hamas mortar
A Hamas militant displays a mortar shell as he celebrates what the militants say was a victory over Israel, in front of a destroyed house in Gaza CityReuters

Israeli military officials have claimed that Islamist militant group Hamas planned a huge assault on Israeli border communities using their sophisticated tunnel network from the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) spokesman Peter Lerner said that the terrorist organisation plotted to send up to 200 militants into Israel to "inflict mass casualties".

"Hamas had a plan," Lerner told Vanity Fair. "A simultaneous, coordinated, surprise attack within Israel."

"They planned to send 200 terrorists armed to the teeth toward civilian populations," he added.

"This was going to be a coordinated attack. The concept of operations involved 14 offensive tunnels into Israel. With at least 10 men in each tunnel, they would infiltrate and inflict mass casualties."

Lerner said that the IDF's Military Intelligence had found that Hamas militants were planning to use the tunnels for coordinated assaults and not random attacks.

"We have no specific date but they absolutely intended to use strategic points of access for multiple coordinated attacks," he said.

Earlier Israeli media reports stated that the Hamas attack was to take place around the Jewish new year holiday of Rosh Hashanah but officials denied this.

"The sensationalism was around Rosh Hashanah," Lerner said. "There was no specific date."

Unnamed Israeli military officials supported Lerner's comments by stating that Hamas was seeking a major publicity event by attacking IDF and civilian targets.

"First, get in and massacre people in a village," one official said. "Pull off something they could show on television. Second, the ability to kidnap soldiers and civilians using the tunnels would give them a great bargaining chip."

Hamas has previously used tunnels to capture Israeli soldiers such as Gilad Shalit in 2006, who was traded for over one thousand Palestinian prisoners, and has maintained that it only uses the tunnels to attack Israeli military targets and not civilians.

"The tunnels may have been outwardly called 'offensive tunnels,' but in actual fact they are 'defensive' ones'," said Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.

"There are Israeli towns adjacent to Gaza," he said. "Have any of the tunnels been used to kill any civilian or any of the residents of such towns? No. Never! . . . [Hamas] used them either to strike beyond the back lines of the Israeli army or to raid some military sites . . . This proves that Hamas is only defending itself."

In the recent seven-week Gaza conflict, over 2,100 Palestinians - mostly civilians - lost their lives. All but five of the 68 Israeli fatalities were soldiers.