Reuters International

An entrance to a tunnel exposed by the Israeli military is seen near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, just outside the southern Gaza Strip in this October 13, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/Files

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By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel said on Monday it had unearthed a new cross-border tunnel dug by Hamas militants from the Gaza Strip, the first such discovery since the 2014 war, but played down the prospect of renewed conflict.

Since being blindsided by Hamas tunnel raiders during the war, Israel has, with U.S. help, stepped up work on technologies for spotting the secret passages. Some Israelis who live on the Gaza frontier believe militants are digging fresh tunnels and worry the counter-measures will come too late.

The tunnel made public on Monday was discovered days earlier but kept under wraps by Israel as it probed what it said were hundreds of metres (yards) of shafts on the Israeli side of the border near southeast Gaza. The network was then razed.

"We have neutralised the tunnel in Israeli territory, rendering it unusable for infiltration by Hamas terrorists," said Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, a military spokesman.

Asked how the tunnel was discovered, he declined to give specifics, citing only "a combination of technology, intelligence, engineering capabilities and boots on the ground".

"We estimate that this tunnel was mostly built after Protective Edge," Lerner said, using Israel's term for the Gaza war, during which it lost 12 soldiers to Hamas gunmen who burrowed across the border on four occasions.

Hamas, which has largely held fire since the war, implicitly claimed the tunnel as its own.

"What the enemy announced is only a drop in the sea of what the resistance has prepared to defend its people and liberate its sacred sites, its land and its prisoners," Hamas's armed wing, Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam, said in a statement.

Israel has signalled the mere existence of a tunnel - as opposed to its use for an attack - may not be a casus belli.

"We do not seek conflict, but if Hamas tries to provoke the State of Israel and disrupt the lives of residents of the Gaza periphery communities, it will be dealt a very strong blow," Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a statement on Monday.

The Gaza war killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and devastated parts of the enclave. Gaza medical sources and U.N. officials say most were civilians, a figure disputed by Israel, which lost 67 troops and six civilians to the fighting.

The Gaza periphery is now mostly quiet, except for occasional Palestinian rocket attacks Israel says were carried out by Islamist groups that view Hamas as too lenient.

Despite the apparent role of Israeli technology in discovering the tunnel, officials say a more reliable counter-measure, comparable to the Iron Dome interceptor for rockets, is still not in place.

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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