The Israeli army is preparing for a ground incursion into Gaza and will launch it unless rocket fire from the Strip ends, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar said during a visit to a school in Sderot on Monday.
“We have seen the escalations on the Gaza border increase in frequency over the past year and we need to put an end to them,” said Sa’ar, a senior Likud official with close ties to the prime minister. “All the preparations for a wide-scale ground operation are being made. Unless the [missile] fire stops, such an operation will be launched.”
Sa’ar said that measures to gain international approval for an operation similar to 2008′s Cast Lead are already under way.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak addressed the possibility of such an incursion too, though more subtly. During a joint US-Israel air defense drill, Barak said actions against Hamas “may intensify and expand.”
On Monday, Barak made it clear that Israel would not hesitate to reenter Gaza. “If we are forced to go back into Gaza in order to deal Hamas a [serious] blow and restore security for all of Israel’s citizens, then we will not hesitate to do so,” he said.
Southern Israel has come under heavy rocket and mortar fire from Gaza over the last two days, during which more than 150 projectiles were fired by terror groups, disrupting normal routines and closing schools throughout the region. Three people have been injured and several houses damaged in the barrage.
Israel has so far responded with preventive and retaliatory airstrikes, targeting rocket launching squads and other terrorist infrastructures, killing six and injuring dozens.
Fighting continued Monday despite reports of an Egyptian-moderated truce that was supposed to take effect Sunday evening. Cabinet ministers, heads of southern regional councils and citizens of the south have called on the government to authorize the IDF to carry out missions that will act as deterrents and lead to an extended period of calm in the region.
Netanyahu held consultations with defense establishment leaders on Sunday and was briefed on various military options to tackle the situation in Gaza.
“The IDF is operating, and will operate, forcefully against the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip, which are sustaining heavy blows from the IDF,” the prime minister said on Sunday. “The world needs to understand that Israel will not sit idly by in the face of attempts to attack us. We are prepared to intensify the response.”
Opposition head Shaul Mofaz said he was in favor of a strategy of targeted killings rather than a ground incursion at this time. The former defense minister and army chief said that as long as the missile fire continued, all terrorist leaders were legitimate targets.
Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon denied Monday that Israel had agreed to a truce with Gaza organizations. “I don’t know of any request for a ceasefire by Hamas, nor of any actions taken with that goal in mind by Gaza,” he said in an interview to Army Radio.
Ya’alon indicated he supported the resumption of targeted killing operations against terrorists leaders, a strategy he said worked well during his time at the helm of the IDF in 2003-2004.
On Sunday, Ya’alon spoke about the possibility of a Cast Lead-style ground operation deep in the Gaza Strip, saying Israel would first try to achieve its goals with more moderate force.
“Everything is being weighed and will be weighed,” he intimated, when asked if he was talking about a “Cast Lead II.”
Internal Defense Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich said the IDF needed to respond forcefully to the Gaza rocket fire in order to bring an end to the “insufferable” situation in the south.
Speaking on Israel Radio Monday, Aharonovich said Hamas was responsible for the attacks from Gaza and that the results of any IDF action must be “painful.”
Aharonovich said he does not support re-conquering the Gaza Strip, which Israel unilaterally withdrew from in 2005, but said that the army had many tools at its disposal. He said that Hamas only understands force and that Israel has the means to overcome it.
“We need to create a completely different deterrence situation” in regards to the “terrorist state” in the Gaza Strip, Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter said in a Sunday interview with Army Radio.
Dichter, who recently joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, noted that “nobody should think Israel’s actions will be affected by upcoming elections. [Operation] Cast Lead came during an elections period [in 2008-9], and so did [the 1981 attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at] Osirak.”
Dichter wouldn’t specify what kind of Israeli response could change the rules of the game, and stopped short of calling for a large-scale IDF ground excursion into the Gaza Strip.