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Amid calm, Liberman says Israel remains girded for Gaza war

Defense minister maintains Israel not looking for another conflict in the Strip, says Hamas leadership to blame for ‘anything that happens going forward’

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

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, meets with the IDF's top generals in the military's Tel Aviv headquarters, the Kirya, on July 23, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, meets with the IDF's top generals in the military's Tel Aviv headquarters, the Kirya, on July 23, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday said Israel was not gunning for a fight in the Gaza Strip but would not shy away from launching a military offensive if violence from the restive enclave did not stop.

“Is the State of Israel interested in a war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip? The answer is no. Are we deterred from [starting] a campaign in the Gaza Strip? Here too, the answer is no,” Liberman said.

The defense minister made his comments at the start of a meeting with the Israel Defense Forces’ General Staff in the military’s Tel Aviv headquarters, known as the Kirya.

The comments came days after an IDF soldier was killed by a sniper during border fighting, leading to massive Israeli retaliatory bombings and Hamas suing for a ceasefire.

Liberman said Israel would not continue to tolerate fires, kites and border clashes, and claimed the country had “done everything in order to prevent a war in the Gaza Strip.”

“Anything that happens going forward in the Gaza Strip is the sole responsibility of the Hamas leadership,” he said.

A picture taken on July 20, 2018 shows a fireball exploding in Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike. (AFP Photo/Bashar Taleb)

The status of the ceasefire that was reportedly reached with Hamas Friday night remained largely intact as of Monday, despite a number of small-scale incidents on Saturday and Sunday.

On Sunday morning, Liberman said Israel would reopen the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza, the main cargo terminal into the Strip, if calm remained.

The defense minister also touched briefly on the situation in Syria, which has seen dictator Bashar Assad’s forces taking over previously rebel-held areas in the country’s southwest, along the border with Israel. This offensive was seen as one of the final actions the Assad regime needs to take before it can officially end the seven-year-old civil war.

Israel has maintained that it will not get involved in the country’s internal fighting, but will forcefully oppose efforts by Iran and its proxies to set up a permanent military presence in Syria.

“We have a clear policy, and we have no intention to change it,” Liberman said.

A screen capture from a video purporting to show the aftermath of an Israeli strike on a research facility in the Masyaf area of northwest Syria on July 22, 2018. (Screen capture: Twitter)

On Sunday night, Syrian state media reported that Israel had conducted an airstrikes against an Iran-linked weapons manufacturing facility in Masyaf, near Hama.

On Monday, Israel launched two interceptor missiles from its David’s Sling air defense battery after it spotted what appeared to be incoming rockets from Syria, in the first known operational use of the system.

Ultimately the rockets, which were launched during internal fighting in Syria, failed to cross the border and landed within Syrian territory, the military said.

Another day of quiet

Liberman’s meeting with the IDF top brass came a day after he announced that Israel was prepared to fully reopen the main crossing for goods into the Gaza Strip on Tuesday if the relative calm in the territory persists until then.

“Yesterday was one of the calmest days, perhaps, since March 30,” Liberman said, during a visit to the Kerem Shalom Crossing on Sunday. “If that situation continues today and tomorrow as it was yesterday, then on Tuesday we will revive the regular procedures and also expand the fishing zone to what it was before.”

Defense Minsiter Avigdor Liberman visits the Kerem Shalom Crossing on July 22, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The Kerem Shalom Crossing, the only Israeli crossing for commercial goods into and out of the Gaza Strip, has been closed to everything but shipments of food, medicine and occasionally fuel since July 9.

Liberman stressed that calm also meant an end to months of kites and balloons carrying firebombs over the border fence from the Palestinian enclave to burn Israeli farming land.

On Sunday night, an Israeli aircraft fired at a group of Palestinians launching incendiary balloons into southern Israel from the northern Gaza Strip, the army said. The Hamas-run Gazan health ministry said two people were injured in the strike. It listed the injuries as light to moderate.

An incendiary balloon was discovered earlier in the day in the Eshkol region, though it did not start a fire.

Indeed, no blazes sparked by airborne arson devices from Gaza were reported in southern Israel on Sunday, according to a spokesperson for the Fire and Rescue Services southern division.

Since March 30, southern Israel has experienced innumerable fires as a result of incendiary kites and balloons. Over 7,000 acres of land has been burned, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials.

The reported ceasefire with Hamas was reached after the IDF pounded dozens of Hamas targets on Friday night in response to a sniper attack on the border earlier in the evening, in which a soldier was killed.

An undated photo of Sgt. Aviv Levi of the IDF’s Givati Brigade, who was killed by sniper fire from Gaza on July 20, 2018. (Courtesy)

On Friday evening, a Palestinian sniper shot dead an IDF soldier, Staff Sgt. Aviv Levi, 20, along the security fence surrounding the coastal enclave — the first Israeli killed in an attack from Gaza since the 2014 war.

In response, the Israeli military launched a series of raids against dozens of Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip. Four Palestinians were killed, Hamas reported that three were its fighters.

A ceasefire was reached within hours, with many in Israel seeing the speed with which the agreement was reached and the lack of significant counter-attacks by Hamas as a sign that the Gaza-ruling terrorist group was not interested in a new all-out war with the Jewish state.

The Gaza Strip is under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that the two countries say is meant to prevent the ruling Hamas terror group from smuggling weapons into the Strip.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars over the past decade.

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