After Gaza flare-up, ministers hear war drums as army seeks return to calm
Two Israeli ministers said another war in Gaza is on Israel’s horizon on Tuesday, following a tense day of IDF air and tank strikes in response to a rocket attack from the Strip on Monday morning, but the army stressed it had no interest in further conflict on the southern front.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday that a war was “a matter of when, not if.”
“In Gaza, they are continuing to threaten us and try to harm us,” Bennett said at a ceremony in southern Israel commemorating the death of an Israeli student killed by Hamas rocket fire in 2005.
“Only with a total victory over our enemy will we put an end to this,” Bennett added.
In a Tuesday morning interview on Army Radio, Housing Minister Yoav Galant, a former general, also said there was a chance of escalation and conflict with the Hamas terrorist group later this year.
“The [current] reality, in my assessment, might lead to a situation in which Hamas is drawn to escalation in the spring or the summer,” said Galant, a former head of the army’s Southern Command.
Galant’s predictions have not always been accurate. In April 2016, in another Army Radio interview, the minister predicted a war in Gaza that summer as well, but no such conflict occurred.
The IDF, meanwhile, has sought to calm some of the tensions surrounding the Gaza Strip.
“We have no interest in an escalation of violence, but are determined to fulfill our obligation and protect the people of Israel from attacks originating in Gaza,” army spokesperson Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told The Times of Israel.
“The strikes yesterday against Hamas’ positions were a clear message that it is responsible for the attacks against Israel and will be held accountable,” he added.
In response to the IDF strikes, the Hamas terrorist group said Monday it holds Israel “fully” responsible for any fallout or escalation in hostilities between the two sides.
Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem also called on regional and international authorities to curb Israel’s “aggression.”
On Monday morning, a rocket was fired from northern Gaza at Israel, striking an open field south of the city of Ashkelon. Later in the day, an IDF patrol was also fired upon near the security fence surrounding the coastal enclave. No Israelis were injured in the attacks.
In response, the army targeted at least eight Hamas positions in the Strip, with both airstrikes and tank shellings.
Two Palestinians were reportedly injured by shrapnel to an unknown degree, according to the Gaza health ministry.
The army said its strikes were in response not only to Monday’s rocket attack and gunfire, but also to “other incidents from Gaza in the last month.” This was a reference to smaller-scale incidents that have occurred along the security fence surrounding the Strip.
Following the 2014 Gaza war, which aimed to stem rocket fire from the Strip against Israeli towns, the rate of such attacks dwindled to, on average, one or two missiles per month.
These rockets have been launched mainly by radical Salafist groups. But Israel sees Hamas, which has ruled the Strip for the past 10 years, as ultimately responsible for any any attacks coming from Gaza.
In recent months, the IDF — under the direction of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman — has adopted a harsher policy toward the sporadic rocket fire.
The hawkish Liberman has promised that Israel will respond aggressively to rocket attacks in order to force Hamas to rein in the more extreme groups in the Gaza Strip.
In a sense, these Palestinian rocket attacks also present the army with an opportunity. In its retaliations, the IDF is able to target key Hamas infrastructure which it otherwise might not have attacked, as the army’s policy has generally been only to respond, not initiate.
This was the case on at least two occasions over the past year, in August and October, when Israeli aircraft launched dozens of airstrikes against Hamas infrastructure.
In Israel’s retaliatory attacks on Monday, “three terrorist infrastructures” were struck, along with five other military positions belonging to the Hamas terrorist group” in the Strip, including a naval base in northern Gaza.
The IDF would not specify the locations of the strikes, but Gaza-based media reported that Hamas positions in Jabaliya, al-Maghazi, Gaza City, Khan Younis and Juhor ad-Dik were targeted in the aerial bombardment.
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