Israel is prepared for “a large scale military operation in Gaza” if calm cannot be maintained, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday, during a visit to Ashkelon.
“I prefer to maintain the tranquility, although we do not have the illusion that it is possible to reach a political agreement with this group [Hamas] that wants to wipe the State of Israel off the face of the earth,” Netanyahu said. “We are preparing for the offensive side, and the campaign is not only going to be broad, but also surprising.”
Netanyahu added that he “will not hesitate to do what is necessary, and electoral considerations do not guide me.”
He spoke after IDF troops along the Gaza border fence shot and killed Hamas commander Mahmoud Ahmad Sabri al-Adham on Thursday morning, in what the military said was a misunderstanding.
According to Palestinian reports, al-Adham, 28, had tried to prevent two youths from approaching the border fence in the northern Gaza Strip.
“Israel intentionally fired at one of our members while he was carrying out his duties,” said Hamas. “We are carrying out an investigation into this crime,” which it said would not go “unpunished,” and that Israel would “bear the consequences of this criminal act.”
Several hours after the incident, the IDF said that troops fired at al-Adham after mistakenly identifying him as armed.
“An initial investigation revealed that an activist from Hamas’s control force arrived at the fence area following two Palestinians who were nearby,” said a statement by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. “In retrospect, it appears that the IDF force that arrived at the incident identified the Hamas activist as an armed terrorist and fired at him by mistake.” The IDF added that the shooting will be further investigated.
The incident comes as an Egyptian intelligence delegation is set to enter the Hamas-run coastal enclave to discuss an agreement for continued calm between the two sides. While there has been relative calm in southern Israel over the past few weeks, Hamas and other groups in the Strip have threatened to increase violence if Israel does not abide by the terms of an informal truce understanding.
Frustrated southern residents gathered on Thursday morning in Kibbutz Sa’ad at a special meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, headed by Likud MK Avi Dichter. During the raucous meeting in which residents demanded action and more governmental support, a number of residents and politicians held shouting matches as tempered flared.
“We need to embark on another military operation in the style of [the 2014 military campaign] Operation Protective Edge, in order to restore deference,” said Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi. Referring to the low-level residual border violence, Davidi said that the on-again, off-again military operations were simply fueling anger in the South.
Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council head Ofir Libstein said he felt that a change had occurred in the last year, as both the deterrence and the resilience of the residents had decreased. It is harder than before to come back after a round of violence, he said.
Alon Alsheich of Kibbut Nir Am said that people in the South just want to live normal lives, fall in love, and start families and business. “We are not here to be your buffer zone and to absorb these [incendiary] balloons,” he said, adding that the southern communities have been so forgotten by the government and the politicians that even during the election period no one was paying attention.
Moreover, Alsheich said, southern residents are not blocking roads, “but look in the mirror and see if you didn’t leave your Zionism in area codes 02 and 03.”
Likud MK Yoav Kisch said he felt as if the “redline” had already been crossed, and that what is happening is a “war of attrition” that seems to have no end.
Nir Meir, secretary-general of the Kibbutz Movement, said that 17 of the 21 communities along the Gaza border were kibbutzim that have disappeared from the map because no one counts them, even though they have endured rockets and incendiary balloons. “No one has visited them for years,” he said.
In Ashkelon, Netanyahu promised southern residents that he would “make sure this city and the communities in the South will continue to develop and prosper, and that there will be a feeling and a reality of security.”
For the past year, thousands of Gazans have been protesting along the security fence on a weekly basis, taking part in the “March of Return” demonstrations that call for an end to the 12-year Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. During the violent protests, Gazans have been burning tires, and hurling stones, grenades and other explosive devices toward IDF troops.
Gazans have also launched countless aerial incendiary devices into southern Israel such as balloons or kites with burning embers or rags soaked in car oil. Explosive balloons and condoms have also been launched toward Israel, landing on major highways, trees, and even in playgrounds or private yards in Sderot and other smaller Gaza vicinity communities.
According to figures released by the IDF on Wednesday, a total of 1,400 dunams have been burnt in southern Israel during the first six months of 2019, a significant decrease from the 34,000 dunams burnt in 2018.
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