As Gaza heats up, Israel points an accusing finger at Iran
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'Iran and Hezbollah are trying to turn Gaza into Lebanon II'

As Gaza heats up, Israel points an accusing finger at Iran

Israeli officials call on residents of the coastal enclave to reject the machinations of the Iranian regime and choose a better 'future for your children'

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

Israelis take cover during a mortar attack siren warning at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israel and Gaza border, Israel, December 29, 2017. Israelis had gathered there to mark the birthday of Oron Shaul, who was killed during the last war in Gaza; Hamas holds his remains. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Israelis take cover during a mortar attack siren warning at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israel and Gaza border, Israel, December 29, 2017. Israelis had gathered there to mark the birthday of Oron Shaul, who was killed during the last war in Gaza; Hamas holds his remains. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

After terrorists in Gaza fired three mortar shells at southern Israel on Friday, apparently to disrupt a ceremony honoring a fallen IDF soldier whose remains are being held captive in the coastal enclave, top Israeli officials have cast blame not only on Hamas, which rules the Strip, but also on Israel’s nemesis, Iran.

On social media and in interviews with news outlets, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz and the Israel Defense Forces have all pointed to the Islamic Republic as the source of rising tensions in the Gaza Strip.

Friday’s mortar fire was the latest attack against Israel by terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip this month, which also saw a two-week period in which there were near daily rocket launches aimed at southern Israel.

Iran’s support for terrorist groups in the coastal enclave is, of course, nothing new. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad has been received funding from the Islamic Republic for decades, maintaining close ties with its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). Hamas too has been turning more toward Tehran in recent years, particularly for its military wing, as it has been moving away from Saudi Arabia — or, more accurately, as Saudi Arabia has been moving away from it.

After the Iranians completely destroyed Yemen, Sudan, Lebanon and Syria, they are starting to do the exact same thing in Gaza

The comments from senior Israeli officials come as protesters in Iran rail against the country’s apparent focus on the wider Middle East region, rather than its domestic concerns. Iranian students chanted, “Never mind Palestine, think about us,” and “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life for Iran.”

With their comments, the Israeli ministers and military appeared to be trying to stir similar feelings among Palestinians, calling on them to consider their well-being.

“After the Iranians completely destroyed Yemen, Sudan, Lebanon and Syria, they are starting to do the exact same thing in Gaza,” Liberman said on Saturday night, in a Facebook video published by the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).

The video, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic, was specifically directed toward a Palestinian audience.

“I suggest you think about your children, their future, and start pressing Hamas leaders to change direction. Right now, you’re on a flight to nowhere. If you change the direction, believe me, you will build, first and foremost, a good future for your children,” he said

“The heads of the regime in Tehran are not interested in the depressing reality in Gaza nor in the future of the children there. They care about their extremist ideology and hurting Israel as much as possible,” he said.

The defense minister also noted that while the vast majority of Gaza Strip residents only have access to electricity between four to six hours a day, the leaders of Hamas — Yahya Sinwar and Saleh al-Arouri — have power 24 hours a day.

Since becoming defense minister last year, Liberman has maintained a policy of “sticks and carrots” as it relates to the Palestinians. Regarding Gaza, where there is widespread unemployment, he has said that he would be prepared to allow residents of the Strip to work in Israel, if the security situation were calmer.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, November 12, 2017. (Olivier Fitoussi)

Speaking to Israel Radio, the intelligence minister also accused the Islamic Republic of effectively hijacking the Gaza Strip for its own means through its influence over the Hamas terrorist group.

“Iran and Hezbollah are trying to turn Gaza into Lebanon II, into south Lebanon B,” Katz said.

“We need to differentiate between the interests of Hamas and the interests of most of the people in Gaza,” he added.

Katz, who is minister of both intelligence and transportation, has long advocated for the construction of an artificial island off the coast of Gaza where a port can be opened in an attempt to make the Strip more independent.

Referring to Gaza as a “ticking time bomb,” he repeated his call for the off-shore port, saying it would relieve Israel of the onus of having to manage the land crossings and daily convoys of trucks bringing humanitarian aid and commercial goods into the coastal enclave.

Maintaining the same basic line of argument, the IDF also blamed Iran for supplying the terrorist group that launched the mortar shells — which it inaccurately referred to as rockets — and unnecessarily endangering the lives of Gaza citizens.

“The rockets were launched by a terror organization that used standard-grade Iranian weapons. This is a severe incident that proves once more how much these terror organizations despise the residents of Gaza & are willing to put them at risk of escalation over Iranian interests,” the army tweeted on Sunday.

The military would not elaborate on the type of mortar shell used in the attack or regarding which terrorist group is believed to have fired them, citing “security concerns.”

The damage cause by a mortar shell fired from the Gaza Strip that landed at the entrance to a building in the Shaar Hanegev region, December 29, 2017. (Israel Police)

In the attack on Friday, three mortar shells were fired at southern Israel. Two of them were intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system, while the third fell in Israeli territory in the Shaar Hanegev region, on the Gaza border.

Police said they found the shell at the entrance to a building that had sustained damage from the fire.

The attack appeared to deliberately coincide with a ceremony marking what would have been the 24th birthday of Oron Shaul, an IDF soldier who was killed in 2014, and whose remains are held by Hamas.

Shortly after the rocket barrage, the IDF retaliated by attacking two Hamas positions with tank shelling and strikes from aircraft.

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