Israel prepared for a broad military campaign in Gaza Thursday, as Egypt worked behind the scenes to ensure that Palestinians marking the one year anniversary of the Great March of Return this weekend do not spark a new IDF-Hamas war.The Hamas-led event, which began on March 30, 2018 with a focus on weekly border riots, has kept the potential of a renewed IDF-Hamas conflict simmering for the past year.
The march has drawn thousands of participants and Palestinians are expected to gather en masse this weekend as well.Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Gaza border Thursday to view for himself the troop build-up there in advance of the weekend.“We are tightening the security ring around the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu said.“I recently ordered that the [IDF border] units be reinforced, that tools be added, in preparation for an extensive campaign,” Netanyahu said.“All citizens of Israel know that if an extensive campaign is necessary – we will go into it strong and secure, after all other possibilities have been exhausted,” Netanyahu added.Gaza rocket fire toward central Israel in the last few weeks, including an attack Sunday which destroyed a home and injured a family of seven, has inflamed public emotion. Right-wing politicians have pressured Netanyahu to respond harshly to Gaza rockets and incendiary devices.As a sign of ratcheting tensions, Israeli Air Force struck a group of Palestinians Thursday, who had launched explosive balloons towards Israel from the northern Gaza Strip.Egypt and the United Nations have been working intensely behind the scenes to ensure that calm is maintained by brokering an informal understanding between Israel and Hamas. They are also pushing both Israel and Hamas to come to either a long term cease-fire agreement or understanding.The Egyptian security delegation, headed by Gen. Ahmed Abdel Khaleq, arrived in the Gaza Strip late Wednesday. On Thursday afternoon, the delegation headed back to Israel to brief Israeli officials on the outcome of their talks with the Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip.Sources in the Gaza Strip said that the Egyptian intelligence officials demanded that the Palestinian factions work towards preventing Palestinians from engaging in violence during Saturday’s protests. The Egyptians reportedly relayed a message from Israel to the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the effect that Israel will respond with full force to any attempt to infiltrate the border or harm its soldiers.The Egyptian officials are expected to return to the Gaza Strip on Friday, said Talal Abu Tharifah, a senior official with the PLO’s Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The Egyptians, he said, will brief the leaders of the Palestinian factions on the results of their talks in Israel, especially with regards to the demand that Israel ease restrictions imposed on the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave.US special envoy Jason Greenblatt called on Hamas to halt its violence against Israel and to focus instead on providing services for the 2 million Palestinians that live in Gaza.“It's been one year since Hamas’ so-called protests began which urge Palestinians to engage in violence & use Palestinians as human shields. The welfare and safety of the Palestinian people, not violence, SHOULD be the top priority in Gaza,” Greenblatt said.Netanyahu spoke about Gaza and the threats Israel faces along all of its borders when he inaugurated a section of Highway #6 from Tel Kashish to the Somekh interchange. “I come now from the border with the Gaza Strip. I met with divisional and brigade commanders who are on the first line,” Netanyahu said. Israel, he explained, also faces threats from its northern border, including on the Golan Heights.“Not far from here are the Golan Heights, our sovereignty over which was recognized by President Trump three days ago. This is a tremendous diplomatic achievement for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said.“Beyond the Golan Heights is Syria, and also Iran. Iran is constantly trying to bring precision long-range missiles, which are very advanced and very lethal, into Syria," Netanyahu said. “We are not prepared to accept this and our activity against Iran’s attempt to entrench militarily in Syria, to bring in advanced weaponry, is continuing all the time," he added.The IDF said Thursday that troops had completed their operational preparations for the "Land Day" events and were continuing their preparations for a possible escalation of violence. Within the operational preparations, a Division Headquarters, three infantry Brigades and an artillery unit were deployed to enhance the Southern Command. “The forces are conducting briefings, readiness checks and training for a variety of possible scenarios,” read the IDF statement. During the day, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi led a series of briefings as well as a situational assessment, where various scenarios were discussed and operational orders were approved. In addition, the military said that the leave of all combat units that are currently assigned to the Southern Command has been cancelled.
Netanyahu: We are preparing for a broad campaign in Gaza, March 28, 2019 (GPO)