Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned Hamas on Friday not to resume rocket fire at Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip, saying Israel could move to “the next level” in its response if peace is not maintained.
On a visit to Kibbutz Or HaNer, Liberman, referring to the name for warning sirens in the Gaza periphery, said: “If we get Code Red here, they’ll get deep red on the other side.”
The minister insisted that Jerusalem’s response to weeks and months of border violence, arson attacks and rocket fire had been a forceful one.
He said the IDF had caused Hamas serious casualties and had rendered “significant harm to its most critical terror infrastructure — weapons manufacturing and storage facilities and training sites. We’re also heavily regulating Kerem Shalom (Gaza’s main goods crossing), so looking at everything that’s taken place I think the response has been strong.
He implied that Israel did not want to escalate the situation in Gaza due to the need for vigilance on other fronts. “Do we need to go to the next level? It seems so,” he said. “But we have a responsibility to defend all the nation’s borders, to face all the threats at once and to maintain a normal life here and everywhere else.”
Asked what he meant by a ‘next stage,’ Liberman said: “I believe we are very much uninterested in being dragged into a war. We are doing everything to prevent a large-scale campaign, but the ball is in the other court, it’s not in our court.
“I highly recommend to Hamas to behave wisely this weekend and not to force us into actions we are capable of taking and don’t want to take.”
Liberman rejected Israeli responsibility for the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Strip, which has been blamed for deepening desperation and increased tensions and violence.
“The crisis right now is chiefly because Abu Mazen has decided to cut $300 million [to Gaza] and Hamas is unwilling to provide a single dollar to civilians for education and health,” Liberman said, using Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s nickname.
“The entire Hamas budget is around $270 million. It is entirely beholden to the production of rockets and tunnels — and we and the international community are asked to give money to Gaza’s residents. It’s absurd. It’s their problem.”
Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinians during Friday’s violent protests at the border, the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said. The ministry said the deceased were a 43-year-old man and a 12-year-old boy.
The IDF said around 7,000 Palestinians participated in violent riots in several locations along the border. Protesters hurled rocks and burned tires, and attacked troops with pipe bombs, a Molotov cocktail and a grenade — all of which did not manage to clear the fence and fell in Gazan territory.
The military said soldiers responded with less-lethal means as well as live fire in certain instances.
The Gaza health ministry reported that at least 240 people were injured, while 90 suffered wounds from live fire.
There was no immediate comment from the army. In previous protests the military has responded to rocks, Molotov cocktails and attempts to infiltrate the border fence with tear gas and rubber bullets as well as live fire in specific cases.
The Gaza health ministry reported that several Palestinians were wounded during the weekly clashes.
Earlier the Israeli military carried out an airstrike on a squad of Palestinians in northern Gaza as they flew incendiary balloons towards Israel, the army said. Palestinians said there were no casualties in the attack.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday the conflict with Hamas in Gaza was “a test of will” and said Israel “will do what it takes” to protect its citizens.
Recent weeks have seen the most serious tensions with Hamas since the 2014 war.
The past week has seen the most intense escalation. It began with the death of an IDF soldier on the border last Friday at the hands of a Gazan sniper, which led to widespread Israeli airstrikes. UN mediator Nickolay Mladenov later said the sides had been “minutes from war” before a tacit ceasefire was reached.
A ceasefire was hurriedly agreed upon over the weekend and the following few days were relatively calm.
But on Wednesday night another sniper attack moderately wounded an IDF officer near Kissufim, followed by retaliatory strikes by IDF tanks and planes that targeted multiple Hamas installations and left three members of the terror group dead.
Nine rockets were then fired at Israel overnight, eight falling in uninhabited areas and one shot down by Iron Dome, followed by another round of retaliatory IDF strikes against seven Hamas installations along the border.
Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, announced Thursday morning that its forces were going on high alert, deploying at the highest readiness level in expectation of a possible full-blown war with Israel.
“Israel will pay in blood for its latest crimes,” Hamas said in a Thursday morning statement.
According to the army, the Wednesday night sniper fire came as a squad of IDF soldiers arrived at a part of the fence that saw a group of 20 minors rioting on the other side. The minors were used as a decoy by the snipers to fire on the soldiers, the IDF said.