abduct Israeli soldiers or civilians as bargaining chips in prisoner exchanges.

The Israeli military said it had identified the tunnel “with two routes belonging to the Hamas terrorist organisation, dug from the northern Gaza Strip”.

The tunnel had “crossed into Israeli territory”, said Brigadier General Nimrod Aloni, the outgoing commander of the Gaza division.

However, he said it stopped short of an underground concrete barrier and therefore “did not pose a threat to Israeli communities in the area near the Gaza Strip”.

The army said the tunnel was “neutralised”, adding in a statement to AFP that it had been “partly filled with engineering materials”.

“This left the tunnel sealed off, unreachable. Explosives were not used in the process,” it added.

Hamas responded that “the Palestinian resistance has the right to use all means to enhance its capabilities against the arrogance and criminality” of Israel.

The news comes on the heels of a devastating Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip that lasted three days, killed at least 49 Palestinians – including 17 children – and causing major material damage.

Gaza, a Palestinian enclave home to 2.3 million people, has been blockaded and besieged by Israel for the past fifteen years. Israel has repeatedly attacked the strip over the past years, killing thousands of civilians.

Smugglers use the tunnels under Gaza to import goods into the besieged Strip, with everything from household goods to cars transported into the enclave. Egypt has destroyed most of these tunnels in recent years.

The Israeli blockade of Gaza has plunged tens of thousands of its residents into poverty.

In December, Israeli authorities announced that they had completed construction of a barrier along the Gaza border, described as an “iron wall” equipped with underground sensors, radars and cameras to counter threats.