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Cuomo tours tunnels along Israel-Gaza border

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo talks to the

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo talks to the media before entering a tunnel connecting Gaza and Israel on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Yancey Roy

EIN HASHLOSHA, Israel -- Traveling in armored military vehicles, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and a New York delegation ventured Thursday to within 500 meters of the security fence dividing Israel and Gaza to get a first-hand tour of underground tunnels recently discovered by the Israeli military.

The so-called terror tunnels were meant to be used by Hamas to enter a nearby kibbutz and kidnap residents, military officials told Cuomo, shortly before leading officials down a shaft they constructed to reach passageway.

Pitch black, lined with concrete roofs and electrical and phone wiring, the sophistication of the burrows surprised the governor and other members of the delegation.

"Reading media accounts back home, you'd think these were a few yards of dirt you could crawl through," said Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). "These are sophisticated tunnels intended to kill."

The tunnel was the final stop of what was a less-than-30-hour stay in Israel. The delegation, which included Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Senate co-leader Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), viewed one launching site for Israel's "Iron Dome," an anti-missile system near Ashdod. They also met with former Israeli President Shimon Peres near the tunnel sites and had a closed-door briefing with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.

Peres said he was "proud" and "grateful" for the delegation's visit.

"We're on the same front -- the front of humanity," he told delegates, adding that the "greatest problem today is the fanatic Muslim terrorists."

The night before, Cuomo and delegates dined with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

New York officials used campaign funds to pay for the trip.

The tunnel was one of four discovered in this area along the Gaza border, said Israeli Lt. Col. Peter Lerner.

The military, using armored trucks and carrying automatic rifles, brought the New Yorkers to a huge open pit that exposed a tunnel about 130 feet below.

Then, they piled everyone back in for a longer drive to the site near the security fence. There, Cuomo, the delegation and the media toured a tunnel some 14 feet below the surface.

"Truly amazing, how extensive and how sophisticated a network they built virtually undetected," Cuomo said after emerging. "You see those tunnels and you are reminded of how aggressive and tenacious the enemy is. There are miles and miles of tunnels. These are concrete reinforced . . . The tunnels are an entirely new development and a frightening one."

Silver, Skelos and others decried the money and effort spent on constructing tunnels rather than helping people in Gaza.

"They could have built hospitals, schools, housing for people who so desperately need it," Silver said, "yet they chose to build tools of terror."

The delegation said it wanted to "make a statement" that New York stood behind Israel during the current conflict in Gaza. Asked about a Palestinian invitation to visit Gaza and see the other side of the conflict, Skelos said he wouldn't because that would give legitimacy to Hamas.

Cuomo, who is up for re-election in November against Republican Rob Astorino, said he did as much as he possibly could during the short visit. Asked if he would consider another trip, he didn't directly answer and changed the subject.

Asked if he would seek an elective office where he could have a bigger impact in Israel -- a not-so-veiled reference to the fact that some Democrats believe the governor is positioning himself for a possible future presidential run, Cuomo said, "I'm running for governor of New York."

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