Israel was seen likely to intensify its military campaign against Hamas and other Gaza terror groups in the wake of a suicide attack and subsequent abduction of an Israeli officer Friday morning, carried out in breach of a truce. But as Israel’s leaders convened in Tel Aviv late Friday, it was not clear whether ministers would decide to redefine the mission of Operation Protective Edge to include the toppling of Hamas, or continue efforts to locate and rescue the missing soldier and widen the ongoing limited campaign to destroy Hamas’s terror tunnels and degrade Hamas infrastructure in the strip.
“Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip will bear the consequences of their actions,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told US Secretary of State John Kerry during a phone call early Friday afternoon, a few hours after a Hamas suicide bombing and attack near Rafah during which two Israeli soldiers were killed and 2nd-Lt. Hadar Goldin of the Givati Brigade was apparently captured. Israel will “take all necessary steps against those who call for our destruction and perpetrate terrorism against our citizens,” Netanyahu told Kerry.
Kerry later condemned an “outrageous” violation by Palestinian militants of the Gaza ceasefire he helped to broker. He demanded that Hamas move to “immediately and unconditionally release” the missing Israeli soldier.
Israel’s security cabinet was convening at 6:30 p.m., and discussing how to react to the day’s events and, more specifically, whether to expand the offensive or stick to its original objective – restoring sustained quiet to Israel’s citizens while dealing a harsh blow to Hamas terrorist infrastructure.
Netanyahu appeared bitter in the conversation with Kerry. According to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, he told Kerry that “despite his joint statement” with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, according to which “assurances” had been received from Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza regarding a ceasefire from 8:00 a.m. Friday morning, the Palestinians “unilaterally and grossly violated the humanitarian ceasefire and attacked our soldiers after 9:00 a.m.”
Late Thursday, Kerry and Ban had announced that the UN’s Middle East envoy, Robert Serry, “received assurances that all parties have agreed to an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza.”
The Israeli soldiers were attacked more than one hour after the humanitarian ceasefire had gone into effect at 8:00 a.m. “As a result of this attack, two IDF soldiers were killed and there is a suspicion of that another soldier was kidnapped – this happened after the ceasefire went into effect,” Netanyahu told Kerry.
Last Friday, Kerry was harshly criticized by Israeli officials and journalists for a ceasefire proposal – or a draft of it, as US officials later said — he submitted and which the Israeli cabinet unanimously rejected. The text he sent to Jerusalem was seen in Israel as strongly in Hamas’s favor, without taking into account Israel’s security concerns.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni hinted Friday at Israel’s readiness to expand Operation Protective Edge. “Hamas paid and will continue pay a heavy price,” she wrote on Facebook. “And if it wasn’t sufficiently clear to anyone yet, now the world knows who’s responsible for the destruction and the blood of civilians in Gaza.”
The cabinet’s most hawkish members — Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett — have in recent weeks called for harsher action against Hamas, demanding Israel topple the terrorist government there and reoccupy the Gaza Strip. The blatant breach of the ceasefire on Friday morning could potentially convince other cabinet members to consider this option as well, as more and more Israelis get the impression that Hamas is clearly not interested in reaching a ceasefire.
Former Mossad chief and Labor MK Danny Yatom argued Friday that Israel should no longer accept ceasefire agreements before it can be confident that its mission has been fully accomplished. “They crossed all the lines,” he said of Hamas.
The former commander of the Gaza Division, Maj. Gen. (res) Israel Ziv likewise said Friday morning’s events “brought to its end” the understanding of the need for, and the will to attain, a ceasefire in the immediate future.
“I believe we will now face a new strategy by the Israeli government,” he told reporters in an Israel Project conference call. The attack proved that Hamas “is not there,” in terms of its desire for a ceasefire, and that Israel will, therefore, “have to adjust” and “to move ahead.”
The IDF “has several plans,” said Ziv, a former head of the army’s operational branch, adding that while the plans may stop short of a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip, the army could well increase pressure on the urban areas in the days ahead.
He did not dismiss out of hand the notion of an offensive around Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, where the Hamas leadership is said to be hiding, but said the first step would likely be an ultimatum to the parties to the ceasefire talks in Cairo, to pressure Hamas to return the missing soldier without preconditions.
The army should be careful before entering areas of Gaza in which it no longer has a “comparative advantage, said Brig-Gen. (res) Zvika Fogel, a former chief of staff of the IDF Southern Command.
Meanwhile, the international community’s dwindling tolerance for an expanded Israeli ground operation in Gaza, which was already nearing its end before Friday’s events, appeared to reduce the likelihood of an all-out Israeli war versus Hamas. Judging from the calls of several world leaders for immediate and unconditional ceasefires this week, an Israeli move to retake the entire strip would be met with harsh condemnation.
The “oxygen” needed to now launch a major offensive to bring down Hamas “simply isn’t there,” former Labor minister and IDF general Efraim Sneh told Channel 2. “That was never the government’s intention.”
While White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the abduction a “barbaric violation” of the ceasefire agreement, and said it merited international condemnation, it seemed unlikely that the international community would be supportive of a dramatically expanded Israeli ground operation in Gaza, especially one that would cause further civilian casualties. The fact that two soldiers were killed and one abducted during what was supposed to be a humanitarian ceasefire was being seen in Israel as grave provocation. But outside Israel’s borders this would likely not be considered a legitimate reason for a major escalation of the IDF’s military campaign in Gaza.
Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report.