After flareup, military warns current Gaza policies leading region back to war
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IDF appears to be openly at odds with government over Gaza

After flareup, military warns current Gaza policies leading region back to war

Army tells reporters it was instructed to wrap up fighting before holidays, Eurovision, and was kept from carrying out wider attacks; cabinet minister disputes claims

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A young Palestinian rides a horse-drawn cart on May 6, 2019, in front of a building that was damaged during an Israeli airstike on Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)
A young Palestinian rides a horse-drawn cart on May 6, 2019, in front of a building that was damaged during an Israeli airstike on Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Indicating that it is at odds with the government regarding policy on Gaza, the Israeli military on Monday warned that war with the impoverished Hamas-controlled enclave could be back on the horizon in days or weeks if Israel did not work to ease living conditions there.

Saturday and Sunday saw two days of intense fighting that saw nearly 700 rockets fired at Israel and four Israeli civilians killed.

In response to the onslaught, the Israel Defense Forces conducted over 300 strikes from the air and land, including a rare assassination of a terrorist operative whom the IDF said funneled money from Iran to terror groups in the Strip.

The fighting was some of the heaviest seen since 2014’s 50-day war with Gaza, but tapered off late Sunday and early Monday, as Palestinian factions Hamas and Islamic Jihad said a ceasefire had been reached.

In a press briefing, the military said the country needed to make changes to its strategic policy to improve living conditions in the Gaza Strip if it did not want another flareup of violence in coming weeks.

Palestinians check damage to a multi-story building following Israeli retaliatory airstrikes in Gaza City, May 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Now that there is some degree of calm, the IDF said it believes that the Israeli government should strike while the iron is hot and work towards a longer term ceasefire agreement. In the meantime, however, the military is keeping the air force, including air defense units, on high alert in case of another breakout of violence.

The violent outburst on Saturday and Sunday was the latest in a series of escalating clashes between Israel and Gaza-based terrorists to bring the sides to the brink of war, as Hamas has pushed for a blockade on the Strip maintained by Israel and Egypt to be lifted and other restrictions eased.

While the army has reportedly pushed for measures meant to make the lives of Palestinians in the Strip more bearable, the political leadership has been more hesitant, fearing being portrayed as giving in to terror, especially with Hamas holding Israeli captives and the remains of soldiers.

The military said in its briefing that throughout the fighting, it had been ordered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to retaliate against the rocket fire forcefully, but with sufficient restraint as to avoid all-out war. Netanyahu also serves as defense minister.

The IDF contradicted claims by members of the security cabinet that the Memorial and Independence Days coming up this week and the Eurovision Song Contest planned for next week were not considerations in its decision-making.

The army said it had been instructed to try to bring the fighting to an end before these events, if not sooner, and with as many achievements as possible. Memorial Day begins Tuesday night, with Independence Day the next night. The Eurovision song contest is scheduled to begin on May 14.

Reception area at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv. (Andres Putting, EBU)

The military said the need to wrap up the fighting quickly prevented it from conducting strikes on Hamas’s longer range rockets.

In response, a security cabinet minister told Channel 12 news, “We were shocked by the army’s briefings. They are not in line with what the chief of staff presented to the cabinet. This is an attempt by the army to push blame onto the cabinet.”

Other cabinet officials told the outlet that there were other circumstances beyond the upcoming holidays and events that justified the ceasefire. The officials hinted that the reasoning was similar to the case in November when a truce was accepted ahead of the IDF’s Operation Northern Shield the following month, which found and destroyed attack tunnels dug by the Hezbollah terror group from Lebanon into northern Israel.

Military Intelligence believes that, for now, terror groups in the Strip will not carry out attacks against Israel in the lead-up to the Eurovision Song Contest, which is expected to draw tens of thousands of visitors.

But the army said that, while extant, this deterrence is shaky, especially as it relates to the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, whom the IDF primarily blames for this weekend’s battle.

Before this latest flareup, the military said it had identified plans by the terror group to carry out an attack on the international music competition.

Israeli air defense system Iron Dome takes out rockets fired from Gaza near Sderot, May 4, 2019. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

This weekend’s fighting began on Friday evening after Islamic Jihad, the second largest terror group in the Strip, conducted a sniper attack on an Israeli officer and soldier serving along the Gaza border, injuring them. In response, the IDF shelled a nearby manned Hamas observation post, killing several members of the Gaza-ruling terrorist group.

The following morning, Hamas and Islamic Jihad began firing rockets and mortar shells at south and central Israel, continuing until the predawn hours of Monday morning when the terror groups said Egypt had brokered a ceasefire. Over the course of those 41 hours, more than 690 projectiles were fired from the Gaza Strip.

Hamas and the Islamic Jihad attempted to overwhelm the Iron Dome missile defense system by repeatedly firing large fusillades at a specific location. In one case, over the course of one hour, at least 117 rockets were fired at the city of Ashdod.

A Hamas official boasted Monday that the terror group had managed to beat Iron Dome with the strategy.

Pinchas Menachem Prezuazman. (Courtesy)

In fact, only one of the projectiles aimed at Ashdod in the volley made it past Israel’s air defense. That rocket killed Pinchas Menachem Prezuazman, 21, a dual American-Israeli citizen, as he was running for shelter.

Three other Israelis were killed in attacks from the Strip on Sunday: Moshe Agadi, 58; Zaid al-Hamamdeh, 47; and Moshe Feder, 68.

Hamas also attempted to use a new style of rocket, one with a short range and a heavy warhead, packed with dozens to hundreds of kilograms of explosives. The terror group believed these would get past Israel’s air defenses, as during the 2014 Gaza war, the Iron Dome struggled to intercept short-range mortar shells. However, the military said technological upgrades and other improvements to the Iron Dome allowed it to shoot down the rockets.

In total, 35 rockets and mortar shells from the Gaza Strip struck populated areas over the course of Saturday and Sunday.

The military said that while this shows the Iron Dome is not impenetrable, the system was overall effective, with 240 interceptions and an 86 percent success rate. The Iron Dome’s radars also successfully spotted every rocket and mortar launch, which ensured that Israelis were warned of incoming projectiles ahead of time.

A picture taken from the southern village of Netiv Ha’asara shows missiles fired from Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system intercepting rockets fired from the Gaza Strip on May 4, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)

The military accused the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad of instigating the massive flareup with its sniper attack on the border and said the terror group kept it going by rejecting ceasefire offers throughout the fighting. Though the terror group gets most of its funding and support from Iran, the IDF believes that these decisions were not the result of pressure from Tehran but came from domestic political considerations.

The army said the terror group ultimately accepted a truce due to intense pressure from Hamas and Egypt.

The IDF said the group also appeared to be surprised by the number of airstrikes against it over the weekend, as typically Israel focuses its attacks on Hamas, under the belief that, as the de facto ruler of Gaza, the terror group should bear responsibility for all violence emanating from the enclave, regardless of the source.

In Israel’s strikes, at least eight members of Islamic Jihad were killed and dozens of its facilities were hit, including an attack tunnel that was under construction in the southern Gaza Strip.

IDF says it destroyed an attack tunnel crossing under the border from Gaza to Israel, May 4, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military said the group had recently intensified its efforts to complete the tunnel in order to conduct a cross-border raid.

The IDF said that the government’s directive to strike a balance between aggressive retaliations and restraint to prevent war prompted heated disagreement on the IDF General Staff over the decision by army chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi to conduct so-called “targeted killings” — assassinations of terrorist leaders with pinpoint strikes — a practice that the military had abandoned in recent years.

Top officers were concerned that such strikes could lead to a wider campaign, as it did in November 2012, when the IDF assassinated Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari and sparked the week-long Operation Pillar of Defense.

Ultimately, these objections were overruled and the military conducted the airstrike, killing Hamas field commander Hamed al-Khodari, whom the IDF says funneled large amounts of money from Iran to terror groups in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian emergency personnel try to put out the fire on a car belonging to Hamas field commander Hamad al-Khodari, in Gaza City, after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike on May 5, 2019. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

The IDF said al-Khodari was tracked by multiple drones before the strike as he was driving through the streets of Gaza City.

The military waited until the other passengers in his car got out before conducting the strike. He was the only person killed in the attack, though three bystanders were reportedly injured. The military later released what it said was drone footage of the strike.

According to the military, al-Khodari was technically the second assassination conducted over the course of the fighting. On Saturday, the military also killed a senior member of Hamas’s drone unit in an airstrike as he was riding on a motorcycle.

The IDF said a number of armed unmanned aerial vehicles were used in attempted attacks on Israeli troops along the border, but that these efforts were not successful.

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